Forget black cards and cynical tackling, the best midfielders can still soar above the rest
The four winning sides at the weekend were all propelled by towering performances by the men in centrefield
Aidan O’Shea of Mayo was the dominant midfielder on show in the quarter-finals. He is some physical specimen and clearly in the best condition of his adult life. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The furore over Seán Cavanagh’s rugby tackle on Saturday night has overshadowed some magnificent midfield performances across all four games.
This obviously being my favourite area of analysis, I would never hand over false platitudes but I was hugely impressed by Cavanagh, Michael Darragh Macauley, David Moran and particularly Aidan O’Shea’s magnificent showing against Donegal.
But we better deal with the messy stuff first. Joe Brolly’s argument about protecting the game from cynical play is spot on but to single out Cavanagh, the best footballer around at the moment, seemed harsh to me.
Cavanagh had every right to note afterwards that he had been fouled more than most. He has never been red carded for Moy or Tyrone. Never thrown a punch. Everything he does on the field looks calculated, whether that’s instinctive or not, to increase Tyrone’s chance of winning.
Nothing else matters to him. Because he is an elite sportsman.
A ferociously competitive animal like Cavanagh has no interest in being lauded for not fouling a player as Tyrone’s season comes to an end.
The only person who remembers the guy who doesn’t commit a foul is the guy himself. Eleven years on I am that guy.
I know what I would have done to Conor McManus if I got that opportunity again. I had to make that same split second decision in the 2002 All-Ireland final. I could have taken Oisín McConville out before he scored the goal that ultimately proved the difference between Armagh and Kerry that day. Andy McCann was galloping up the left but stepped inside forcing myself and Tomás to automatically switch men. McConville came straight at me so Tomás drifted onto Paul McGrane.
As I went to McConville he punched the ball over my head. That was my chance to stop him dead but I decided the three or four yard gap could be closed as McGrane took the ball down. But McGrane, a clever footballer, palmed it straight back into Oisín’s path to goal, immediately leaving the Ó Sé brothers in no man’s land.
On McConville went and buried it.
I didn’t need to clean him out or trip him, just a slight body check. I’ve done it hundreds of times; taken my yellow for the team to deny the opposition’s marquee forward a chance to do what he does best.
In rugby you have would be gone for 10 minutes. In our sport there is no such punishment so, as Cavanagh noted, the crime is worth the punishment.
But Brolly is right. It has fizzled down to the youngest levels of our game. Take the minor game between Kerry and Tyrone on Sunday. There was cynical, even reckless stuff going on from both teams.
Boys will forever be boys. If a fella knows he is going to get away with something he will do it.
It’s up to the authorities to change the culture with effective rules and consistent refereeing. Not the players.
The black card is coming and while it may work as a deterrent it is taking a year to be introduced. That’s too long. You can be sure inter-county footballers will evolve quicker and find ways to exploit it. The best teams will use it to their advantage when it really matters. Black card or not, it will take 10 years for the wheels of change to rid this sort of play from our game. That’s how ingrained it is now.
We also need to examine those making the decisions. As a player I always looked at the referee and asked myself, “ what can I get away with here?”