A while back, I came across a photo of Freddie Mercury. Now, readers of a certain age might be surprised to learn that, during schooling years, Queen’s music and that of others ranging from Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison to Garth Brooks and #U2. Mostly the old cassette of Mercury et al though. Bohemian Rhapsody shall not be usurped as the favoured production thereof. However, more recently, others lyrics associated with the group attained a perhaps unexpected degree of relevance. “Is this the world we created, we’ve made it on our own, is this the world we’ve devastated, right to the bone?”
Seeing such words in a sporting context might appear strange, but, conversely, with all the debate endlessly ensuing regarding the current state of Gaelic Games they seem curiously apt. Simply as, while much of transpires therein – concerning football in particular – may be unsightly and divisive it’s hardly as new or revolutionary as is made out.
Back in the days when Meath were capable of successfully competing at the highest level, some of the biggest obstacles to the success of Sean Boylan’s side stemmed from an extremely attack minded Dublin half back line comprising Paul Curran, Keith Barr and Eamon Heery. To the extent that, during the numerous meetings between the sides, the role of Meath’s wing forwards – usually David Beggy and PJ Gillic – was to negate the influence of the metropolitan triumvirate.
Hurling hasn’t been immune to tweaking of players’ roles either. One of the bedrocks of Brian Cody’s extraordinary success with Kilkenny has been the practice of having big men such as John Hoyne and Martin Comerford and, latterly, Walter Walsh augment their own rearguard at times, particularly whilst facing puck-outs.
As is often the case, those striving for success tend to imitate those who’ve already reached the hilltop. Albeit with highly varying levels of success. Hence the proliferation of increasingly complex and stultifying defensive systems, even at club level. It’s hardly new, but, what was in the past considered to be simplicity and common sense – and in many instances went largely unnoticed – is now considered scientific.
The irony of all that, however, is that the antidote to such instincts is teasingly simplistic. And, to add another garnish of contradiction, it was in fact the bastions of groundhog defensiveness – Donegal – who also supplied the most obvious example of how to counteract it. Michael Murphy’s goal in the early stages of the 2012 All Ireland Final? Long ball in over the top, turn, bang.
Perhaps what’s been most surprising has been the sluggishness with which teams have cottoned on to the effectiveness of this simplicity. One thing for certain is that Mayo have reaped handsome reward for having – about three years belatedly – redeployed Aidan O’Shea to the edge of the square.
Most curiosity must surround how, in fact, it took Mayo so long to discern a means by which to derive best value from their prized asset. There’s a school of thought – misguided in my view – which decrees big men are a necessity on any team. But then, while a plethora of participants of slender stature are unlikely to be enough to garner success, utilisation of bigger munitions is a skill in itself.
On that score, their conclusions to the last couple of campaigns strongly suggested that they weren’t deploying O’Shea to maximum effect. The transformation since his relocation has been obvious. Notwithstanding the realisation that those in Rory Gallagher’s care were clearly not the force of old, it was undoubtedly Mayo’s pinpointing of the Breaffy colossus that unhinged their much vaunted labyrinthine barricades.
Which, to me, may also be a pivotal ploy if they are to once again surpass Dublin later this month. For it was remarked to a Mayo man very shortly after their disposal of Donegal that it may be a case of the best part of the green and red brigade coming up against the most attackable part of the blue sea.
Now, such assertions may seem impossible to tally with the view that Jonny Cooper is currently the best corner back in the country, in my view at least. However, reservations regarding Dublin’s susceptibility to aerial bombardment – stretching back to the Meath game in 2010 – refuse to recede.
Mayo’s rearguard, mind you, is not without questions to answer either. Suspicions that some of their defenders are more inclined to attack than concentrate on their primary function carried credence for some time, although manifestations of this irresponsibility have not been as pronounced since the changing of the guard.
Much debate and rancour regarding GAA these days tends to centre on resources. Specifically, the inability of the majority of counties to realistically compete for championship success. It’s a long time, though, since two so evenly matched sides ended up on a direct collision course. And when dealing with these two teams, the issue of resources needs to be taken in the context of how the bountiful crops of talent available to both are deployed.
Temptation is to think that the more obvious impacts of Barry Moran and, in particular, Tom Parsons – allied to the realignment of O’Shea – leaves this Mayo group in their strongest position yet. Then again, what the return of Ciaran Kilkenny has afforded Jim Gavin’s charges has also been telling.
The real enthral for the neutral will be seeing how the pieces are moved round the board in what’ll be a tactical game of chess.