Enda McGinley: Donegal starting to look like the real deal
IT appears that time flies even if you’re not enjoying yourself. Even trying to be positive, it is hard to argue against the perception that this early portion of the football Championship has failed to garner the enthusiasm or interest we like to associate with the start of summer.
Yet, here we are on the cusp of the summer’s main action including the next round of Qualifiers, provincial finals and, of course, the looming Super 8 quarter-finals, so let’s take stock of where things are at.
Away from the action itself, notable early-season issues for me are crowds, coverage and small ball jealousy.
I’m a big ball man, always have been and always will be. In years gone by I reconciled myself to the fact that while hurling was exceptionally skilful, it was ignorant from a tactics point of view, being essentially catch it and hit it, like football of a bygone era.
Additionally, you had the almost complete dominance of Kilkenny with only one or two teams getting anywhere close.
Fast forward a decade and the shoe has truly moved foot.
While Dublin are doing their best to make everyone else irrelevant, the tactical evolution which ran through football from the 90s and Noughties has stalled at the blanket defence.
Teams are either unsure or lacking the necessary talent to move beyond the very effective and proven tactic of massing players behind the ball.
While it doesn’t ruin games, it can turn many into chores to watch. Now, I have no doubt there were plenty of bad games in the past but expansive open games across both club and county appear an increasing rarity.
There are, of course, things to admire, or maybe more accurately, intrigue, regarding defensive games but I think anyone would struggle to argue they show our games at their best, especially compared with hurling, which is showing off like a peacock in all its finery at the minute.
I mentioned last week that the success of the likes of Fermanagh, Carlow and Laois, and the joyous scenes which accompanied them, can be used as arguments against a two-tier system. However, there is an obvious contrast with hurling.
Hurling, with its scarcely believable five tiers, has foregone the romanticism, and occasional great underdog victories, for regular competition between top teams. At present, that appears to be the correct choice in terms of outright entertainment and quality.
The Super 8s will be a key test as to whether football is still great when played on a competitively even field or whether the predominance of defensive tactics has left it the poor relation.
These defensive tactics and one-sided games have been suggested as potential reasons for the worrying attendance figures to date.
Other reasons include ticket prices and lack of media coverage. Rather than one or the other, it is likely a combination of all of the above.
The old argument in GAA was that too much TV coverage would lessen attendances. That has not held any truth in the past when attendance figures continued to rise despite increased TV and it certainly has been exposed as a myth this year when attendances went down despite the least live coverage in years.
Every other sport or business in the world craves as much TV coverage as it can get to drive exposure and interest, participation and, of course, financial gain.
The fact that us GAA folk felt the opposite might be true shouldn’t be a surprise and no doubt the somewhat hollow ‘grab all’ jibes will still be rolled out when the GAA come around to renegotiating their TV rights deal earlier than planned, as I think they must.
Ideally that will go hand-in-hand with an overhaul of Championship structures. This may once have been considered sacrilegious but, thanks to hurling’s success, innovation now looks like a more obvious and necessary step than ever before.
On the playing front too, there have been some notable early trends.
Declan Bonnar’s Donegal were going for more attacking football early in the Allianz League which, when not working, turned more pragmatic as they tried to rescue their Division One status.
Maybe they were trying to play summer football in winter because now that the sun is on their backs, the attacking verve is starting to click.
Their depth of attacking talent is unmatched in Ulster, with only Kerry and Dublin able to claim similar breadth of quality options.
Of course, it’s true they haven’t been truly tested but the suspicion that they are the real deal is growing on me with every game.
For the rest of the Ulster counties, apart from Fermanagh, it has been a mixed bag with teams still struggling to find their best line-ups and style of play.
The longer they stay in the back door, the stronger teams will become and the likes of Tyrone and Monaghan still have big opportunities to turn their seasons right around.
By the end of the League, the consensus regarding likely Ulster teams to contest the inaugural Super 8, would have seen Tyrone and Monaghan considered our strongest candidates, with Donegal and Cavan next up and Armagh, Down and Fermanagh all being in with a shout but needing a bit of luck in terms of the draws.
Only two months later and the landscape has changed substantially.
Antrim and Derry have unfortunately already exited the competitions, confirming the assumption they would fall short early on.
At the top end, things have moved quite a bit.
Of all the Ulster teams, Donegal look to be the strongest candidate for making it. Fermanagh, assuming they fail to repeat their David v Goliath act, will, like Tyrone and Monaghan, be dependent on decent draws in the back door.
Providing they all negotiate their round two ties, the four Division One sides – Mayo, Monaghan, Tyrone and Kildare – can be drawn against each other in the round three of the Qualifiers.
From a GAA perspective, the ideal scenario is for all four teams to make it to the new quarter-final stage.
Fixing of draws is an age-old GAA conspiracy theory, but it would be something of a miracle if these four sides avoided each other in the next round. If they are drawn together, it will lead to the first big exits of the summer.
It would also open very plausible routes for Ulster’s remaining contingent – Armagh, Cavan and Down – to progress.
This weekend feels like the calm before the storm, given the doldrum conditions so far in the Championship. I for one can’t wait for things to turn choppy.