Darragh Ó Sé: Dublin boring? It’s a privilege to see them evolve
No point viewing football championship through the prism of hurling’s great summer
James McCarthy. 'I would say Jim Gavin hasn’t said five sentences to him this year. He knows what has to be done and he does it.' Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Long ago, I learned my lesson about picking my battles. I thought of it a few weeks back when all the stuff was going around about managers being sent letters abusing them.
To be honest, I found it a bit surreal the way people were talking about this as if it was news or that it was a modern thing. As far as I can see, managers have been getting those letters as long as people have been able to find a postbox.
When Páidí was Kerry manager, he used to get at least half a dozen of them every week – and that was just in the winter. If any of the fine penmen sending him post thought they were going to get anywhere doing it, they picked the wrong soldier. They were mistaking him for somebody who would give the blindest bit of notice to what anyone thought of him. Sorry fellas, go sell crazy someplace else.
No, Páidí didn’t care high up or low down what anyone said to him in a letter. He barely gave a damn about what anyone said to his face, never mind words on a bit of paper. Instead, he used them for sport. He used keep them and then bring them out in the pub below in Ventry so he could read them out to the locals sitting at the bar.
I made the mistake of walking straight into one of his storytelling sessions one evening. I’d often drop in to see him or just see who was around the place but, on this particular night, I wasn’t long finding out I’d have been better off at home. I walked through the door and he was holding court and when he looked up and saw me, he had a big welcome.
“Darragh boy, come in, come in, look at what I got,” he said.
And he proceeded to flash this letter with three or four paragraphs of ‘advice’ for him and the Kerry team in general. It was hot and heavy enough stuff now, if you were in the mood to take it on board. Páidí laughed his way through it though before making a big show of pausing before the last bit and telling everyone that it wasn’t just him who was in the line of fire.
“They’re gone after you too,” he said to me, delighted with himself. “Look, down here, the last bit’s all you. Jesus, do you know what? They know their stuff too – they’re spot on about you!”
Now, I was young at the time but I wasn’t stupid. What was I going to do? Get thick about it? Storm out in a huff at being embarrassed in front of everyone? Not a hope. You pick your battles. You know when you’re beaten.
That’s why I can’t understand all this moaning and groaning over the football championship and how it’s been a bad summer compared to the one they’ve had in hurling. Forget for a minute whether it’s been a bad summer or not – what relevance has the hurling to that conversation?
I saw somebody saying the other day that it’s time to switch the hurling and football finals around so that we can end the season on a high. But why group them together at all? They’re different sports, played by mostly different people and definitely cared about by different people. Can we not just let hurling be hurling and football be football?
Pick your battles, lads. I’ve loved watching the hurling all summer. I have a footballer’s untrained eye but even I can see that it’s a game that’s in good order at the top level these days.
But I remember too that it’s only a couple of years since a great All-Ireland semi-final between Galway and Tipperary was being welcomed like a lost child by hurling people who hadn’t seen a decent game all summer. These things go round and round.
But just because it has been so brilliant, it doesn’t have to automatically mean that the football has been terrible. The more people compare the two, the more people will think that way. Not only is it pointless, it distorts the way people think about both games. It just becomes accepted – hurling good, football bad. Next thing you know, everyone turns into the bore in the corner who says a bad hurling match beats a good football match any day.
We’re all around long enough at this stage to know that’s nonsense. And anyway, for what it’s worth, I don’t think the football championship has been bad at all. Every year has good games and bad games, brilliant teams and lesser teams. Hurling hides its lesser teams away in competitions that aren’t on the TV and doesn’t let them play matches against the top counties. When all you’re fed is the best of the best playing against each other, there’s far more chance of it being good most of the time.
The way people talk about it, you’d swear every football match this summer was a dog of a thing. But that’s just not true. There were plenty of good ones. Some of them weren’t on TV – like the first Tyrone v Monaghan game above in Omagh or the Laois v Wexford game that went to extra-time after Laois gave Wexford a 10-point headstart or Armagh’s win over Clare in the qualifiers when they scored 1-5 in the last few minutes to rob it.
Nobody saw these games live except the people who were there so they didn’t create any sort of buzz. RTÉ showed Cork v Clare in hurling instead of Tyrone v Monaghan. The other two games were probably never going to be on TV anyway but Laois v Wexford clashed with Galway’s first game of their All-Ireland defence and Armagh v Clare was on the weekend of the provincial hurling finals. All they were ever going to get was a few minutes on The Sunday Game at the end of a busy weekend.
Some of the other good games were on Sky or on a Saturday or both – Kildare v Mayo, Roscommon v Armagh. Tyrone v Meath was a thriller but all anyone did that night was give out that extra-time took away from the hurling match between Kilkenny and Wexford that was on after it.
There were plenty of bad games too, of course. There always are. The Munster championship was chronic this year, Ulster wasn’t a whole pile better. Galway v Mayo was a big let-down – you can see they’re fairly sick of playing each other so early in the championship every year at this stage.
But even bad games can have good stories attached to them. Fermanagh v Monaghan was no picnic to watch but it finished with a brilliant twist at the end. Carlow didn’t win many new fans for their style of play but everyone loved the story of Carlow Rising. Kildare were such a disappointment early on but they turned their summer around with Newbridge Or Nowhere.
The major problem for the football championship was that its big shiny new idea didn’t pan out to be all that engaging in the end. The first weekend of the Super-8s was a bit of a wash-out – three one-sided games and one half-exciting one, all played in a half-empty Croke Park. That set the tone and no matter what came after it, people were down on it now for good. Even a couple of mighty games between Monaghan and Kerry and Galway and Kildare the following weekend didn’t turn people around.
Hanging over it all is the fact that everyone has more or less handed the All-Ireland to Dublin already. That’s understandable.
You didn’t hear many people roaring about the brilliant hurling summers of the late 2000s when Kilkenny were motoring away to their four-in-a-row. This was a great hurling year because not only were the games exciting but you could have picked any one of five or six teams who had a chance of winning it. Nobody thinks that about football.
It doesn’t help either that the Dubs have changed their style of play. They don’t take on the low percentage shots now. They don’t try to go for glory. They’re just patient and meticulous and they pick you apart bit by bit. The days of Diarmuid Connolly and Paul Flynn and Bernard Brogan blitzing you with big scores from all distances and angles are gone. Now it’s all about keeping possession and waiting for your moment.
I hear some people giving out about this and I get it. But I don’t agree with it. I love watching them figure out their way around opposition teams. Football has become so much more defensive over the past decade, purely with them in mind. So watching them come up with the answer to all that is great to watch.
Think about what they’ve done and what they’re trying to do. Some of them have five All-Ireland medals now and are 70 minutes away from their sixth. When you’ve tasted that, it becomes the only thing you can taste. Your desire for everything else doesn’t compete. You have no interest in doing things with flair or thrilling the crowd. Get the medal, get the cup, get it done. That’s all that matters.
Towards the end of my playing career, that was the attitude in the Kerry dressing-room. We had been on the road a long time and I’d say the older ones among us were a pain in the ass to some of the younger lads. You become conservative without even realising it.
The longer you go on, the more you want to tighten everything up, the more importance you place on not making any mistakes
I remember a final against Cork in 2007 when we had been totally ruthless in breaking them down and carrying out every bit of the game plan to the letter. We were well away in the clear. Seán O’Sullivan came off the bench when we were eight or nine points up in the second half and one of the first things he did was try an outside-of-the-boot pass that didn’t come off.
I bollocked him straight away, gave him a right earful. Looking back, the game was well won at that stage and there was very little harm in trying something like that. But that’s just the mode you get yourself into. I see it in the Dubs now – they are close to something that’s been done so rarely in history and their instinct is to play it tight, make no mistakes, play conservative.
The longer you go on, the more you want to tighten everything up, the more importance you place on not making any mistakes. To be able to develop a whole new way of playing five years into Jim Gavin’s era shows what a mature bunch they are. I would say Jim Gavin hasn’t said five sentences to James McCarthy this year. He knows what has to be done and he does it. They play these games on autopilot now – they stick to the script and grind the other teams into the ground.
I just think it’s so admirable that they’re able to do this. There’s no let-up, no show of weakness. Gavin keeps bringing in younger guys to keep it fresh and they just keep swiping other teams out of the way. They’re a machine and as a football fan, it’s a privilege to watch them.
For some people, it’s boring. That’s their own look-out. We’ll probably keep watching, one way or the other.