Football is about the horizon, not the rear-view mirror

End-game in sight: you can’t always get what you want so make the best of what you have

Media interaction with teams nowadays is generally conducted in environments sufficiently sterile for use in the fight against the Ebola virus. Yet the old days weren’t always carefree.

The late Paddy Downey once recalled how his All-Ireland week visit to the farm of 1968 Wexford hurling captain Dan Quigley had ended fruitlessly.

Warm welcome

It had started really well with a warm welcome from the family and an invitation to sit down while an impossible spread of fried meats were prepared and served with tea and homemade bread. This would pass the time until Dan returned from a distant field.

Eventually the tractor could be heard and Paddy went out to the yard to state his business. Quigley, with characteristic courtesy, declined the interview, leaving the guest with a feeling that would familiar to reporters of later generations: full tummy but hungry notebook.


It was Wexford's fourth All-Ireland final that decade – but they were the variety element on the big day against a Tipperary team, approaching an eighth final in 11 years.

The GAA needs that variety: attendance figures fluctuate each year and ultimately the appeal of a fixture depends on who is contesting it and that is the luck of the draw.

Neither can the GAA stop teams winning. Periods of domination by exceptional teams certainly aren’t good for the box office. When Kerry under Mick O’Dwyer were in their pomp semi-final attendances sometimes fell close to 20,000.

In the days of Kilkenny’s hurling imperium, a Croke Park administrator privately wondered would the All-Ireland finals continue to sell out.

Similar fretting about Dublin football has become commonplace recently although you don't have to be Zhou Enlai to consider it a bit early to reach conclusive judgment on that. Dublin may win this year's All-Ireland without being excessively troubled but that would be a first in modern times and should the bookies be correct about the weekend's matches, the champions will be joined in the All-Ireland semi-finals by the three counties who have the greatest chance of toppling them.

So, a championship that might be judged predictable by the end of the year isn’t as easy to call with any certainty in August.

Too routine

There are also concerns as to whether the football championship structure has become too routine and the qualifiers have tailed off their original course, which seemed to be spreading big days around a greater number of counties.

So it's a bit of a surprise to find the All-Ireland semi-finals of the qualifier age, from 2001 to date, have been contested by 14 counties – which would rise to 15 should Monaghan beat Dublin this weekend – whereas the 14 semi-finals just before 2001 featured 18 different counties.

Under the old format, a greater number of counties had the opportunity to play in a semi-final.

Although five counties – Roscommon, Laois, Westmeath, Sligo and Monaghan – won provincial titles and never got to an All-Ireland semi-final, there were four – Fermanagh, Wexford, Kildare and Down – who in the period under review did reach semi-finals without winning their province at any stage during the last 14 years.

The benefits of the championship format lie, however, in its originally new round of All-Ireland quarter-finals, which tests provincial champions and has come to mark, albeit unofficially, the cut-off point for the best teams of a particular year.

Shorthand for achievement

Getting as far as the August holiday has become shorthand for achievement, either as a measure of progress for teams like


and Armagh this year or as the necessary stepping-stone towards the most glittering of prizes.

The figures here are more striking in that between 2001 and this year, 21 counties have reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Roughly two-thirds of the country have known the achievement of reaching the top table and playing a hand against the best teams around.

Back in 1968 and faced with an unwilling interviewee Paddy Downey, who loved the works of Patrick Kavanagh, would have appreciated the poem Epic in which Kavanagh compares impending war in Europe with local squabbles and despairs that there are no mighty themes to be written about in his parish.

“Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind. He said: I made the Iliad from such

A local row. Gods make their own importance”.

He could equally have consoled himself with the lyrics from a song recorded just a couple of months later in the same year by the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want, But if you try sometimes you just might find You get what you need.”

It could also be a message for the six teams left in the football championship. No one can tell the future. Make the best of what you have now.