Jerome Quinn did a very enjoyable video piece before the Ulster final called “Derry is buzzing” from Shamrock Park in Ballinderry (see it on youtube).
Conleith Gilligan, Big Enda and Kevin McGuckin were down at the park helping out with the club’s summer camp and the atmosphere was one of fun and excitement. The children were asked to predict the scores. “1-19 to 1-18” said one. Adam Gilligan, heir to the Gilligan fortune, predicted that Derry would win by 3-11 to 2-9 and “my daddy will score the Derry goals.” His daddy is one of the most skilled footballers the county ever produced. When Ballinderry won the All-Ireland club title in 2002, Conleith claimed the ‘Man of the Match’ award in five out of their six post-Derry championship games, controlling games with his pinpoint passing and clever movement.
So, in mid July in Clones, he brought all his reservoir of talent and experience onto the pitch; a lifetime of loving and learning the game. What a colossal waste of time that all turned out to be. All those early mornings on the Shamrocks pitch, kicking ball for the sheer pleasure of it. All those Saturday afternoons when he headed off with a bag of balls over his shoulder to perfect his technique with both feet, him and Big Enda putting on a private show, kicking sideline after sideline until it was dark, revelling in it. Pathetic!
Derry and Armagh had lit up the championship in the semi-final, an exhilarating game where players expressed themselves to the full. Eoin Bradley’s audacious skills brought gasps of admiration. Jamie Clarke terrified the Derry support every time the ball came near. Three brilliant goals! We came away with a spring in our step. How Pathetic! How absolutely pathetic!
Come the Ulster final, it became clear that what Derry men have been engaged in all these years is not football at all, but some childish fantasy. In Clones, Adam’s daddy never got a kick, because Donegal men played ring-a-ring-a-rosy around him for the entire game. This is lots of fun. The formula is this: Get all your players to stay inside their own half, save for Colm McFadden. Then surround the inside forwards. At halftime, you can stop doing it for ten minutes. When the whistle for the second half goes, resume the position until the final whistle goes. Then Rory will say “we make no apologies for this” and express surprise that people hate it. “I am amazed at the reaction” he said after last Sunday in Croke Park. “We are not in the business of entertainment.” You don’t say Rory..
In that Clones final, Enda Muldoon looked awful. No Derry forward scored. Very few even managed to get a shot off. To tell you the truth, I can remember very little about the game, other than the Ring-a-ring-a-rosy. Oh, and Donegal got a penalty which Michael Murphy crashed home. That aside, the mind draws a blank.
Their destruction of their games prior to the Dublin match was not just as depressing as last Sunday because up until then, no one had played them at their own game. The other opposition (save for Kildare who only got partially sucked in) fell into the trap of throwing their defenders forward in a desperate attempt to get a score. This allowed Donegal to selectively counter-attack into the space left behind, while still keeping their defence in position. The plan is simple and effective. Blot out all space inside their own half. Create a turnover as the opposition defenders come forward, then go for the jugular. Murphy, or Lacey or Kavanagh come through the middle, then lay the ball off for the striker. Tyrone played into their hands by coming forward from the back in droves. Their high-wire act was eventually exposed, two turnovers leading to the two killer goals. 2-6 is more than enough to do the job.
There are three ways to deal with Donegal’s death-grip. One is to put your head in your hands and weep. The second is reserved for the Kerrys of this world and by that I mean Kerry. The third is to do precisely the same to them. Keep your defenders in position. Use the spare men to surround Colm McFadden (above), then Michael Murphy in the unlikely event that he is allowed to go into the forwards (on Sunday, he was finally sent up on the 64th minute).
Until Jim and Rory came along, I had naively assumed Michael was a forward. There he was all those years, wasting his time learning the skills. Turns out, all he has to do to win an Ulster championship is play ring-a-ring-a-rosy along his half-back line and kick the odd free or penalty. Dublin did the only thing that can be done. Do to them what they do to you, make it a horrible stalemate, then hope to scramble the late free or penalty that will win the game.
When other teams gradually realise that Dublin’s approach is the only viable way to deal with Donegal’s strategy, there is only one future. Forwards, even great ones like Bernard Brogan and Michael Murphy become irrelevant. Their role will be to try to get their hands to the ball and hope to win a free as the swarm of defenders reaches in. The goalie will be an expert long range free-taker, since all the fouling is done outside the scoring zone. The best scoring forwards will in future be picked in the half back line. Midfielders as we know it will become redundant. Jack O’Shea and his ilk will be relics of a romantic past. Instead, we will have ruck rovers like they have in Aussie rules, workaholics who roam up and down the field.
The point that has been missed in all the furore caused since Sunday is that there are two mutually exclusive positions. The first is Donegal’s self-interest. They are perfectly entitled to play whatever game they wish to. Incredibly, they are Ulster champions and had Colm McFadden bagged the goal he ought to have, they would be getting ready for an All-Ireland final.
The second however, is the wider interests of the game and the people who love it. On this front, we, the people, are perfectly entitled to say that what Donegal do is fundamentally damaging to Gaelic football. Jim asked afterwards what was “the point in going out in a blaze of glory”, something Donegal conspicuously did not do last Sunday. Instead, they went out in a shameful and forgettable way, iced by the disgraceful play-acting of Martin Boyle. No one will remember it. No one would want to remember it.
I ask Jim this question: Stripped of the romance and the glory, what is the point of Gaelic football?