Danny Hughes: Down need to rediscover their identity

Connaire Harrison (centre) was part of a two-man Down inside forward line against Cork at Pairc Esler. His fellow attacker Donal O’Hare barely touched the ball in the first half Picture: Philip Walsh

FOR about five minutes on Sunday morning, I missed National League games. Granted, I was looking out the window with the benefit of a warm house and a warm cup of tea. It was the crisp and dry day which made me reminisce.

I stepped outside and the cold hit me. I imagined the sting of a block or being caught on the lug with a flailing arm.

As I made my way to Pairc Esler, memories of the All-Ireland final with Cork eight years previous haunted me still.

Forget about the subsequent League beatings we took to the same team after. On that September day we blew a game we never thought we would lose.

Cork won National League titles in 2010, 2011 and 2012. They were beaten in three All-Ireland finals from 2007 to 2009 and won their only one since in 2010.

Cork could justifiably claim that they never received due recognition for any of those latter achievements. Indeed, I have heard many say that Cork won a ‘soft’ All-Ireland that year.

Any All-Ireland winner will tell you that there is no such thing as a ‘handy’ All-Ireland.

Only Colm O’Neill is a survivor from 2010, tellingly a sub that year. He is now the main man and one of the reasons Cork beat Down comfortably last Sunday.

Much has changed for both counties since 2010. Indeed, football has changed and, from what I see, it is virtually unrecognisable in the space of eight short years.

I doubt that there has been such a seismic shift in playing pattern and tactics in the history of the GAA, as demonstrated via the emergence of a combination of Donegal, Kerry and the Dubs.

For example, our kick-out strategy was a total shambles in the second half of the All-Ireland final in 2010 and, with the benefit of hindsight in today’s game, we would have gone short on nearly every occasion in order to retain possession.

Cork were bossing midfield at the time and we lived on scraps in the second half. The best option would have been to by-pass the area completely.

We never played with a sweeper either. Nowadays, you wouldn’t see a match without at least one or two players spare in defence and, as Sunday’s game between Cork and Down demonstrated, both teams played almost identically.

Cork won last weekend because they had better forwards who were capable of kicking excellent scores from play and from frees.

This contest was wrapped up with 15 minutes remaining, the goal being a fortuitous one.

Down started poorly, but for the 30 minutes either side of the first 15, Down showed great determination and indeed played the better football for long periods.

For the entire game, Eamonn Burns’s side played with a two-man full-forward line. I felt sorry for Donal O’Hare who partnered Connaire Harrison in the full-forward line.

I literally don’t recall Donal touching the ball in the first half.

Who would be a corner-forward these days and play such a selfless game?

If I were in Eamonn Burns’s position I would be doing everything I could to solve Down’s midfield problem.

This is the second week in-a-row Down have been bossed here as Louth and Cork both enjoyed total domination in that area.

Caolan Mooney had his best 30 minutes for Down in the first period and Darren O’Hagan was again a real leader at the back.

If Down are to build on last year’s improvement, they need to rediscover an identity. You still get the feeling that their play continues to lack direction and if pitted against Dublin, Kerry or Tyrone, those really organised teams will expose this weakness and it will end up painful in the end.

It is still early days and after two games you will get the usual

kneejerk reactions from despondent supporters across many counties.

While Tyrone and Donegal are yet to register wins, I still fancy both teams to be Ulster finalists this year.

Donegal have more to be cheerful about their situation, even at this early stage.

For me, the difference appears to be Donegal possessing more dangerous forwards.

Tyrone could take the entire ’03, ’05 and ’08 team back into their management ranks, but the truth is that their forward line at that time was a once-in-a-generation unit.

Neither Tyrone, Down or Armagh seem to be producing the type of forward they were previously blessed with.

Even in Down, players like John ‘Shorty’ Treanor, who played for the great Burren All-Ireland-winning teams, were considered to be one in a lifetime players who decided games. While county honours eluded him, you often had GAA supporters coming from all over Ireland to watch him play such was his ability.

Whether this is coincidental or not, those types of club players appear really sparse across Ulster football in general.

Maybe that’s a tad harsh. But you feel that the introduction of defensive sweepers and massed defences have stifled the development of creative players from a young age.

Many have been over-coached and team systems have been prioritised over freedom of expression.

While Kerry, Dublin and Mayo have demonstrated the ability to produce a higher calibre of forward in the last few years, I am beginning to question if there is a common denominator in Ulster football.

Forwards win games.

In most team sports, the finishers are the more valuable commodity.

However, the ball simply doesn’t go directly into the full-forward anymore.

Peter Canavan, Mickey Linden and Steven McDonnell are inside forwards who will go down in any

of the greatest 15 players picked

of their respective generations.

Nowadays, much like Donal O’Hare last Sunday, even those great names could go through an entire 30 minutes of football and literally not touch the ball within 30 metres of the opponents’ goal.

The shift in how the game is played is a painful journey for many players and supporters too.

At times, the groans from the stands at the games tell their own story.

In days gone by, a football match was escapism for many players, managers and supporters and a place of expression and freedom.

Increasingly it is a place of frustration and hopelessness.

The great aristocratic teams in football all over the country have shifted to pragmatism.

The playbook is endless lateral fist-passing and playing ‘through the phases’. Winning is all that matters now. It is not important how this is achieved.

While I miss the game hugely, I am equally glad to have played when I did.

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