Some years ago, the channel 4 comedy series ‘Big Train’ did a parody of over enthusiastic sports pundits and anchors.
The ‘43rd World Stare Out Championships’ consisted of a crude pen drawing of two opponents staring at each other across a table. BBC Sport’s Barry Davies provided the commentary, his voice filled with tension. Davies introduced the tournament as coming in the midst of, “A golden age for staring.” The first match was, “the eagerly awaited clash between the Romanian world No. 3, Solowka and the Russian, Uzliam.”
“If you’re just joining us,” says Davies, “The first four hours have absolutely zipped by.” Oh my word” says his co-commentator (as the vast pencil-drawn crowd in the arena roars with excitement), “Look at the audacious eyeballing the Russian is giving the Ukrainian. This is extraordinary stuff, absolutely nail-biting. How long can he hold out against this pummeling?”
Davies chuckles and says, “The pressure is simply enormous on both players. One blink..... and its all over.”
The interesting thing is that the crowd sound effects, Davies’ infectious commentary and the co-host’s excitable contributions, bring the pen-drawing of the two starers to life. I didn’t think it could ever apply to Gaelic football... Until now.
“We’re not in the business of entertainment,” said Mickey Harte, after Tyrone defeated Mayo three weeks ago in a typically depressing game of modern football. You don’t say Mickey.
I wrote three years ago that Jim McGuinness’ triumph contained the seeds of Gaelic football’s demise. Which is precisely what is happening.
Tyrone lined out with all 15 players behind the half-way line. Mayo, as is their wont, persisted with the quaint idea that they could play Gaelic football. If their joint-managers don’t cop on soon, it’ll be another year without an All-Ireland. The few journalists still awake by full time asked Mickey about the dire spectacle created by Tyrone’s strategy.
“The only thing that matters is the scoreboard,” said Mickey.
On Saturday night in Croke Park, Tyrone were ‘not in the business of entertainment’ again. Afterwards, Mickey responded to criticisms of whatever it was they were doing out on the pitch, by saying, “I don’t think the people out there were very disappointed at all. I think they would have been very happy.” Well, maybe the ones on prozac.
“The only thing that matters is the scoreboard.” It is an article of faith amongst managers and players nowadays. They discuss the game as if it were a business project. As if it were a private matter for them and the GAA public an irrelevance. The way in which the game is played is neither here nor there. Only the scoreboard counts. Perhaps the authorities should simply place a giant scoreboard on the pitch at Croke Park? The match – since the spectacle is no longer relevant – could be played at some other venue, say a school ground. The spectators could gather in the Jones’ Road stadium and watch, enthralled, as the scoreboard changes. Kerry 0-1, Donegal 0-0. The Kerry crowd could roar their approval. Ten minutes later, a Donegal point. 0-1 to 0-1. The Donegal support would begin to chant, “They’ve all gone quiet over there.” The viewers at home would be treated to a close up of the scoreboard.
Harte is never done decrying “the negativity and cynicism” of the RTE studio team. He repeatedly points out that the hurling panellists are never negative. Mind you, they don’t have to watch Tyrone.
So we would need to go for something more upbeat in the studio. What about the lad who does the ‘Rose of Tralee’ and a few 2FM DJs?
“Ingenious by the Kerry corner forward there, Daithi. He has run in and kicked the ball off the keeper’s tee. Fantastic stuff. That’s why Kerry are the team they are.”
“Young Tiernan McCann has dived there, Oh, ho, ho, ho. Just watching the slow motion replay, Daithi, and the boy hasn’t even been touched. Ho, ho, ho, classic stuff. Who says cynicism isn’t entertaining?”
This approach has obvious benefits. Firstly, we wouldn’t actually have to watch the game. Secondly, it means we would be focussing on the only thing that matters: The score.
I wrote three years ago that Jim McGuinness’ triumph contained the seeds of Gaelic football’s demise. Which is precisely what is happening. As Donegal’s blanket defence, counter attack method gave them a vice grip on the Ulster championship, starting in 2011, the others took note. Monaghan learned to ape it quickest. So in the 2013 final, they ‘Donegalled’ Donegal in a dire spectacle.
“It’s the scoreboard that matters,” said manager Malachy O’Rourke.
By then, the disease was spreading like wildfire. Jim Gavin’s Dublin team is perhaps the most devastating attacking force of the last 20 years. In the semi-final last year, Donegal’s method ensured their asses were handed to them on a plate. The 2014 final was the worst ever played. Both teams played “scoreboard football.” During that game something happened that I had never experienced before at a final: periods of quiet where the crowd chatted amongst themselves. It was a grim affair, replete with cynicism, injury feigning and poor sportsmanship, decided by a freak error from the Donegal keeper. It is only going to get worse.
All of the Ulster teams are playing with a minimum of 13 players behind the half-way line. Derry are employing a one forward formation. Tyrone none. Donegal two. Armagh two. Cavan two. Monaghan two. Perhaps the most depressing development in the modern era is Armagh’s continued experimentation with Jamie Clarke at half-back. Twenty years ago he would have been a corner forward icon. Now he is scrubbing the floors with the rest of the servants. In most squads now, the forwards are competing for a maximum of three places. Even the Dubs have been forced to accept reality. Against Donegal in Croke Park recently, they unveiled their all new strategy . . .The blanket-defence counter attack. All of the Munster teams are doing it. Cork were the last to succumb. Like the rest, they felt they had no choice. In Connaught, only Mayo continue to resist. But it is only a matter of time, since the laws of physics cannot be resisted.
After Donegal and Monaghan’s stare out on Sunday at Letterkenny, Malachy O’Rourke said, “We showed tremendous character out there today and I’m very proud of the lads. There is just so much character in these lads.”
Malachy should have commended the character of the supporters, who had to sit through that muck.
We must learn a new language to discuss the modern game. No point in sadly harking back to the days of Sheehy, Canavan and Maurice Fitz. In preparation for the new season, I must spend time watching the World Stare Out championships, picking up tips and taking careful notes.
Most importantly, before every game, I must remember to take my prozac.