Breaking Ball: Review of the year 2016
Dublin may still have been the top dogs in 2016 but there were many other highlights for Philip Jordan to pick out from the last 12 months, not least the return to top in Ulster of his native Tyrone...
Red Hand Revival
2016 has to go down as a disappointing year for Ulster football.
The province had no representatives in the All-Ireland semi-finals.
Tyrone are the one team that could be argued to have made progress from last year.
However, the counter-argument is that they failed to progress from the team that pushed Kerry so close in the 2015 semi-final.
Mickey Harte will have been delighted to add another Ulster title to his list of honours, especially as the majority of the players were collecting their first provincial medal at senior level.
Tyrone had gone a long time without an Ulster title so, on the whole, the season should be considered a success, with a Division Two league title to add as well.
They also finally beat Donegal in Championship football and should take great confidence that they were able to come out on top in a game that came right down to the last few minutes.
However, there will be thoughts of an opportunity missed after defeat to Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Missed opportunities highlighted the lack of a marquee forward against Mayo and that same Mayo team showed that Dublin were beatable.
I’d have fancied Mickey Harte to come up with a plan to counteract Dublin’s attacking game.
Those regrets will be to the forefront of the management’s and players’ minds during the winter months.
Along with Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan make up the big three in Ulster and I sense both sides are struggling to take the step from being Ulster contenders to AllIreland challengers.
Monaghan’s season was a major disappointment and it’s difficult to see them progressing beyond the last eight next season.
Donegal looked like winning yet another Ulster title until Tyrone powered past them in the closing stages.
Rory Gallagher has the major challenge of trying to freshen up the Donegal team as the old guard either reduce in influence or retire.
That process is likely to take a few years so Tyrone look like the only Ulster side capable of challenging for Sam in the near future.
So did anyone new come through to challenge for honours in Ulster? Cavan pushed Tyrone all the way in the semifinal before being easily brushed aside in the replay, while Derry found some momentum in the Qualifiers before falling to Tipperary.
Despite those occasional moments, nobody emerged from the pack to show that they are developing into contenders in 2017 and the likes of Armagh and Down appear to have regressed.
Down had a particularly shocking year losing all seven League games, before a heavy Ulster defeat to Monaghan and a shock defeat to Longford in the Qualifiers.
Breaking away from the pack
THERE was little reason to dispute Dublin being made clear favourites for the All-Ireland title at the start of 2016.
The only doubt was could their obvious advantage in pure footballing talent overcome any drop off in their desire that comes from being defending champions.
At the minute, I think there is only one top team in the country – Dublin.
I ask myself the question, are Dublin a team for the ages and just making everyone else look average?
Dublin are a great team and can be compared favourably with the top teams that have dominated the game down through the years.
However, over the last two years there feels like a clear gap has developed to the chasing pack.
Mayo were within the kick of a ball of beating the Dubs, but in reality Dublin were able to overcome them without playing particularly well.
I may be a bit biased, but I think the noughties were a golden era for football.
In that time you had three teams in Kerry, Tyrone and Armagh who were right at the top of their game.
In addition to that you also had the likes of Dublin, Cork and Mayo beating or pushing those teams right to the limit.
With the introduction of the Qualifier system, the top teams always rise to the top of the sport.
Kerry, Tyrone and Armagh could easily have been considered the dominant team in any other period, but they had to share the spoils throughout a great decade for the sport.
Brilliant breakthrough season for Tipperary
WITH all the talk of the widening gap between the top teams and the rest, there was plenty of encouragement for the so-called smaller teams.
Tipperary may not have won a Munster title or lifted Sam Maguire, but they were the story of the year at county level in 2016.
Despite losing numerous players from last year for a variety of reasons, Tipperary football took a major step forward this year.
The work that has gone in at underage level has really paid off and nobody should be surprised as Tipperary football has been on the rise for some time.
An All-Ireland minor final appearance in 2015 was preceded by a win at the same level in 2011, as well as a run to the AllIreland final at U21 level in 2015.
What makes the improvement in the fortunes of Tipperary football all the more impressive is the fact that they are a dual county.
Kerry great made his Marc
EVERY year we naturally see the retirement of many players from the county game, but this year was the last time we will see one of the greats of the game.
Kerry’s Marc Ó Sé called time on his county career after a remarkable career.
Marc was a natural footballer who ended up being one of the best corner-backs of the modern era due to his versatility.
The sign of a great defender is one who does not rely on his physical strength or illegal play to nullify his man.
Ó Sé used his extraordinary pace, anticipation and reading of the game to come out on top against the best forwards in the game.
Ten Munster titles, five All-Irelands and three Allstars is some roll of honour, but it does justice to the talent of Marc Ó Sé.
It will be really strange to watch Kerry in 2017 without a player from the Ó Sé family – without doubt one of the greatest families in GAA history.
Slaughtneil sweep is story of the year
SLAUGHTNEIL are undoubtedly the story of the year. Crossmaglen have been the envy of everyone within Ulster for some time for their continued success on the football pitch.
However, what Slaughtneil have achieved in 2016 is truly exceptional.
Every club knows how difficult it is to get success on the pitch, but to achieve it in three different codes is almost unthinkable.
Winning Ulster titles in football, hurling and camogie takes a combination of talent, commitment, organisation and hard work.
Their success goes way beyond the players as a club must have the best structures in place in order to achieve such a level of success.
Forward thinking needed
As a defender I always appreciate good defensive play, but this year we saw fewer attackers than ever shining in the big games.
There does appear to be a lack of brilliant forwards in the game at present, or at least the defensive formations deployed by teams are preventing these players from showcasing their talent.
The nominees for the Player of the Year did not include any inside forwards when it’s normally players wearing 13, 14 or 15 that dominate these awards.
Dean Rock, Michael Quinlivan and Paul Geaney won Allstars in the full-forward line.
They are all good players, but I wouldn’t put them in the same bracket as the best players in those positions over the last 20 years.
They don’t bring the same excitement as the likes of Bernard Brogan, Peter Canavan, Colm Cooper and Steven McDonnell.
Those are just four of a long list who have lit up the game in the 1990s and 2000s.
Too often top forwards are forced to spend time away from the opposition goals and they are not allowed to play to their strengths.
My hope for 2017 and beyond is that the game evolves and managers spend more time developing attacking game plans that allow the best forwards the chance to entertain us.
Let’s hope we see a Canavan or a Cooper to take advantage of a new approach.
Club players are finally given a voice
THE most positive thing to happen within the GAA this year was the formation of the Club Players Association.
I’ve not hid my frustration with the way the growth of the county game has had a detrimental effect on clubs around the country.
Soccer and rugby are the sports that the GAA are competing with for the hearts and minds of our people.
Both those sports give players at all levels regular games and allow people to make plans outside of the game due to a fixed fixture calendar.
Even something as simple as playing games on a Saturday allows players to get a balance between their sporting and social life.
Some counties are better than others, but looking at my own county players play predominantly on Sundays meaning they have to make greater sacrifices in their life to play the game.
Club players often start training in January and may not be finished until December. Nobody can tell me that is an ideal situation.
Club players have been neglected for too long, with more and more clubs struggling to maintain participation levels in the face of competition from other sports.
County and club managers must be willing to give up something if we are to find a solution that works for all. Clubs must accept that they will not have their county players available for all games.
County managers must abide by the rules for releasing players to the clubs without putting pressure on county boards and the players to bend those rules.
For me any solution must involve the shortening of the county season, but in an ideal world I would like to see all games having real meaning by linking the League and Championship.
Croke Park also needs to take control away from the provincial councils who appear uninterested in shortening the timeframe involved to complete provincial Championships.
We don’t know exactly what the CPA will propose, but I’ve no doubt they will eventually improve the treatment of club players across the country.
Within the GAA it has been consistently proven that change only happens when there is an organised campaign for change.
The CPA will give a voice to club players and, more importantly, organise and prioritise their needs.
THE standard of referring is always a major point of discussion, but this year I feel we saw too many major decisions being wrong.
In the black
The application of the black card continues to be a major frustration for managers, players and supporters.
Tipperary’s Robbie Kiely and Lee Keegan of Mayo were harshly black carded late in the year, while several others escaped punishment for clear black card offences.
Referees will always have different interpretations of the rules, but black cards are having too big an impact on individual players and teams for their application to be so inconsistent.
I’d love to see a review of the black card and for it to be replaced with a sin bin.
Game of the Year
THE game of the year was undoubtedly the All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Kerry.
There’s something special about the rivalry between the traditional big two and this year’s match lived up to the billing.
Kerry looked as if they were going to pull off a huge upset with a brilliant scoring burst before halftime, but Dublin eventually wore them down in the second half in a game that showed how the modern game can combine great defensive and attacking play with physicality and intensity.
We need to see the top teams play each other more often so we can enjoy these kind of games.