Sport is a lot like farming, progress can hinge on timing. Now, it tends to be the source of much curiosity – as well as other less desirable things – that yours truly often manages to work farming into some of my articles, the majority of which tend to be sporting. Even more so when other topics come up for mention, but that’s a story for a different day! There are plenty of similarities though. Where farmers may have to switch crops from year to year depending on results delivered, the same applies to GAA teams. At the beginning of this century, Armagh – and to a greater extent Tyrone – redefined the way Gaelic football is played. It most certainly hasn’t been to everyone’s liking (i.e. Joe Brolly) but there can be no doubting it worked for many teams.
Mayo midfielder Seamus O’Shea
Most notably Donegal, who took the new system to almost scientific, mechanical levels. When they were in full flight last season it really was fascinating to see it unfold on the field. There are many reasons why they weren’t able to repeat those heroics. Primarily, one suspects, due to the excesses that go with being All Ireland champions.
What was also evident, however, was that, outside of what obviously has been a top class starting fifteen, they didn’t have the same levels of strength in depth as some of the other top teams this season. Most notable, though, was the sense that other teams had deciphered their often mesmeric methods and ways to counteract it.
So much so that you’d wonder are the revolutionaries about to be passed out in terms of the positioning at the top table in the game. For there has been a notable – and welcome – return to teams lining out and playing their matches in the ‘old’ orthodox fashion. It’s worked, too, as best evidenced by the progress made by Meath and Galway in recent months. Small progress in both cases, but progress nonetheless.
Mayo and Dublin have, in fairness, taken it to a different level to other sides. To look at Dublin first, the system Jim Gavin has deployed, mirrors, in my view, that of the Pat O’Neill era. Where Paul Curran, Keith Barr and Eamon Heery attacked incessantly in those days, Jack McCaffrey and – to a lesser extent – James McCarthy fill the same roles for Gavin’s gang.
Likewise for Mayo, Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle – all defenders, and good ones – have attacked with extreme regularity and efficiency on their journey to the All Ireland Final. And it has been vital to them getting there too. Remember, out of the six points they scored in the first half against Tyrone, four of them came from defenders.
Most significant of all perhaps was the contribution of midfielder Seamus O’Shea who dragged his colleagues back into contention when they were under the cosh in that first half. He, along with his brother, Aidan, have formed the most potent central combination in the country this term. At a time when, akin with the rest of the game, there’s been a return – in some ways at least – to how the game used to be played. Which may be no harm either.
Of course, the Dublin duo of Michael D. Macauley and Cian O’Sullivan are the best examples of the ‘new’ type of midfielder. They specialise, mostly, in devouring second phase possession and engaging in very strong and direct running lines. Yet, it wasn’t until they unleashed Denis Bastick – very much an old style midfielder – that the tide turned for them against Kerry.
It is, admittedly, extremely clichéd, but, I feel whichever team gains the upper hand in the midfield battle on September 22nd will have one hand on Sam Maguire. At this point it must be admitted that a wager was placed on Dublin some months ago to emerge triumphant overall. Suffice to say, mind you, with the excellence and effectiveness of the O’Shea brothers for Mayo, one is thankful it was (and will end up being) far from the biggest punt had this year!