To study wobbly VCR footage of Pat Bonner stopping that penalty in Genoa a quarter century ago is to recall the sense of trepidation that at least some in the GAA portrayed. That unforgettable summer’s activities presenting the opportunity, it was claimed – or maybe feared – to tempt the flock away to greener pastures.
Within a year, the organisation was taken to both ends of the emotional lexicon by one of the most unforgettable occurrences ever therein. The brains trust might never concede as much, but they must surely have been angst ridden when the open draw in the Leinster SFC pitted Meath and Dublin together in the opening round.
That perceived as the ultimate cash-cow billing was to have come and gone before many a first cut of silage was taken. Leaving the rest of the season fending for itself. A fact magnified by the fact that, either way, one of the biggest attractions in Gaelic football would be spending the summer either in the fields or the bog or the seaside.
Someone once said those whom the Gods – whoever they are – wish to destroy, the first make mad. Coming a year after the hysteria in Genoa and beyond, Peter Quinn and those in charge of the GAA must have understood. Perhaps in the end the Almighty even began to worry. For the ensuing four games were indeed a blessing. Not only for those of us fortunate enough to be there, but for the soundness of footing of the GAA.
Thereafter, there’s always been myriad happenings to keep devotees captivated. Down’s (second) breakthrough which prompted Donegal and Derry teams festooned with quality footballers to step up. Occasions when cows weren’t milked in Clare or Leitrim for weeks, and certainly the best era during this lifetime hurling has known.
Now, Gaelic football finds itself in need of an antidote again. Not from some outsider virus, but from itself. Which has spawned owing to an over simplistic copycat approach. Simplicity would also attest that the root of what ails the game can be traced to one source. Such thinking is both a copout and a disingenuous view of a genuinely brilliant coach.
Having witnessed Donegal under Jim McGuinness at first hand, two thoughts abound. One, that he possessed the tactical nous to realise what transpired on that black Sunday with Dublin simply wasn’t good enough. Second, that there was a marked evolution thereof in 2012 which wasn’t half as bad, certainly to watch, and was actually intriguing to see unfold.
Most aspiring plagiarists missed the trick with the evolution however. Thus, our once great game has been plagued by an ugly boring malaise as team after team decamp in regimental trenches worse than anything McGuinness deployed his troops in. With the result that what passes for football now makes the line of scrimmage in the ‘other’ NFL look like a quiet country road.
All the while, the nettle glares, awaiting grasp. Though the majority of those in gravest need of the much maligned plant’s healing capacities appear afraid of the sting. Even though evidence shows that effecting change often simply requires a smidgeon of bravery and it scarcely requires Einstein-like intelligence to decode a way past the dross.
Following their part in that black Sunday, Dublin evolved – or maybe restored – their game to a better place and it’s hardly coincidence that they’ve mined autumnal gold twice in four years for having done so. Furthermore, it is another glowing endorsement of McGuinness’s excellence that he again recognised the need to tweak when facing Jim Gavin’s side last autumn.
What followed was a blitzkrieg of open, attacking football purists felt Donegal were incapable of. Dublin certainly weren’t expecting it. However, as liberating as it undoubtedly was, it ended up being something of a double edged sword. So frightening, apparently, was the reality of what the Ulster side were capable of that even Kerry sold their souls and went into trench warfare. Thus ensuring one of the worst All Irelands in living memory. Not that a wink’s sleep was or will be lost by the banks of the Maine.
Recent evidence confirms the evolution is ongoing. What is also clear is that those who missed the kick (and there’s no little irony in describing it thus) are still regurgitating unpalatable stuff out of utter desperation. Surely after innumerable listless years even Derry now know they must change.
For Donegal have changed again. They may not have beaten Cork, but just a few moons ago it’d have been inconceivable that either team would engage in such open and surprisingly attractive football. The vanquished kicking 19 points yet conceding four goals. A while back, either scenario would’ve been about as likely as polar bears needing sun block.
The shifting sands are obviously catching on. Monaghan – who happily rowed in with the epidemic of bore-fest football – combined with Dublin to produce a game as compelling as what preceded it. Greatest levels of purity in the game are still where they’ve eternally resided, in the underage ranks. As evidenced by the entertaining U-21 games recently involving Tipperary, Dublin, Tyrone and Roscommon.
As was remarked in the aftermath thereof – football played the way it should be.