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

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.

Effective rules
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?”

They are nearly always cagey in the opening 10 minutes but after that they are playable. Tyrone are the masters of that. They figure out the referee’s mindset before most teams and take full advantage.

I thought Joe McQuillan wasn’t a factor in Mayo against Donegal. He stuck by his rules and let Mayo go about their hugely improved tackling technique.

Cormac Reilly also did fine in a very cynical Monaghan and Tyrone contest, but the inconsistency of refereeing makes you want to scream.

I initially thought Kieran Hughes’ red card, for a second yellow, was harsh but on reflection he had to go. After Martin Penrose walked after half-time I was convinced one of the three Monaghan boys on yellow wouldn’t be long following him. It took 12 minutes.

Those on a yellow needed to be aware that so much as touching an opponent is no longer an option. Malachy O’Rourke had already subbed off Dermot Malone so the two Hughes and Kieran Duffy needed to tip toe around Croke Park.

Again, look at Tyrone. As soon as Cavanagh got the yellow his defensive duties were over. His work was done. He even let Darren Hughes race past without obstruction. He knew his value to the team was better served getting on ball and linking the play, killing the game.

The light is shining on Cavanagh now because it was his third yellow for a third rugby tackle in as many games. Right man in the right place at the right time.

The McManus incident overshadowed the fact Monaghan were fouling away all night.

So were Cavan against Kerry. Every time Colm Cooper got the ball he was pulled down by whichever Cavan player could get a hold of him. It was undoubtedly systematic.

The difference is Tyrone make sure every foul counts. There is method, be it to slow an attack or deny a certain score. They have always played percentage football under Mickey Harte.

Physical specimen
Anyway, it was a weekend when the best midfielders soared above the rest. Top of the pile being Aidan O’Shea. Not alone was he dominant from kick outs but he was awesome in all areas of midfield play. He is some physical specimen and clearly in the best condition of his adult life.

A typical midfielder, being a handsome looking divil, and so naturally powerful in the mould of Willie Joe Padden. Just ask Frankie McGlynn, who ran into a brick wall early on. O’Shea got a yellow for that and his second booking came at the very end.

This is a worry for Mayo and O’Shea. Tyrone will test his discipline to its core.

For any midfielder to dominate you need your partner to have the edge on his man and in Séamus O’Shea, the big brother provided a subtle counterpoint. He did a heap of dirty work.

Seeing your younger brother going so well in the heat of championship lifts you. It’s not a conscious or even competitive thing, it just automatically gets the juices flowing.

Unfortunately, for the viewing public, I don’t think the much anticipated square-off between the younger O’Shea and older Cavanagh brother will come to pass in the semi-final.

It would be a waste of James Horan’s resources to put Aidan O’Shea on Seán Cavanagh and I don’t think it would interest Mickey Harte either. So, Séamus will probably go to Seán with Colm Cavanagh tasked with containing the mighty Aidan.

You see, Seán Cavanagh cheats a little as a midfielder. It’s what makes him so effective around the field. He rarely goes for kick outs. Against Monaghan he did field some ball but it is closer to the posts that we see his majesty. He normally sprints off the 45 into that pocket between the half forwards and fullback line.

He clearly still possesses the pace we saw decimate defences in 2008. He can just burn defenders off, either using his trademark shuffle or movement, he just knows how to lose the man. This is allied by some excellent shooting statistics. When he slips into the zone he can’t miss.

Another man cutting a swath through the middle third on Saturday night was Michael Darragh Macauley. A tough, hardy footballer, he was just as impressive as O’Shea and Cavanagh in the physical stakes.

Again, his partner in the bear pit, Cian O’Sullivan, did the unfussy work that allowed Macauley run the show.

But their midfield are only as good as Stephen Cluxton allows them to be. If a team is switched on for Cluxton’s kick outs, which Cork did for a time and Meath did for the entire game, and push up on them, they struggle to function.

Teams know this now. Kerry’s younger forwards will be switched on to this.

Sticking with the midfielder theme, Kerry can take a lot from David Moran’s showing against Cavan, especially after the late withdrawal of Anthony Maher. He wasn’t as dominant as O’Shea, Aidan Walsh or Macauley but after two cruciate operations in as many seasons his ability to get up to Sunday’s standard took a herculean effort.

Apparent flaws
There is much mulling still but I have a funny feeling Kerry will beat Dublin. Based on what you might wonder? I just think Dublin are not as good as they look. Cork were poor. Now, Jim Gavin’s team are not far off an awesome display but some flaws are apparent.

You can look at Kerry and say players like Tomás Ó Sé, Paul Galvin and Colm Cooper are getting on but they’ve had Dublin’s number in the past.

Kerry will go at their strengths. Cavan are a nightmare to play against. They park the bus before a ball is kicked. Dublin are the opposite, a way more adventurous side who look to play the ball straight away.

Kerry, knowing that, will set up differently and might just embrace the “we’ll score more than you” challenge that will be laid at their feet. If they play the way they can play I would trust our forwards more than Dublins.

We learnt that Paul Mannion can be rattled, even against poor opposition, and Bernard Brogan is not scoring at all. It also looked like the game wasn’t serious enough for Diarmuid Connolly. He could have finished with 2-3 but an “I’ll-play-if-needed” attitude radiated off him. Kerry can target Mannion and Connolly. Turn strengths into weaknesses.

That said, I wouldn’t say a bad word about Ciarán Kilkenny’s upward curve. But that’s for another day. I also think all this talk about yellow cards and cynical fouling and refereeing will become background noise now.

None of that will win Tyrone an All-Ireland. They know that only too well. It’s the football in them or one of the other three remaining counties that gets you home from here.

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