Some Thoughts on Castlehaven’s defeat of Duhallow in the Cork County Senior Football Final Last Sunday

We once had a player in our club who could kick a football higher than any other player I have ever seen.

In matches, and in training, this player would burst onto a pass and whether he was 20m or 50m from the goal, his shot selection was always the same. It could be best described as a decent effort to launch the ball into orbit around the earth. If he happened to score a point while doing this, it was a bonus. If you were playing in the full-forward line there was no need to be alert for a rebound off the crossbar. In fact, there was not even any danger of a rebound off the upright.

This used to drive one of our selectors mad. “You’ll get the same point whether it travels two feet or a hundred and two feet over the bar” he used to say. “And, if you shoot lower, the ball is a damn sight more likely to stay between the posts” he would add. Of course this made no difference whatsoever to our player. In time, his kicking became a feature, rather than a distraction of his play. It was only when a stranger saw him in action, and brought it to our attention, that we even noticed it. We had become used to balls that were so high that the sailed harmlessly wide because gravity had lost its pull on them.

Our team was not the only team to suffer this problem. Legend has it that the Beara football team would sometimes suffer from the same problem of players attempting to launch rockets into space. One particularly windy day the Beara full forward became so exasperated from looking up at little white objects sailing high and wide over his head that he roared out the field to his teammates “would ye for God’s sake kick the high balls in low.”

The point our selector was trying to make was a valid one. The reward for a spectacular point is equal to the reward for a shot that barely drops over the bar, or a punt that never rises more than 3m off the ground but travels in a straight line between the posts.

Castlehaven’s and Duhallow’s Results 2012 Football championship

When it comes to playing games, simplicity and efficiency are often the keys to success. Take the scoring records of the new Cork County Senior Football champions, Castlehaven in this years’ championship.

The ‘Haven played six games in the county championship. They won five and drew one. The highest number of scores they got in any game was 12. That happened twice. They scored 0-12 against Aghada in the first round and in their replay of the quarterfinal with St Finbarrs. They scored nine scores (1-8) against Newcestown (1-6) in round 4. That Newcestown goal was the only one they conceded in the championship.

In the quarterfinal draw and replay against the ‘Barrs, the score lines were 1-7 to 0-10, and 0-12 to 0-9. The semi-final tally against Carbery Rangers was 15 points, which was accumulated with just 11 scores, 2-9. Castlehaven won the title last Sunday’s final  with a 1-7 to 0-9 win over Duhallow.

On the face of things these were hardly impressive score lines by Castlehaven. Winning games, and especially championship games however, is just like scoring points. It is not how spectacular you are that counts, it is how efficient you are that makes the difference. I went to see Castlehaven play twice in recent weeks and I fell into the trap of counting their scores and wondering how could they increase their scoring rate in order to win the championship. Looking back, now that the championship is over, and it is always easier looking back, the key to Castlehaven’s success was not in accumulating big score lines, it was all about conceding very little.

In a streak of remarkable consistency, Castlehaven conceded only nine points in five games of the six championship games they played. (As I said earlier, Newcestown’s nine points was actually 1-6 which is only seven scores). To emphasise the fine line Castlehaven kept between victory and defeat, they failed to win the only game in the championship where they conceded 10 scores. This was against the ‘Barrs in the drawn quarter final.

Even though Duhallow did not show it in their tactical play last Sunday, they scored reasonably well throughout the six and half hours of championship football the played this year. (I am excluding the preliminary round games Duhallow played against other divisional sides because the nature of some of these games was non-competitive.)  They knocked up 1-20 against Dohenys (after extra time) and scored 0-13 twice against Douglas (also a replay) and O’Donovan Rossa.

Going into last Sunday’s final, Duhallow were averaging 14.3 scores per game and Castlehaven were averaging 10. The “Haven only managed eight scores on Sunday but crucially one of these was a goal. With the defence only conceding nine points, 1-7 was enough to win.

Goals have become very scarce in the Cork Senior Football county finals since the turn of the century. Last Sunday was the 13th final since 2000 and Shane Nolan’s 58th minute goal last Sunday was only the 15th goal scored in all those finals.

Should this be a cause for concern? It probably should, as it could be argued that the trend of failing to score goals is also a feature of the Cork senior football team. It also suggests that most club teams in Cork are very defensive minded. As we have seen this is not a problem for Castlehaven. They now have won two titles in the 21st century. They have achieved this by scoring the lowest and second lowest scores of any winning teams (1-9 against Clonakilty’s 1-7 was the ‘Havens other winning score in 2003).

Aside from Castlehaven’s achievements however, the lack of goals suggests that Cork senior clubs are not producing marquee forwards of serious goal scoring potential. Colm O’Neill, who is undoubtedly the most likely Cork player to score a goal, plays junior club football with Ballyclough.

Thanks to Nemo Rangers, (six Munster titles since 2000) this lack of goal scoring has not been reflected in the Munster Club Championship records, but the number of All-Ireland club titles coming south has all but dried up. Nemo Rangers were the last Cork and Munster team to win the club title in 2002.

The fact that the Cork Senior Championship can be won by a low scoring team is not a poor reflection on Castlehaven. They are efficiency personified. It is their duty is to do their best with the players available to them. It is more a commentary on the nature of Gaelic Football in general at present. Unless playing attacking football will get teams a greater reward than a defensive style, goals will remain scarce. As our selector told my teammate all those years ago, “you get more reward for scoring a poor point than you do for missing a spectacular one.”


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St Patricks Boys National School, Brian Dillons Hurling and Football Club and their entwined history

On the 29th of November 1937, almost 75 years ago, 261 boys came to school at the old St Patricks Boys National School at St Lukes Cross, Cork. When everyone was settled down and accounted for, the boys and their teachers marched up the Ballyhooly Road to the new school that had been built in the fields between the Ballyhooly Road and Gardiners Hill.

Also at that time the Brian Dillons Hurling and Football club was enjoying one of its most successful periods ever. The club’s high point came in 1938 when they defeated Cloughdubh 5-2 to 2-3 in the County Junior Hurling Championship final. Even though the country was in the grips of economic recession, and the German Nazi Party was beginning to cast a shadow across Europe, it was an exciting time to live in the Dillons Cross area.

The old St Patricks School at St Lukes Cross opened its doors for the first time in 1841. It was a primary school for boys and girls. Not that the boys and girls ever got a chance to mix. The boy’s school was on the ground floor of the two-storey building. The girl’s school was on the first floor. The boys entered from the Ballyhooly Road, just above where the pedestrian crossing is now. The girls entered from the opposite side of the building on Alexandra Road.

Only the boys moved ‘house’ in 1938. The girls would remain at St Lukes for another 20 years.

The writer Daniel Corkery was the first teacher to introduce Gaelic Games to St Patricks School in 1917. During his time on the staff of St Patricks he would have a major influence on many of the pupils who sat in his classroom. The sculptor Seamus Murphy and writer Frank O’Connor were two of his pupils. Corkery resigned his job as a primary teacher in 1921. He went on to be an art teacher, an inspector of Irish, a professor of English at UCC and a senator in Seanad Éireann.

He had a permanent limp which never allowed him to take part in Gaelic Games as a young man but he was proud to be the elected the president of Brian Dillons in 1931. One year after this, 1932, another important GAA figure was appointed to the staff of St Patricks. He was Pat Daly.

Pat Daly supervises a boxing match in the yard of the old St Patricks Boys National School at St Lucks Cross in 1937

Pat Daly was one of those remarkable national teachers that seemed to be at the core of every developing community during the 20th century in Ireland. He is highly praised for his work in both Tim Horgan’s excellent books on the history of Brian Dillons (1984 and 2011).

“Pat Daly was years ahead of his time… he introduced coaching to Cork long before anybody knew what the word meant and he was an expert coach at hurling, football, boxing and athletics…he even had basketball in the school years before it became the sport it is today.”

In Pat Daly’s time the school was a conveyer belt of athletic talent. There are comprehensive lists in the Brian Dillons books. It includes All-Ireland hurling winners like Alan Lotty, Joe Kelly and Sean O’Brien, others GAA stars like Donie O’Donovan, Sean “Roundy” Horgan and John McCabe. In boxing, the school produced a series of national champions in Timmy and Tommy McNamee, the White brothers, Paddy Martin and Gunner Murray. As well as being a hurler, Joe Kelly was also an Irish sprint champion. Soccer internationals Jackie Driscoll, Tommy Byrne and Liam O’Neill were also pupils of the school. Not surprisingly, St Patricks Boys were regular winners of the School Shields GAA competitions at this time.

The St Patricks Boys School, Gardiners Hill team of 1971. Third from the left middle row is Johnny Buckley All-Ireland medal winner Cork 1984, fifth from the left middle row is Donal Lenihan, Ireland and Lions Rugby player. On the extreme right middle row is Jim Nodwell who had a successful playing career with several clubs in the League of Ireland

Pat Daly left St Patricks in 1945 but by then the tradition of playing games had been built and a new teacher JJ Fennessy had joined the staff. Between 1942 when he joined, until 1979 when he retired, the school continued to be competitive and successful in schools games and athletics. More importantly he encouraged a culture and environment within the school whereby boys could develop their sporting talents.

The Brian Dillons Club was the chief beneficiary of this. But there were other clubs and sports too. Some players went to Sarsfields and Glen Rovers, and, as mentioned in this column a few weeks ago a St Patricks Club was set up on the Lower Glanmire Road, Christian Brother Schools got players like John Barry, Donal Lenihan and Brendan Brides all of whom won Munster Schools Cup medals.

Through the 1950s and 60s the Dillons Cross area and the whole parish of St Patricks continued to grow. There seemed to be sports mad boys teeming out of every house. St Patricks Boys School, as the only school between Christians on Wellington Road and Mayfield, was a melting pot for all strands of life in the area.

J.J. Fennessy joined the St Patricks Staff in 1942 and contributed greatly to all aspects of the school until his retirement in 1979. He was my teacher in 2nd, 3rd and 4th class.

There was no organised Bord na nÓg competition below under-14 level in the 1950s. Street leagues were the way of keeping boys occupied in competition. The street league concept suited the make up of St Patricks Parish and the school. There were teams for the Old Youghal Road, Dillons Cross, Ashburton, Kellehers Buildings, and later on Murmount. These were all natural geographic areas within the parish. In the 1950s there was even a rival street league organised by Glenview, a breakaway from Brian Dillons that lasted a number of years.

When I was in St Patricks between 1966 and 1971, the street leagues were one of the highlights of the year. The influence of these competitions can be seen by the competitiveness of Brian Dillons at juvenile and minor level during this era.

Three things happened in the 1970s to change the symbiosis of St Patricks School, the street leagues and Brian Dillons. The Bord na nÓg introduced competitions which accommodated boys down to 10 years of age. The area grew so populated on its outer edges that it merged into Mayfield, Ballyvolane and the new Glen area. Finally, the population of the old core areas like Old Youghal Road, Gardiners Hill and Ashburton matured and stopped producing dozens of boys.

In some ways the traditions and character of the Brian Dillons club became obscured by the population changes. The members never stopped working however. The headquarters was shifted from the small clubroom on Stream Hill, known as the “Hole-in-the-Wall” to the Tank Field. Finally, land was acquired near Whites Cross and a first-rate, flood-lit facility now stands there.

As happens with most clubs, it is no co-incidence that now, after a couple of decades have been spent on developing facilities; the club is once again in a Cork County Junior Hurling final next Sunday. What is a much more of a co-incidence is the fact that Dillons’ opponents next Sunday are Kildorrery.

The north Cork club defeated Brian Dillons in their last appearance in a Junior County final. That was the football final of 1978. Also, when Brian Dillons won their first county title, the Minor County Hurling championship of 1915 (minor was open to all ages back then), they defeated Rockmills in the final. Rockmills were in essence a forerunner of the Kildorrery Club.

In five weeks time, Thursday November 29th, the current teachers and boys of St Patricks National School will re-enact the procession from St Lukes Cross to the “new” school to mark the 75th anniversary of the original move. The world is a completely different place since the original procession. Despite this, St Patricks School and Brian Dillons have remained as important pillars of society in the north-east corner of Cork city.

No doubt, in 75 years time when the events of the next few weeks will have become part of the folklore of the area, St Patricks National School and Brian Dillons will still be serving the needs of Dillons Cross.

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St Nicks v Na Piarsaigh Cork County Senior Football Championship Relegation Playoff – Part 2 the fall out

Writing last week’s column about the legacy of Gaelic Football in both the St Nicholas and Na Piarsaigh clubs did nothing to purge the feeling of impending doom I felt about last Saturday’s relegation play-off between the two sides. This was Russian Roulette GAA style, and my club St Nicks was one shot away from senior football extinction.

It was a weird feeling. Normally, you look forward to going to a match, especially if it is a championship match. Even when your team is the underdog, there is a sense of hope about the occasion; or at least the hope that you might get lucky. Last Saturday night was different. During the week when I thought about the game, it wasn’t a feeling of hope I experienced, it was the same feeling that I get when I look over the top of a cliff or lean over the balcony on the top floor of a tall building. It’s a feeling of fear, one that you feel in the pit of your stomach.

I had never actually attended a relegation play-off game before last Saturday night. I didn’t see the point. I always felt it was a morbid thing to do, a bit like stopping and staring at a car crash. Everything I experienced about last Saturday night confirmed those opinions.

The game was a tense affair. Many neutrals were saying that it would be a bad tempered match. I don’t think that was ever going to happen. There was too much at stake for all the players. No player wanted to be the cause of his team’s relegation by getting sent off.

If I were to sum up the game in one sentence I would say it was a case of two clubs who had lost the art of winning trying desperately not to lose. I would imagine that all the relegation finals of the last 10 years have been like that.

When St Nicks won the under-21 county football final replay after extra time against Erins Own in 2003, I wrote the following in this column about my experience of the extra time.

“I was [a water boy and observer] on the opposite side of the field to the selectors. This meant that I was close to the play but isolated from everybody else. I think I experienced every possible emotion a human being can experience during the game. At times I was nervous, I was sick with worry, frustrated, hopeful, angry, disappointed, hopeful again, anxious, disappointed again and finally, deliriously happy.”

That was when we won a county final. All the above emotions flowed again last Saturday except the last one. There was no feeling of happiness, delirious or otherwise, at the end. The game was in the balance up until the final whistle. Thus prolonging the desperation and agony for both sides. St Nicks had a two-point lead when the full time whistle sounded. The supporters and families of St Nicks and Na Piarsaigh just got up from their seats and left the ground as fast as they could.

Ann Cooke of Na Piarsaigh, a woman who received a special award at the Evening Echo Ladies Sports Stars last January for her work for Na Piarsaigh was sitting in front of me. We said “Hello” as we left the ground. I couldn’t say anything else. I didn’t know what to say. So I just moved away. I caught the eye of a few St Nicks people as I left the ground. No words were exchanged. Just eyes raised to heaven and a look on the faces that said “let’s get out of here before someone changes their mind and it’s not really over.”

There were woeful errors from both sides during the game. These were mainly caused by tension and the aforementioned fact that neither team is particularly good at winning.  Even so, the game did throw up a couple of heroes. The older players on both sides slogged it out and generally cancelled one and other out, the younger players showed less inhibition and good work by Aaron O’Brien set up Barry O’Donovan for the all important St Nicks goal.

It was at the other end of the field that St Nicks had a real game changer in goalkeeper Kieran McHenry. Prior to last Saturday’s game Na Piarsaigh were the second highest goal scoring team in the championship with eight goals in three games. They could have added four more on Saturday but for some great saves by McHenry.

It is hard to know where breeding stops and feeding starts but when your grandfather was Paddy “Fox” Collins, the first of the all-time great Glen Rovers players, it is not a bad starting point for being the last line of defence. Throw in the ability to kick long-range points (Kieran scored two) from dead balls and you have a very solid foundation.

Where do both clubs go from here? It is hard to predict really. Very few teams that have been relegated from the senior hurling and football grades have made it back up very quickly. The Barrs did it in football and Ballinhassig did it in hurling last Sunday. Either St Vincents or St Michaels, who contest the Premier Intermediate Final will be bridging slightly longer sojourns in the lower grade. So there is hope for Na Piarsaigh.

As for St Nicks, there is the possibility that the club will continue to bounce along the bottom of the senior grade and eventually fall out. Over the past decade we have also seen that clubs who have a near miss with relegation, recover and do well in the subsequent year or two.

Having experienced that trauma on Saturday evening it was a pleasure to watch the Cork Ladies Football team in the All-Ireland Final on Sunday. There is no doubt that the Cork Ladies Football team are, pound for pound, the best team in the country. It was great to see them get such coverage for their achievements in the national press and on the national airwaves on Sunday and Monday.

The irony of this is, if the game was played last week, as it should have been only for the replayed All-Ireland hurling final, the Ladies All-Ireland final would have been lost in the madness of the Ryder Cup golf competition. Anyone who saw Cork absolutely dismantle an excellent Monaghan team in the All-Ireland semi-final would have known that this is a special team and it is at the very peak of its powers at present.

Everything that the Cork Ladies Football team have achieved over the last eight years is down to planning, hard work, attention to detail and the desire of every member of the panel and management to organise their lives in such a manner that they can perform at their best for Cork. It might seem that there is a million miles between the torment of Páirc Uí Rinn on Saturday evening and the glory of Croke Park on Sunday. There is not. What the Ladies Footballers have shown is that winning, just like losing, becomes a habit and once a habit is acquired, it is very hard to break.


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St Nicks v Na Piarsaigh Cork County Senior Football Championship Relegation Playoff. Part 1 – The Build Up

In or around 7pm next Saturday, barring a draw in Páirc Uí Rinn, the north side of Cork city will find that it has lost a senior football club.

This is because St Nicholas and Na Piarsaigh will face each other in the relegation play-off of the Cork Senior County football championship.

I have been an advocate of promotion and relegation in the Cork county championships since the system was first introduced almost a decade ago. I am of the opinion that relegation keeps the competitions honest. It has helped prune away non-contender clubs who tended to cling on to their senior or intermediate status long after they had ceased to be competitive.

That opinion still holds. I believe in a “free market” competition within the county championships. For every club that was propped up by the old “you held your status until you dropped” system, another club was denied the opportunity to advance.

All those ideas are fine in theory. When relegation comes knocking at your own club’s door it is an entirely different matter. I think John Arnold captured the relief of escaping from relegation in his column in this paper two weeks ago. John, a Bride Rovers stalwart had just witnessed his club escape relegation with a last minute goal. He made a pilgrimage of thanks and gratitude to the graves of each and every person who had contributed to the community that is Bride Rovers since it inception. Staring relegation in the face makes you very appreciative of what you have.

From what I can gather when I talk to people around the county, there is a perception out there that there is not as much as stake for St Nicholas or Na Piarsaigh as there was for Bride Rovers, or indeed Cloyne who were defeated by Bride Rovers. There certainly is.

There has been a long and honourable history of playing senior football on the north side of Cork City. St Nicholas played in the senior football championship of 1902. One hundred and ten years ago. They competed in the senior grade intermittently between than and the late 1920s; winning several minor and intermediate county titles during that time. The club dropped down to intermediate for most of the 1930s. The club went senior again after winning the 1937 intermediate championship and they have held that status since then.

St Nicks were the first indigenous city club to win the under-18 minor county title in 1926. They were the first city club to win the senior title in 1938, and it is almost been forgotten now that St Nicks were the first Cork club to win the Munster Club Football title in 1967.

The St Nicholas team and substitutes which defeated John Mitchells, Tralee in the 1966/67 Munster Club Championship Final

That year was also the first year that Na Piarsaigh took part in the senior county championship. They earned their senior spurs when they won the junior county title in 1965 and then defeated neighbours St Vincents 1-8 to 2-4 in the 1966 intermediate final. While Na Piarsaigh have never won the senior county title, the club did win the senior league in 1967 (Kelleher Shield) and they have been competitive most years since. Like St Nicks, the club has won a plethora of minor and juvenile championships.

This year is the 75th successive year St Nicks have competed in the senior football championship and the 46th successive year for Na Piarsaigh. They are not the only north side clubs to have competed at senior level during that time.

Delanys played in the senior grade between 1956 and 1964. The club was very strong in the earlier years, but struggled to compete in the 1960s and probably would have benefitted by relegation if it existed at that time.

There was another club down on the Lower Glanmire Road. They were called St Patricks. The club was formed in the 1930s; faded for a while, then came back stronger than ever in the 1940s. St Patrick’s reached the junior county final in 1945 and lost in a replay. The junior crown was finally captured in 1949. As there was no intermediate grade at that time St Patricks were promoted to the senior grade and competed at that level until 1954.

The St Vincents club was founded in Gurrane in 1943. It became a very good football club within a couple of years. St Vincents won the 1946 junior county football title (against a crack Bere Island team) in 1946 and reached the senior final of 1948. They might have won that final but for the incessant rain and poor state of the pitch which militated against the Gurrane team who were generally lighter than their strong Millstreet opponents.

St Vincents competed at senior level until the intermediate grade was re-formed in 1965. The club reached and lost three of the next four intermediate football finals. By then they had won the intermediate hurling title and were competing at senior hurling level.

While county titles at senior (St Nicks have five titles in all), intermediate and junior level were common occurrences up to the 1970s, only two adult titles have found their way across the Lee since then. They came when St Vincents won the premiere intermediate title in 2006 and St Nicks won the under-21 title in 2003. St Vincents are in this year’s intermediate final again. Hopefully they will earn the right to keep the north side representation in next year’s senior championship at two clubs.

Why have the titles dried up and the north side clubs become less competitive? Well there are many reasons: some of these are obvious. All the clubs became less competitive at football around the time they developed their properties. These properties take up a lot of time and money. This takes from the resources available to play hurling and football and in many cases – there is no easy way to put this, hurling got priority over football.

There still should have been plenty of non-hurlers left to play football, but the early 1970s was also the time the ban was lifted on the playing of soccer. A sizable percentage of non-hurlers opted for a full soccer season of games rather than a half and less resourced season of Gaelic Football. Another percentage of potential footballers was lost to the thriving basketball scene.

Then there was the fact that secondary schools on the south side, like Sullivans Quay, Coláiste Chríost Rí and Coláiste Spioraid Naoimh put a big effort into college’s football. This provided the south side clubs with a steady stream of well-prepared and enthusiastic footballers. The only indigenous competitive secondary school on the north side; the North Mon, did not put the same emphasis on football, although the Mon did win the Munster Colleges title in 1988.

The final reason that space allows for here is that other clubs throughout the county have become more competitive and better organised. When the north side of Cork had three and four teams in the county senior football championship, clubs like Castlehaven and Bishopstown did not exist and others like Skibbereen, Carbery Rangers, Ballincollig and Aghada could not be competitive in their junior divisional championships.

Next Saturday’s game will be a very solemn occasion. A large and populated area of Cork will be losing a senior club. There will inevitably be tears when the final whistle blows. Some will be tears of relief, and more will be tears of genuine sorrow. A club does not get to be a senior club for 75 or 46 years without it being a labour of love to a whole body of people who have served as secretaries, chairmen, treasurers, selectors, players and all the other jobs that have to be done to keep a club vibrant.

It is not fair to blame the relegation system for this. The system is there to protect the standards of the competition. In nature, what is old – dies. Also in nature, what falls to the ground germinates, re-generates and becomes fresh and strong again. Hopefully, this is the fate that awaits both St Nicks and Na Piarsaigh after next Saturday’s game.


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Lessons from the All-Ireland Football Final

Because life is a cycle, the Sunday Game programme had hardly finished last Sunday night when the thoughts of the majority of the viewers were all ready concerned with the most enduring of all GAA questions; who’s going to win the All-Ireland next year?

In life’s cycles there are more followers than leaders, therefore the likely answer to question is that we can expect many of the 30 coaches from other counties to try and recreate what Donegal and Mayo have achieved. The same will be true of many club coaches. The reality is that of them will fail, and fail dismally.

Gaelic Football has always been an innovative sport. Unlike the GAA’s other field sport hurling, it has been constantly evolving and changing since the beginning of the 20th century. The innovation began with the Kerry teams of the Dick Fitzgerald in the 1903 to 1915 era. Kildare then added their twist to the playing of the game in the 1920s. In between these two great teams of trendsetters, Seán Lavan a student from Mayo won a ball in the midfield during a game between Dublin and Mayo. He soloed the ball from midfield to the 21-yard line and kicked a point. It was the first time many of those present had seen a solo-run executed in this way. It was a tactic that caught on fast and Gaelic Football was changed forever.

The first Ulster football revolution came with the arrival of Cavan in the 1930s and Antrim in the 1940s. Antrim revolutionised the use of the handpass and player movement in the 1940s. They developed an overemphasis on the handpass and as a result, the tactic was outlawed from the game. Nevertheless, the team showed innovation and a desire to do things differently.

Dublin football of the 1950s was primarily driven by the St Vincent’s club. When Dublin won the National League final of 1953, St Vincents supplied fourteen of the players. The club developed their players through school leagues in the 1940s. Even though Dublin won only one All-Ireland titles in the 50s, the team was always in contention for the Leinster or All-Ireland title. They played a very slick “city-type” game that influenced the style of football of the 1960s.

The Down of the early 1960s was a good example of a team that developed their style from the Dublin play. Galway then won three titles between 1964 and ’66 playing a more traditional static game. The Cork team of 1973 seemed to be about to take football in a new direction when the GAA carried out a major overhaul of the playing rules.

The new rules of 1974 greatly reduced the amount of man-to-man physicality of football. These changes opened the way for Kerry and Dublin to dominate the football championship for twelve years. It has to be said that both Kerry and Dublin were ideally placed in the mid-70s to dominate football because both counties had excellent footballers and the best support systems of all the counties during that period. This is also a good time to point out that Kerry, alone of all the counties, led or changed or adapted their playing style from 1900 to the present day in order to remain competitive. This is why they are the top team in the roll of honour.

Even as the Kerry V Dublin juggernaut burned out during the late 1980s the seeds of the modern game were germinating in the northern university football scene. It was a slow process at first. Then Down, Donegal, Derry and Down again won All-Irelands. Derry chipped in with four National League titles for good measure.

Superb teams from Kerry, Galway and Meath shared six titles (two each) between 1996 and 2001. This seemed to have stymied the Ulster ambition, but all the while the northern teams were becoming more mobile and more difficult to defeat.

Armagh finally cracked the southern dominance in 2002. Tyrone then ambushed Kerry in 2003 by putting 12 players in their defence. The style of the Tyrone’s football angered the “traditionalists” and those who thought they were the guardians of Gaelic Football. In reality however, Tyrone’s style was no more shocking than Sean Lavan’s solo run, Antrim’s handpass or Dublin and Kerry’s sling-pass of the 1970s.

For much of the last decade Kerry and to a lesser extent Cork, were alone southern teams to challenge Tyrone and Armagh. Until eventually Dublin copped on that you must start with the basic skills of the game, learn these properly and then develop a tactical game over a two-year period.

Twelve months ago when the Dublin team were reaping the rewards of their work with an All-Ireland title, Donegal and Mayo were already well down the same road of application and commitment.

As you can see Donegal, Dublin (of 2011) and Mayo are just the latest in long line of innovative football counties. It is inevitable that other counties and clubs will imitate their efforts. Whatever about at inter-county level where the commitment to training and lifestyle is already extremely high, the imitations will fail dismally at club level. This is because unlike previous innovations like the solo run or the handpass, which were technical and tactical in nature, the current innovations are also lifestyle commitments.

There is no such thing as a long-term plan in the lower grades of club football. The first knockout game of the championship is the sole focus of every team. So unlike the Dublin team of the 1950s that took 10 years to build, the average club player will be expected to learn and execute Donegal’s plans by next June. The manager has to impose these conditions because if his team does not win next June, he will not be there the following June to implement next year’s innovations.

There will be managers of intermediate and junior clubs up and down the county imposing 6am training sessions on teams. Corner-forwards, who heretofore, only jogged to the sideline for a drink of Lucozade Sport, will now have to cover four and five miles per match. All this will be attempted without putting any effort into developing the players’ basic football skills. And if the players complain, or moan to their pals in a pub, they will be thrown off the panel, a la Conor Mortimer (Mayo) and Kevin Cassidy (Donegal). This is now the fashionable way for mangers to deal with criticism.

All the tactical and motivational innovations of the last two seasons are great to watch. But it is an honours course in how to play Gaelic Football. The biggest problems Dublin and Donegal’s win will cause is that the style will be imitated by a lot of pass students. As the cycle of the GAA championships unfolds again next year, we may find that we will be watching a lot of clubs going around in circles rather than advancing in the championship.

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A Brief History of Donegal

As we head towards next Sunday’s All-Ireland football final it struck me that very little is known in this part of the country about Donegal, and Donegal football.

Cork people have strong opinions about other counties. In most conversations concerning the inter-county affairs of the GAA it is quite normal to hear phrases like “That’s typical of Kerry”, or “what else would you expect from Tipperary”. Obviously, some of these pre-conceived notions are misinformed, but it is also fair to say that as generalities go, they usually suit the flow of the conversation.

I would venture to say that until the Jimmy McGuinness led revolution of tactical play in Donegal last year, no football fan in Cork ever expressed an opinion about Donegal football. Since then most conversations that I have heard tend to condemn Donegal for their style of football. I find this amazing. Because from what I have seen and heard of this year’s county senior football championship, most of the teams remaining in the competition are playing a very poor brand of “Donegal” football.

But, I digress. The real reason why people held no opinions about Donegal as a GAA county until recently is that Cork and Donegal have rarely met in important championship games. Because no “history” exists between the counties, Cork people have no reason to like or dislike Donegal. Ergo, the county has generally been ignored.

This prompted me to do some research into the development of the GAA in Donegal. I was surprised by what I found.

Firstly, Donegal was a very strong hurling county in pre-GAA times. Actually the game that was played in Donegal was more a ‘hurling type’ game than actually hurling. It was however, played extensively both in the north and the south of the county. The game was called camán or commons. There appears to have been no handling of the ball allowed. Also, while the hurley they used could have been cut from any available type of bush or tree, it tended to be long and narrow in the northern end of the county and had a broader boss in the south.

Donegal was also the last county in Ireland to embrace the GAA as an organisation. There were many reasons for this. According to the book GAA, County by County by Cronin, Duncan and Rouse, “poverty, a dispersed population, an inadequate education system and an underdeveloped transport system contributed to the failure of the GAA in Donegal.”

Other codes of sport also played their role in holding back the GAA. The advance of soccer was one of the main reasons. The Donegal Football Association was founded in 1894. This is very early when you consider that the Munster F.A. was founded in Cork in 1901.

It was 1905 before the Donegal county board was established. Prior to that the majority of the clubs that did exist took part in the Derry county championships because most of these clubs were geographically near to Derry City.

The first Ulster hurling championship was played in 1902. Only three teams took part. Antrim, Armagh and Derry. The Burt club, a traditional stronghold of Camán, represented Donegal in the 1904 championship. Burt defeated the Derry champions and got a walk-over from Fermanagh before losing to Antrim 2-4 to 0-5 in the final.

Burt came back again the following year, 1905. Once again they lost the final to the Antrim champions. Then in 1906, the first year of the Donegal county board, Burt hammered Antrim 5-21 to 0-1. This game was played in Burt, which is on the southern end of the Inishowen Peninsula and very far away from the Glens of Antrim. Perhaps this had an influence on the result?

Sometime after 1906 the Donegal county board lapsed again. Emigration was cited as the main cause and it was 1919 before the board was re-constituted and affiliated to the Ulster Council. Donegal added two more Ulster hurling titles in 1923 and 1932. After that, it is fair to say that Donegal hurling lost its ability to compete. Once again emigration and isolation were given as the main reasons for this. Apparently, the county had a reasonably competitive county junior hurling team in the 1950s but this team was largely made up of Gardaí who had been transferred up from the south of Ireland.

The decline of hurling did nothing to help the cause of football in Donegal. The county had a few Ulster junior successes in the 1930s. In 1933 they defeated Cork in the All-Ireland junior football semi-final but lost heavily to Mayo in the final.

The 1950s were economically bad times in Donegal. By the end of that decade only 4,300 people were employed in manufacturing. In contrast there were nearly 3,000 people employed between Gouldings, Fords and Dunlops on the Centre Park Road, in Cork. Nevertheless, things were getting better on the GAA front. St Eunan’s College was making an impact on the MacRory Cup colleges football championship. The school supplied Donegal with 10 of the team that won the 1956 Ulster minor title.

When the under-21 championships began in the early 1960s Donegal won three of the first four Ulster titles. This gave them the impetus to launch an attack on the Ulster senior championship. They reached the finals of 1963 and 1966 only to lose both to Down. The 1966 final was particularly heart breaking as Down snatched victory with a last minute penalty.

The county’s first Ulster title came in 1972, and they picked up another one in 1974. There were no more Ulster titles until 1990 and then came the first and so far, only All-Ireland title in 1992 when Dublin were beaten 0-18 to 0-14.

Although Donegal reached the semi-final of the All-Ireland championship in 2003,l they have had to play second fiddle to both Tyrone and Armagh for much of the last twenty years.

All that changed last year when Jimmy McGuinness reinvigorated the county’s ambition and the Ulster title was regained after 19 years. Most people in Cork are nonplussed about next Sunday’s All-Ireland final result. People say they wouldn’t begrudge either Donegal, or Mayo for that matter, a win. I believe that is a sincerely held opinion. If Donegal continue their progress over the next few years and start beating Cork in championships, I think that sentiment would quickly disappear. And in terms of the Cork supporters opinions of the GAA, Donegal would finally be held in the same esteem as Kerry or Tipperary.

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Mayo’s All-Ireland semi-final win was due to Dublin’s loss of Mickey Whelan

I got a text message not long before half time of last Sunday’s All-Ireland football semi-final between Dublin and Mayo. “Mayo bossing it big time” the message read.

The Mayo team were bossing it – at that stage of the game. I thought about my answer for a few seconds before replying, “Dublin are really missing Mickey Whelan”.

Above all other reasons; such as players living the highlife, players getting injured or the mental strain involved in defending the All-Ireland title; to my mind the absence of Mickey Whelan’s coaching was the greatest difference between the Dublin side of 2011 and the team of 2012.

Whelan, who was inducted into the Kick Fada Hall of Fame last week, brought a wealth of coaching experience to the Dublin management during the 2010 and ’11 seasons. He won an All-Ireland senior medal as far back as 1958. After he moved from his original club, Clanna Gael he won an All-Ireland club football medal with St Vincents in 1976. He coached Dublin in the 1990s and coached St Vincents to win the All-Ireland club title of 2008. That team featured Dublin manager Pat Gilroy at full-forward.

The Dublin teams of the previous manager Paul “Pillar” Caffery were strong and robust but they were lacking in the basic skills of fetching and kicking and were also very tactically naïve. It took three years to build Dublin into an All-Ireland winning team. During that time, the basic skills of the players improved enormously which greatly helped the team employ the successful tactics of last year.

The smart talk has always been that Mickey Whelan revelled in the role of coach under Pat Gilroy and played a key role in last year’s success.

The sharpness of last year was missing from Dublin’s play all this season. Many people mistook this for an effort to pace their charge to retain the All-Ireland. That may indeed have been the plan, but there were other signs too. These were not signs of sluggishness; they were signs of regression. The scoring rate dropped, the kicking accuracy dropped, the discipline standards dropped.

Nowhere was this more noticeable than in the second half of last Sunday’s game. Even though Dublin dragged themselves back into the game by reducing a 10 point lead to just two during the second half, it was a chaotic and wasteful recovery. It had more to do with bludgeoning a flagging Mayo than outsmarting them.

This effort got Dublin a chance of winning the game, but in the final minutes when skill as much as effort was required, the Dubs failed. Like an old boxing champion, they went down swinging, but swing they did. In the last 10 minutes of the game Dublin looked more like a “Pillar” Caffery team than a Pat Gilroy/ Mickey Whelan team.

None of the above should take from Mayo’s success. If fact, it enhances it. The Mayo management were forced to make eight alterations to the starting fifteen during the game. OK, three of these changes were blood subs, but how many teams, even Dublin, Cork and Kerry with their supposedly strong panels could change more than half a team during 70 minutes and still win?

Mayo’s loss of Kevin McLaughlin, with a nasty head wound at the beginning of Dublin’s revival, was a particularly bad blow to their chances. His impact on the game could not be appreciated until he returned to the fray in the last 10 minutes of the game. McLaughlin picked up three vital balls after his return to the game. He nearly set up a goal from one of these, and the others helped breakup the Dublin pressure.

The Mayo senior county football team are one of the great enigmas of the GAA world. The county have caused this kind of an upset many times before only to fall on their backside the next time out. I must say that I have fancied this Mayo team to have a say in the destiny of the All-Ireland since the start of the year.

In the week preceding the National Football League final between Cork and Mayo I wrote the following in this column.

“There have been signs in the Mayo performances since last summer that the current squad may be – and I stress MAY BE – serious contenders for the All-Ireland title this season. The team looks fitter and sharper than it has been for years. While team manager James Horan, seems to know and understand the deeper issues within Mayo football in the same way that Ger Loughnane understood Clare’s shortcomings in the 1990s.”

I think that is about as near as any sane person should go towards saying “I fancy Mayo”. This is not to be disrespectful to the team or to the Mayo supporters. That is a learned response from years of watching Mayo nearly win. It would be great if Mayo won because as a football county, they have suffered enough. The same could also be said of Donegal.

Especially in these stringent economic times when rural Ireland, and the western seaboard in particular, is being neglected and rundown by almost every administrative body in the state. For that reason alone it is great to see two counties on the Atlantic coast grabbing the limelight for the biggest sporting occasion of the year.

It is not only their economic neglect that both counties have in common. They both also have teams that work so hard for one and other that the whole of each team is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In arriving at this stage of development, both managers have dealt with their difficult or maverick individuals in much the same way.

Kevin Cassidy of Donegal and Conor Mortimer of Mayo have been two of the better-known players from their respective counties over the past decade. Last winter it emerged that Kevin Cassidy had contributed to a “behind the scenes book” on Donegal’s 2011 Ulster championship campaign. This brought him into direct conflict with manager Jim McGuinness who felt that Cassidy had breached a confidentiality agreement between the squad members. McGuinness dealt with the problem by removing Cassidy from the panel.

Conor Mortimer actually played with Mayo earlier this year. He threw a strop when he was not named to start the Connaught championship against Leitrim and again for the Connaught final. Manager James Horan did not have to tell him “go”. Mortimer took the hint and walked from the panel. The Mortimer family even issued a statement in support of their outcast son. The statement makes interesting reading in the light of last Sunday’s win over Dublin.

Both Cassidy and Mortimer are amateur players and it would not be fair to blame them entirely for the misfortune that had befallen them. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see that the removal of strong individual personalities from both squads had helped develop their ‘all-for-one’ team ethic.

There-in lies the key to which of these teams will win the All-Ireland crown. It is unlikely that any one individual will take the game by the scruff of the neck and dominate the play. So it should be the team that shows the most cohesion on the day that will win. Mayo have lost five finals in 23 years. Each one was more heart breaking than the previous one. That run had to end sometime. Donegal have had the tougher tests in getting to the final. Neither side has played particularly well in the final quarter of their semi-finals. We could be looking at the first drawn final since Kerry and Galway in 2000.


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John Gildea A Tribute

John Gildea RIP

I was deeply upset to hear of the death of John Gildea of St Finbarrs Hurling and Football Club last week.

I first met John in 1995 when I was coach to the Cork City under-16 football team. John was one of several players on the panel from the St Finbarrs Club. We ended up sitting together while travelling on a bus one day. I remember asking him where he went to school. He replied that he went to CBC. I asked him if he played rugby. He said that he did not but would love to represent his school at his favourite sport of Gaelic Football.

John’s chance to do this came when the Lord Mayor’s Cup was inaugurated the following year. He got to play Gaelic Football for Christians and he won a Lord Mayor’s Cup medal.

To the best of my knowledge the Cork under-16 team of 1995 was the only time that John got to represent Cork on the playing field. In every other walk of life he represented himself, his family, his club St Finbarrs and GAA like the thorough gentleman that he was.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dilís.

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Lance Armstrong (Part 1) Written in August 2012

It came as no surprise to me that cyclist Lance Armstrong has decided not to contest the charges of using performance-enhancing drugs that were made against him by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Like many other sports fans, I watched in awe as he accumulated his seven Tour de France victories. “This is the stuff of legend,” I thought.

At face value, it was. The Lance Armstrong story was a truly magnificent tale of a man who had faced down aggressive testicular cancer and come back to win the greatest cycle race in the world not once, but seven times. It was the kind of victory every boy dreams about achieving. It was a Disney classic and everyone wanted it to be true. All the great heroes of our dreams have defied logic and appeared to be superhuman; so why not Lance Armstrong?

Even when the warning drums started to beat, I thought that this was jealousy from lesser mortals. But as the drums grew louder, I started to listen to them. I read more from the likes of David Walsh in the Sunday Times. Eventually it dawned on me that Armstrong was never a pure as the driven snow, I had been fooled – again.

I say again because like many others I had been down this road before. Lance Armstrong was not the first sporting god to be found with feet of clay. My first and possibly the worst experience of this type came in August 1988. I woke one morning to find that Ben Johnson had failed a drug test after winning the Seoul Olympic Games 100m final.

That race had been built up to be the greatest 100m race of all time. Carl Lewis, the Olympic champion of 1984 was defending his title. He was too sweet to be wholesome. He was too correct. Actually, he was the class swot – you couldn’t like him. Ben Johnson was a working class hero. He had a poor background, lived in Canada and stuttered. He was the classic underdog. When Johnson won the 100m gold medal, in a world record time, it felt like it was a victory for all ordinary athletes and for the common man.

The subsequent revelation that he was using drugs was one of the greatest disappointments of my all time following sports. It was worse than a kick in the teeth. It was like finding out that your best friend or partner had cheated on you. For me, it has cast a shadow across all world records and sporting achievements since.

Time moves on however, and the impact of the deception fades.  Nowadays when I see someone like Roger Federer, or Rafa Nadal play tennis, I admire their class and resilience. When I see Nadal win a five-hour gruelling battle in Paris or Wimbledon and comes out the next day fresh as a daisy, I admire and envy his fitness. Then I think, ‘Is he really that fit?’ That scintilla of doubt, the Ben Johnson legacy, always creeps back into my mind.

This is the greatest crime of Ben Johnson, Lance Armstrong and the others who have won their victories by artificially enhancing their performances; they have robbed us, the sports fans, of our innocence.

In Lance Armstrong’s case the evidence has been overwhelming for some time. Credit must be given to sports reporters David Walsh and Paul Kimmage for pursing Armstrong over the years. For a long time it was their reputations that were at risk, and not that of Armstrong. The cycling world did not want to listen to the reports.

The whole drawn-out saga goes to show that money, and not sportsmanship is at the heart of professional sport. Lance Armstrong is worth over $100m and that is only a small percentage of the total pot of cash that is swirling around the sport of cycling. It took the intervention of the US Anti-Doping Agency to finally accumulate enough witnesses (10) who were prepared testify to Armstrong’s doping and force his hand.

Armstrong has now turned to the last recourse of the villain. He has stopped denying the charges and left them uncontested. He can always say that nothing untoward was ever proven against him, but he will never clear his name either. It was correct to strip him of all the titles he has won. These titles should be left vacant as a testimony to what happens to cheats, because Lance Armstrong was not the only cyclist at that time who that was using performance-enhancing drugs.

Where does it leave the rest of us? That question is best answered by a statement that a friend made to me on Monday evening last. “I live in fear that Usain Bolt is cheating” he said. I had to agree.

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Tipperary made it difficult for the referee and even more difficult for themselves

I learned a long time ago that as a coach or a selector, you must have a Plan B, and even a Plan C, to help cope with the unexpected things that happen during the course of a game.

In 1989, when I was coaching Glen Rovers against Midleton in an under-21 county hurling semi-final, Midleton had a man sent off midway through the first half of the game. As a selection committee we had a plan for this situation and placed our spare man as a sweeper in front of our fullback line.

The plan did not work for two reasons.

Firstly, the man we detailed to act as a sweeper did not know how to play in that role. We had to try another player. After a few more tweaks our sweeper system began to pay dividends.

Secondly, Midleton decided to move a man into the area that our sweeper was patrolling. Even though Midleton who were a man short, they decided that it would be them, and not us, who would decide who our extra man would be. They had spotted that our first sweeper was uncomfortable as the loose man and they wanted to keep him in that role.

Midleton thundered into the game and built up a good lead. As the game moved into the last quarter we were forced to abandon our ploy and send in a sub to play as a third mid-fielder. This worked. We rallied but the gap was too large and we lost by two points.

We learned two lessons that day; it is the team who are a man short that decides who the spare man will be on the other team, and if your opposition do not want to comply with your wishes and tactics, you cannot force them to do so. They are lessons that served me well several times since.

Those lessons are just two of the many reasons why I was flabbergasted by Tipperary’s tactics, and antics, in last Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final. The most bizarre of these was the sideshow involving Lar Corbett and Pa Bourke of Tipperary with Tommy Walsh and Jackie Tyrrell of Kilkenny.

Either Tipperary thought that Lar Corbett could dominate Tommy Walsh and/or they did not want Corbett anywhere near Jackie Tyrrell. Corbett was dominated by Tyrrell in last year’s All-Ireland final. It is one thing to try and set up a situation where Lar Corbett becomes Tommy Walsh’s responsibility. It is a completely different thing to persist with that plan when it was patently obvious that it was neither working nor helping the morale of the team. Furthermore, sticking to the plan for nearly 60 minutes made the Tipperary mentors and players look clueless.

When we lost the under-21 county semi-final in 1989, we took some stick from our supporters and members for not winning despite having an extra man for three-quarters of the game. Like Tipperary we had a plan, but when it was not working we changed it. Our problem was that Midleton had a better plan and the game was lost before we got to grips with the situation.

I watched last Sunday’s game on TV, so I could not see everything that was going on. From the descriptions of the witnesses that spoke on air and in the newspapers since, it must have been comical to see the two Kilkenny players and two Tipperary players wandering around the field, hitting one and other with complete indifference to the game that was going on all around them.

Naturally Cathal McAllister’s refereeing was questioned. But what would you do if you were in his shoes?

Back in the 1950s a similar situation arose in a Sigerson Cup semi-final that was played at the Mardyke. My father was the referee and he told me he encountered a problem when two players, who were marking each other, clearly were more interested in settling their personal vendetta than taking part in the game. That was at a time when to get sent off in the Sigerson Cup did not effect a player’s eligibility to play with his club or county. Like last Sunday’s game, the resultant violence was spreading throughout the field. Seeing that he was losing control of the game, my father decided to call a temporary halt to proceedings and called both teams into a circle at the centre of the field. He then took the offending players into the centre of the circle with him.

Next he announced that he could see no point in continuing with the game until the two players settled their differences. To facilitate this he asked both teams to form a circle while the two players settled their differences in a boxing match. There was a stunned silence.

My father left the silence hang for a few seconds and then announced, “OK so, since no one wants to fight, we’ll see if we can get on with the game.” There was hardly a foul in the rest of the game.

It would not be fair to expect Cathal McAllister to ask last Sunday’s four players to engage in a two-hander WWF style wrestling match. It would also have been harsh of Cathal McAllister to send one, or two, players off early in the game. It might have cured the violence that Tipperary were perpetrating on Kilkenny but some Kilkenny player who was merely trying to defend himself could have been punished too.

Besides, many hurling commentators are so precious about the “manly” aspect of hurling that McAllister would have been slated for spoiling the game. As it was, two of the three half-time TV panellists felt that Tipperary had not broken any rules during their first half shenanigans. Apparently breaking a hand, facemask pulling and generally slashing hurleys across Kilkenny bodies is an acceptable “manly” approach to the game. The best tool Cathal McAllister could have been given to help control the game last Sunday was a sin bin. The sight of a couple players sitting on their backsides for 10 minutes would have done wonders to restore sanity to the game.

If two teams from Ulster played the same way as Tipperary did last Sunday in a first round of the Ulster Football Championship (which, regrettably, they often do), the TV panellists would cry, and wring their hands about the standard of football.

This leads me nicely into my final point. Ex-Kilkenny player John Henderson said on radio on Monday evening that Brian Cody is one of the all time great “hurling men”. I agree. And his Kilkenny teams since 1999 have been first class in every technical aspect of hurling. His team play and tactical play however, has been borrowed directly from the football field. Cody is one of the few hurling managers you will see in Croke Park on the day of a big football game. He has said he enjoys the football; he obviously studies it too.

Look at how Meath mixed the long and short ball and tackled in the 1990s. How Armagh under Joe Kiernan pressed their opponents defence, how Tyrone and now Donegal and Dublin swarm around opponents in possession and how Kerry and Cork free up their lethal forwards. Now look again at how Kilkenny play hurling. Can you see the similarities?

Kilkenny are technically superior and tactically sublime. While their innovative team play draws on their own traditions, it is allied with the best bits of inter-county Gaelic Football from the last 15 years. Even if Kilkenny fail to win the All-Ireland final – Galway are coached by Anthony Cunningham who also knows a thing or two about Gaelic Football – they are the best hurling team in Ireland. What’s more, if the current Kilkenny team entered the All-Ireland football championship, given that they already think and play like a top four football team, they could rattle that title too.

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