Kevin McStay: Beautiful chaos of All-Ireland to end in a Dublin-Mayo final
The competitive nature of Championship has been a refreshing change from the Super 8s
Dublin’s James McCarthy with Mayo’s Lee Keegan after the 2019 All-Ireland semi-finals. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The composition of this weekend’s All-Ireland semi-finalists helps to clarify the ongoing discussion about the championship. This extraordinary year, by accident rather than design, has given an alternative glimpse of what the competition could become. It comes down to a basic question. Do we want an All-Ireland that is designed to find the four best teams, or the four teams who play the best football and therefore make it through?
Let’s try and remember the old order. 2019 seems a long time ago, does it not? Try and put yourself in that place where the Super 8s are about to begin. Does anyone really want to return to that format?
The experiment is only two years in but already the Super 8s have a tired feel to them. Here’s a quick troll of teams who have played in All-Ireland semi-finals from 2011 to 2019. Dublin 9; Kerry 8; Mayo 8; Tyrone 5; Donegal 2, Tipperary 1, Monaghan 1 Galway 1 Cork 1.
There is a hype to the Super 8s and qualifiers that is just nonsense
These are simple statistics but make for stark reading. And what they tell us is that the old qualifiers and the innovation of the Super 8s have led to an overwhelmingly predictable outcome by the time the season reaches the last four. So if you want the four strongest teams in the semi-final then the system works.
But you flip it to this year and you get week after week of beautiful chaos. All we know about this year’s final four is that one of the top four teams will play. Dublin are the undisputed number one. Mayo have made it through but they are in the middle of a major transition. They had 10 rookies in the Connacht final, including four substitutes. They underwhelmed against Roscommon and Galway. They won. They are probably a top four team but it is debatable. Cavan and Tipperary simply are not. They are both Division Three teams in 2021. Dublin are 1-100 to win this weekend. Tipperary are 4-1. That is good value but those are serious odds-on numbers. And yet they are here on championship merit and deserve their shot at the title. Isn’t that wonderful?
And it got me thinking: how do we consistently get these things wrong? I took out the Irish Times championship preview for fun. It reads like a comic at this stage. And we are all guilty. We all got our forecasts wrong. And don’t I know since I started playing and coaching and commentating that there are shocks? That surprises happen? See, I think the Super 8s removed that ‘danger-here’ filter. They removed the chance of the unexpected. The qualifiers were an alternative route and even if a strong team got caught in the provincial system, they invariably turned up in the Super 8s. And the Super 8 format just hammers home the advantages of the stronger teams.
So the appearance of Cavan and Tipperary this weekend is a direct correlation of the one-and-done knock-out system. What everyone is proclaiming- rightly- as a wonderful championship is down to the elimination of the second chance for the big counties.
So again: when we define what we want out of this, if it isn’t about finance or television or venues, then you have to say that the Super 8s are not helping the second, third of fourth tier teams. This year has shown us that the chaos of knockout games works better for those counties.
There is a hype to the Super 8s and qualifiers that is just nonsense. It is dragged out and marketed to the point of absurdity even though everyone knows who is going to make the last four. The old quarter finals at least provided the aura of unpredictability occasionally, with Fermanagh shocking Armagh in 2004 and Tipperary coming through in 2016.
That won’t happen - ever - with the Super 8s in their current format.
In short: it is time to reimagine the All-Ireland. And the GAA has shown us this winter that when they are put to it, they are capable of great imaginative feats.
Injuries and form and operating in a restricted time frame changes things. Operating under the restrictions of Covid has been an added stress
The Jim McGuinness model, outlined here on Saturday, is very well thought out and it would take very few tweaks to make a compelling league-linked championship. It could be open draw or seeded. Venues would become a massive part of it. The argument that Dublin would win anywhere is fine: they do, but not by the same margins. And players have to be put first. Just roll back everything.
Let’s just stop and sober up for a while. Let’s call time on an All-Ireland Championship that got out of control. It ultimately meant very little to many GAA people. And the financial hit of a shorter All-Ireland may not be as severe as feared because you could electrify the leagues. There would be fewer games but of greater significance, meaning more people would go and watch them.
Can you imagine the excitement of the previous four or five weeks if there were crowds at those games? The country would be upside down. The joy and excitement it has generated is special. Would a condensed championship be expensive for supporters? Yes. So: drop the prices. Do we need these millions in revenues? I know treasurers would be thrilled with this shortened season. It means they have a life again and they can get on with things rather than fretting over how to come up with a million quid to run an inter county set up. This winter has shone a light on what is possible.
So this time next week we will know the pairing for the 2020 final. I am expecting a close encounter in just one of these games. We have had 5 close games in this years’ championship. I can’t remember that happening before. Let’s consider why that might be.
These are the variables.
The weather has been a major factor. The wind, the rain and slippery ball, the soft pitches narrows the perceived gap between teams. And some of the pitches were literally narrow - a lot more so than Croke Park. Injuries and form and operating in a restricted time frame changes things. Operating under the restrictions of Covid has been an added stress.
And finally: the referee and the officials. The men in black have had a huge role in the outcome of these tightly contested games. Overall I think the officiating was good. But there is still a huge burden of responsibility on the referee and the issue of wrong or erroneous calls has had a big influence on the outcomes of games
There is every chance it will be punishing against Dublin but they will learn from it and take it as part of the overall season’s experience
Let’s focus on one development: the mark. For instance, Dublin’s recent win over Meath featured two or three marks and they were nowhere near the designated 20 metres between kicker and catcher. It is an unsatisfactory initiative and very difficult to officiate. Many people flagged this at the beginning. How do you gauge an agreed travel length of 20 metres and from outside the 45 and ensure that it was from open play? And that you then blow the whistle? And that the receiver gets his shot away in 15 seconds? It’s a very messy undertaking for the official in the middle of a hectic game.
Joke of a thing
And it is going to cause an outrageous error. It is well named because the mark is offensive. It has done nothing for foot passing or high fielding. It is a joke of a thing. And there were other instances when marks should have been awarded and weren’t. So this may become a big, big problem in a tight All-Ireland final. All I will say is: I hope the High Court is open over Christmas. It is an accident waiting to happen.
The referee is only human. So is the player. So is the manager. Look at Down and Cavan in the Ulster semi- final. It is a free in to Cavan: a set play. The old square ball rule applies. A Cavan player leaves the field of play to gain an advantage as the ball arrives in the square. That is illegal. He arrives in the square before the ball. He fouls the keeper. And there is a row. And then a penalty is awarded to Cavan. That is the comeback that propels Cavan to an Ulster championship. And fair play to them. But the officiating was fast and loose in the build-up to that score. And it had a huge bearing on the championship.
I mentioned previously that the water breaks give a clear advantage to the team defending the subsequent kick-out. Some referees have failed to call one apiece so that each team restarts one water break. This stuff matters in tight games.
I don’t see a whole lot of joy for Cavan this weekend. Regardless of what happens, the experience won’t be damaging to them. What they have achieved is sealed and will remain a win for the ages. There is every chance it will be punishing against Dublin but they will learn from it and take it as part of the overall season’s experience. It is part of their development curve. They are playing a football team in a different realm to them right now. What is interesting is to see how they go about it. Do they dig in or have a cut? My sense is that Mickey Graham will do the latter.
This game holds the potential to deliver another shock
I think the reality is that the second game is the more evenly poised encounter - although my expectation is that Mayo will prevail. They have been good at this stage of the championship for a long time. Tipp are solid with some exceptional forwards. Mayo have yet to fire in the full forward line. If they can synchronise then they will do damage.
The big worry as a Mayo supporter is that they are actually an inexperienced team. And Tipp are actually on the go for a while. If you go through it - Maher, Kiely, Sweeney, Comerford, Quinlivan, O’Brien, Fox - these names are very recognisble to us all. Colin O’Riordan is a true game changer and he has had a further chance to develop an enhanced understanding with his team mates since the Munster final. This game holds the potential to deliver another shock.
But my sense is that an astonishing season will reach its crescendo with a familiar pairing.