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.