It’s nearly a bit comical to hear people raving about the quality of the football since the start of the league. It’s every week now, game after game, and the way people are talking you’d swear that they were after discovering a new species or something. It’s as if people are surprised to find out that the best players in the country are actually any good at football.
I think there's a few explanations for this. First of all, people have been talking down Gaelic football for so long that there's nearly an acceptance out there that it's a terrible sport. I don't just mean the hurling snobs – you hear football people dismissing it the whole time too. They give out about the blanket defences, they give out about black cards, all the handpassing, everything.
They even give out about the Dubs. Imagine that. Six All-Irelands in a row and you still hear people calling them boring. They don't take potshots, they keep possession, they move the ball around until they find the right player in the right position to take the best shot. Everything you teach young players to do. And it's still not enough. You'd wonder what people want sometimes.
So when people are giving out about something for so long, they become so used to thinking that it’s no good. They watch games waiting to be disappointed. If you have decided that a sport is going down the wrong path, you’re going to hang tight to that view. As we know, people can be stubborn enough when it comes to admitting they were wrong.
So when you see a few good games, you nearly have to act surprised. You’re better off saying the game has changed than leaving anyone think you might have had to change yourself. That wouldn’t be great for the brand.
But when you think about it, should we really be all that shocked? Let’s look at it point by point.
Point one: It’s the league, which means that teams are playing against counties at their own level. In the top two divisions, there have been 24 games played so far and 10 of them have finished with a goal or less between the teams. There’s been the odd hammering here and there but mostly, the games have been exciting, especially up North.
Point two: It’s the summer. We’re not used to seeing the league played on hard ground with everybody in short sleeves and nobody covered in muck. The ball is dry, the games are moving quickly, there’s no major wind and definitely no hailstones. If you can’t play decent stuff now, I don’t know what to tell you.
David Tubridy must be laughing this week at being discovered as an overnight sensation after 14 years
Point three: The serious business is very close. You usually take everything that happens in the league with a pinch of salt because championship is so far away. Not this year – championship starts in 24 days. Four and a half weeks from now, 14 counties will be finished up for the year, gone after one game.
There’s nothing to be gained from shadow boxing at this stage. This is the season, right here and now. If you take it in terms of game time, the majority of players have passed the halfway point of their 2021 intercounty year already. If you’re not going to do it now, when are you going to?
So you have teams of similar level playing each other in the best of conditions with championship just around the corner. And that all leads to point four, which is the most important one of them all – the standard of modern footballers is so much higher than it has ever been.
When people talk about the players today, they tend to focus on how athletic they are and the kind of physique they have. And it’s obviously true, they are so much better conditioned than we were and the players that came before us too. But I think if you focus on that too much, you do the players of today a disservice. When it comes to the skills of the game, the average player now is a cut above the average player from past generations.
I don't just mean the absolute stars of the game here. A blind man watching the games over the weekend could tell you that the likes of Con O'Callaghan, David Clifford, Shane Walsh, Patrick McBrearty and Mattie Donnelly are a cut above. I watched Con run riot again on Sunday, this time against Galway, and then to cap it all off, he gave a word-perfect interview as Gaeilge to TG4. "Christ," I thought, "will he leave us nothing?"
But all around the country, players are showing how good they are. David Tubridy must be laughing this week at being discovered as an overnight sensation after 14 years. Because Clare run into Kerry so often in the championship, he gets overlooked and people dismiss the Clare football team as being filled with lads who aren't good enough to play hurling. But Tubridy has always been a brilliant forward, year after year, league after league.
Or take someone like Seán Quigley in Fermanagh. People tend to think he’s a bit of a messer or not really serious about the game or whatever. But look at the technique he has for kicking scores. Some of that is natural talent but most of it is down to training and practice and repetition. You don’t achieve that sweet a strike time after time if you’re just winging it.
Football has come on leaps and bounds from when I was playing. We used play league games where the score would be 1-7 to 0-8 – and this was long before there was ever a mention of a blanket defence. The ball moved slower, the shots came in from everywhere, fellas went off on solo runs without any great plan in mind.
I’m not saying there weren’t great players – of course there were. But I look at the general standard of football these days and I see players with a command of the skills of the game everywhere, in all lines of the team, not just in the forwards. We’ve talked for 20 years about Maurice Fitzgerald’s sideline ball in Thurles but I’d guess that there’s three or four fellas in all the top teams who could pull that off now.
There is no chance of catching up with Dublin unless you knuckle down and make yourself better at the nuts and bolts of the game
It’s a better game now all the way around. You’d be coming back from a league game when I was playing and a forward who got two points was happy with his day’s work. A back needed to be coming back down the road with a black eye or a cut lip or there’d have been questions. A free-taker would need to have his leg crumpled under him to be taken off the frees on a poor day.
Nowadays, three or four points from play is the base level for an inside forward. Defenders need to be able to shut down their man but also contribute going forward with the ball. If a free-taker misses two frees, there's three more in the team who can slot in just as easily. Unless you're Dean Rock or Cillian O'Connor, you generally don't get the chance to miss a third one.
Players train harder now. They train smarter too. They eat better, they recover more scientifically, they do better analysis. They’re able to go for longer, take bigger hits. But most of all, across the board, they’re better at the skills of the game than has ever been the case.
To some extent, the Dubs have driven this. They have created a team that beats everybody and there’s no big secret to how they’ve done it. They carry out the skills of the game better than their opposition. Kicking off both feet. Handpassing off the weaker hand. Defenders marking from the front. A goalkeeper who has taken a part of the game that teams put minimal thought into – the kick-out – and made it possibly the most important part of their game plan.
Go down through the teams that are lined up behind them and it's really obvious that there is a generation of players now who can see that there is no chance of catching up with Dublin unless you knuckle down and make yourself better at the nuts and bolts of the game. Every goalkeeper plays a version of Stephen Cluxton's game. Every forward line tries to spread the pitch. Every midfielder has to be as mobile as Brian Fenton, as calm in possession, as unhurried when he's shooting. That's the game.
It's not often you see a player thinking of a goal while standing inside his own 65
In its own way, the blanket defence has driven this too. You didn’t survive as an intercounty forward over the past decade if you weren’t able to find space where there was none and get your shot away in a split second. And because the best forwards would find themselves double-marked and squeezed out of the game, it meant that midfielders and defenders couldn’t get away with not being able to shoot anymore.
Blanket defences meant that far too much work went into creating space for you to ruin it all with your wonky shooting. It didn’t matter if you had 15, 5 or 2 on your back – if the rest of the team has got you in front of the posts, you better score.
All of this means that it really hasn’t taken much for the best players in the country to shine over the past months. There have been a few tactical tweaks here and there, especially with teams really pushing up on kick-outs. That isn’t new, obviously, but the more teams do it, the more risks they take.
A great example of it came on Saturday night as Armagh went for the jugular against Donegal early in the second half. They pushed 11 players up for a kick-out but Shaun Patton got the ball away quickly. It meant that when Michael Langan got the ball, even though he was still inside his own 65, eight Armagh players were out of the game. That meant only six Armagh players between him and the goal at the other end of the pitch, all of them with Donegal players to mark, dragging them in all directions.
Langan knew this. Just before he got the ball, he had a look over his shoulder and could see the whole of the pitch lying open in front of him. It’s not often you see a player thinking of a goal while standing inside his own 65 but you could tell by the way Langan demanded the ball that he knew it was on. As soon as he got it, he was away.
With decoy runners opening up the middle for him, he ran straight down the heart of the Armagh defence and buried it to the roof of the net. A quality goal from a quality player.
More than ever, there are plenty of them about.