Posted by Ciaran Whelan
Sunday 4 September 2011
The championship needs a great final after a summer of football that flattered to deceive and two great rivals could provide the perfect tonic............
I was at the All-Ireland hurling final and while I didn't think it was a great game, it was a game won by a great team. Kilkenny are simply awesome and deserved their victory after dominating from the first minute to the last. Defensively they were outstanding and showed enormous character to bounce back after the disappointment of last year.
They looked like they could really have cut loose when they were five or six points up only for the final ball to let them down at times. Credit must also go to the defending champions for digging in and not letting Brian Cody's side go further ahead but they were up against the best hurling side that I have seen in my generation.
It was a game that both sides went out to win rather than to not lose and in that respect it was in marked contrast to the terrible spectacle we saw in Croke Park last weekend. The backlash against Donegal this week has been fierce and I feel that it is merited. I have to say I have huge respect for Jim McGuinness and the great bond he has built up with his players. He has made them much more collectively focussed than they have been in recent years and he is perfectly entitled to follow an approach he feels best suits his team. But from a tactical point of view it was horrific to watch.
I have never before come across as many people attending a game that said they wanted to leave or, if there was a replay, they wouldn't be bothered going back to watch it. I don't blame them and that is a hugely worrying development for Gaelic football.
I believe we have a great game but if managers decide to play with 14 men behind the ball it is ruined for the paying public and they will not fork out hard-earned cash to suffer through an experience like that. If the trend continues then we would be looking at rule changes in order to put some excitement back into it or to encourage teams to attack first rather than adopt an all-out defensive approach. The real danger is when it works for teams and it has for Donegal this year as an Ulster title and All-Ireland semi-final proves — and their unattractive style of play almost brought them to the final. But I don't believe we will see the same type of football in two weeks and that is the good news for the game as a whole.
I admire McGuinness's honesty. He said that he has to play this way with the players he has. But Donegal were still extremely cynical against the Dubs. They fouled far out the pitch and took every opportunity available to them to slow the play down.
People go to games like this hoping to see attractive, open football but this type of cynicism is really off-putting. Even when they had the extra man after Diarmuid Connolly's sending-off they still refused to come out of their ultra-defensive formation and open up. So while the reaction to their tactics has been brutal I don't feel that it has been over the top. And when the GAA is facing constant competition from soccer and rugby it is vital that they are able to offer a vibrant, exciting, attractive product. Certainly no one saw those characteristics last week.
The championship needs a good, competitive final with free-flowing, skilful football to make up for what has been a disappointing summer. There have been too many one-sided games and while Donegal supporters won't have minded winning Ulster the way they did, their team offered nothing to the championship.
Kerry hold the advantage over Dublin in the key area of experience in the build-up to All-Ireland finals. It is second nature to them at this stage whereas none of the Dublin players would be familiar with it. It is a new experience for them but they are going about things the right way. I know they have been getting a number of aspects of the build-up that could distract them out of the way in the last week. They have had their night of meeting the fans and Pat Gilroy will now ensure they are fully focussed on the challenge before them. Kerry will of course have their own distractions but they are well able to deal with them at this stage.
Dublin against Kerry has always been special. From my own experience I'll always remember the two games we had against them at the quarter-final stage in Thurles in 2001 and Maurice Fitzgerald's incredible equalising point in the first game. Another game that stands out is the last-eight tie in 2004. We weren't going well and went in against them level at half-time but they blitzed us in the first 10 or 15 minutes after the break and went on to win comfortably. That's one of the things teams always need to be aware of against any Kerry side: they can get five or six scores in a 10-minute spell to completely change the course of a game. They have blistering forwards and you can be level with them or a point or two ahead and think things are going well before they unleash their firepower and make the decisive move on the scoreboard. They did it to Mayo in the semi-final when there wasn't much between them at the break and people were giving James Horan's side a decent shout.
Dublin will need to make a fast start against them. In the 2009 quarter-final between the sides the game was over very quickly but this is a different Dublin. Gilroy should have them in a frame of mind that they settle in much quicker in the final. They have had some big games since that mauling two years ago — including a couple of big wins over their rivals Tyrone — and the game against Donegal shows that they are mentally tougher.
I am looking forward to it and it should provide the perfect tonic after the miserable game we witnessed in the semi-final.
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