Posted by John Kelly

With the provincial championships coming to a conclusion, we take a look back at some of the positives and negatives of the season so far

2012 Dublin Wexford 520x280

With the provincial championships almost over, we look back at some of the positives and negatives of the season so far.

1. Rule tweaks?

Much was made of Kildare’s tactics at the weekend as they punted high, hopeful balls in on top of Tomás O’Connor who had a thankless task against a young and hungry Meath full-back line. In fairness to the full-forward he was crowded out any time he did get possession and often had few options on his shoulder.

Meath’s was far from a blanket defence but, on numerous occasions, they had 12 or 13 men behind the ball before breaking spectacularly through some hard running or accurate foot passing from Joe Sheridan.

There was one occasion, though, in the first half, when O’Connor should have been rewarded for a piece of supreme skill and bravery. Surrounded by three or four Meath defenders, he soared to field another high ball in true Mick O’Connell style and somehow held onto it amid a clutch of hands.

He was brought back down to earth, so to speak, when , surrounded by Meath defenders, he held on to the ball and was subsequently deemed to have overcarried by referee Michael Collins. It was a shame because it deserved a score and maybe the GAA needs to look at situations like this. There are so many soft frees earned in scoreable positions that it seems a pity that a brilliant piece of skill goes unrewarded.

It is one of the most exiting elements of the AFL game when players make improbable, spectacular catches in front of the opposition goal. That’s not to suggest necessarily that there should be a mark given for catches all over the field but maybe players could be rewarded for making catches inside their own 45-metre line. It would also encourage teams to play more direct, fast football.

It was lost in the speculation over why Kildare played so badly but it merits some discussion as high fielding in the full-forward line threatens to become a lost art. 

2. Lay off the referees

There are plenty of people who think Collins had a poor game at Croke Park on Sunday. Kieran McGeeney felt he got one particular call wrong just before Meath scored their goal.

There were so many pieces of play that left you scratching your head wondering which way the decision should have gone. It’s an unwanted spectacle in Gaelic football: the player on the ground holding on to the ball, surrounded by a number of the opposition team who aren’t necessarily committing fouls but are making it impossible for the player in possession to get rid of the ball.

Maybe there’s an argument to say players should release the ball before they get themselves into such situations but, as with O’Connor, it’s not always possible to do so.

It all leads to referees having to decide on the spot which way to award the free. There were numerous occasions on Sunday when Collins could have thrown up the ball just as easily as he could have blown for a foul one way or the other. Often it just seems like a 50/50 call with little in the way of rhyme or reason which way it goes.

The refereeing has been at a good standard this summer but the criticism those in the middle have to ship when even after looking at an incident in a replay you’re still left wondering which way the decision should have gone is a little unfair. The tackle in Gaelic football is clearly defined but that doesn’t mean it’s straightforward to judge who’s doing the fouling and who’s a victim of it.

3. More weekends like the last one please

Paradoxically, the most exciting, intense and competitive weekend of the summer so far shows up so many flaws with the current system. It’s a shame that we don’t get more weekends like it and it’s something we’ve talked about here before.

Take Fermanagh as an example. It seems unfair that after the work Peter Canavan did following on from a turbulent year, his season comes to such an abrupt end. Not alone did they top the Division Four standings, they scored more than anyone else and conceded less. And a little over two months later, their season is over.Had Fermanagh won, then Cavan’s bunch of highly-rated youngsters would have had to wait the best part of a year for another championship game.

It’s a similar story with a Tipperary side who have enjoyed recent underage success but could be gone from the championship at a time when their young players need competitive games to bring them on. It’s no surprise that weaker counties such as Leitrim, to name one, suffer at having a truncated summer when the bigger counties are more or less guaranteed a longer run. There is potential in most counties and Longford, in particular, are proving how important it is to get a decent run of competitive games.

In most other countries, in most other sports, a league format decides who the best team is. Here, we’ve got it back-to-front. Imagine if, in England, a Champions League place was awarded to the winners of the FA Cup. It simply wouldn’t make sense.

It would be a marketer’s dream to sell a Grand Final after months of competitive weekends during which all of the top teams play each other. In fact, it would sell itself, as would the semi-final line-up between the four best teams in the country.

4. Interesting contrast in styles

The two most competitive provinces have each thrown up some interesting tactical contrasts. Monaghan sat deep in their clash with Down before catapulting into a series of counterattacks that drove them into a nine-point lead just before half-time. Had they not fouled needlessly to give away a penalty before the break, it would arguably be them and not Down in the Ulster final.

Last Saturday, Donegal against Tyrone resembled a basketball match with two units moving up and down the field in efforts to restrict space for opposing forwards and have support on shoulders in attack. Jim McGuinness’ side just about did it better and the key was their ability to get quality ball to Colm McFadden in the second half. Tyrone were unable to do the same with Eoin Mulligan and the forward turned into trouble more often than not when he gained possession. Still, Donegal needed Paul Durcan’s big toe to prevent the game going to a replay.

Both sides showed the importance of having players capable of kicking long-range scores when attempting to pick the lock on a packed defence. Both Martin Penrose and, at a crucial time, McFadden kicked fine points off their left pegs when all other options had been closed down.

In Leinster, Wexford tried to isolate two forwards high up the pitch and it worked for them until Dublin dropped a few more numbers back in front of them. They had their own player, in Ben Brosnan, capable of kicking accurately from distance and if only the same player hadn’t missed those kickable frees in the second half they could have provided the shock of the season so far.

Dublin, too, looked to Kevin MacManamon and Diarmuid Connolly inside and it was the former who shone while the latter lost his head. In the day’s first game Meath enjoyed far more success in getting inside forwards on the ball. Sheridan was effective in two roles, winning his own ball, taking some brilliant scores and then moving out the field to show off his playmaking ability. Meath had a number of players who could have claimed the man of the match award. Damien Carroll and Alan Forde ran directly all afternoon while Conor Gillespie was magnificent not just in midfield but all over the pitch.

The Royals’ young stars have infused the summer with an added, and somewhat unexpected, element of excitement and the provincial finals look like intriguing prospects. It has been a great summer of football so far but the GAA mustn’t lose sight of ways to improve the game further.