In idle moments – of which there are many in this job, and exponentially more when you’re sent to cover Ulster football – there are few of us who haven’t been given to wonder: “What Ever Became Of Viola?” As yet another team stands off yet another goalkeeper chipping yet another short kick-out to yet another corner-back, the ultimate fate of the Brazilian footballer who came on as a sub in the 1994 World Cup final will often wander across the barren landscape between the ears.
In the dullest Brazilian team ever to win the World Cup, Viola came off the bench in extra-time in the final and basically started running rings around everyone. He almost literally had 15 minutes of fame, coming on in the 106th minute of the 120. He was such a mesmerising dribbler that at one point he actually seemed to mesmerise himself into falling over with half the Italian team twisted into spirals behind him.
And then he was never heard of again. He didn’t take a penalty in the shoot-out, he didn’t move to the Premier League – which in those days was pretty much the only way to keep track of an exotic sort like him. He came and went like subliminal advertising. You were pretty sure you saw what you saw but it was just so unlikely that you were open to being argued out of it.
The longer this summer has gone on, the more the hurling and football championships have cried out for a Viola. Someone to come in and send a jolt of pure spontaneity through the thing. Someone to lift it out of the functional, professional, take-the-right-option rut it has got stuck in.
It seems like a stupid thing to be complaining about. Like walking out of a gig moaning that the band were too tight and played too faithfully to the album. But there’s no doubt that the ever-so well-drilled proficiency of the aspiring middle-ranked teams in football and hurling has turned this into a summer of stalemate.
This weekend passed in Croke Park like so many have before it since May. Good teams who have been well-coached facing off against one another and waiting for the other one to blink. Tyrone and Monaghan was a predictable grind, Mayo and Donegal bubbled for a while without ever shifting the lid, Kilkenny and Waterford had its fate sealed as soon as TJ Reid knocked in his goal midway through the first half. We have five games left and still we wait for something to remember the year by.
In the culture wars, it sometimes feels like you’re nobody if you don’t take a side. But of course it’s entirely possible and reasonable to be able to get excited about Donegal at their best and still quietly wish for Armageddon to come as two packed defences goad each other across the battlefield like Monaghan and Tyrone. And there doesn’t have to be a contradiction between lauding Waterford’s system and secretly counting the days until Tipp and Kilkenny meet again.
Derek McGrath had an interesting take on the future of his young team yesterday. McGrath often talks in half-sentences after a game, as though his thoughts appear to overlap on their way out to meet the world. But he’s never less than sincere and honest.
“I feel that when the likes of the guys that are 19 or 20 will be 23 or 24, I won’t say there’ll be a different approach from Waterford but there will certainly be . . . if any observer thinks the game will ultimately unbelievably change from fellas dropping back to help their . . . you know if a wing-forward wins a ball and the opposing wing-forward is not going to drop back and help – I don’t see a huge shift there. But I think going forward we’d obviously hope to try and take down Kilkenny and Tipperary [and to do that] I think you have to add goals to your game anyway.”
Translated, McGrath is no fundamentalist. Waterford’s defensive system suited them this year as they tried to find their feet but they were very obviously hamstrung by it as Kilkenny pulled away. There were times too when they looked over-coached, with players looking to the sideline for guidance as to what to do with frees late on. In time, he will surely aim to have them skilled enough and confident enough to play a more orthodox game.
That’s the thing. For all the advances made by the mid-ranking teams in football and hurling, the All-Irelands are still being won by the sides whose main aim is to attack.
The ignorant abuse of Donegal in some quarters ignores the fact that their 2012 All-Ireland was built on some of the most thrilling attacking seen in Croke Park for years. Packed defences will only get you so far.
Which is why, for all the bellyaching, ultimately you have to be confident there will be a natural correction as time passes. We will have our summers, we will have our Violas to entrance us.
Actually, just googled him there. Turns out he had to be carted off the pitch by three riot police for chasing a referee after he was sent off in a club game in 1998. Careful what you wish for, eh?