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John McEntee: Versatility crucial for club championship success

Corofin’s Michael Farragher and Slaughtneil’s Patsy Bradley contest a high ball in the 2015 All-Ireland final. Both clubs showed what sets them apart from others in their province at the weekend 

OFTEN subtle differences arouse our curiosity. Having watched the three provincial finals – one live and two recorded – I set myself the task of identifying 15 players who I considered would cut the mustard at county level; a team comparable to any inter-county senior team.

The inclusion criteria were that the individual must stand out, be better than the others, not just better than his opponent but someone who demonstrates a skill-set which sets him apart. It was a five-minute brain-teaser, a time-filler while I was waiting my eldest child to finish her piano lesson. Alas it did not turn out this way.

The natural inclination is to slot in the household county stars, but that was too easy as much as it was a disservice to all those who were quite brilliant but otherwise unknown. There is an accepted bias towards choosing the known county players.

They tend to get the nod ahead of other players who’ve performed just as well because, in many ways, there is added pressure on them to perform. Others will stand out because of their physique or length of hair.

Take Donegal’s Jimmy McGuinness for example. In his playing days Jimmy had a perfectly groomed mass of long curly hair. It glistened in the sun. He was instantly recognisable, and each time he was on the ball he was visible.

He may touch the ball only 15 times in a match yet the perception (and often the reality) was that he was extremely influential. Other players can blend into the background and, without the hindsight afforded by video analysis, they are often thought to be largely anonymous.

Corofin’s number eight Michael Farragher is a case in point. In a tough match where the midfield battle was neither won nor lost, it can be a challenge to justify your post-match clap in the back. Yet, as I reviewed the game on TV, it was apparent this guy was immense.

The amount of dirty ball won, his ability to stop Castlebar’s Barry Moran fetching every kick-out, his coolness in possession and his determination to keep going deep into the 85th minute means he is deserving of all the plaudits.

It’s late November – players are playing winter football now. Football is a totally different game in the winter. Managers must consider the elements when instructing teams on how to play and set up. That is what makes the club championship so difficult to win.

Teams must be versatile. Firm pitches, dry balls and a bit of spit rubbed into the palm of the hand provides the perfect backdrop for the game’s artists to display their skills – hence why our best players, our county players flourish in the summertime.

When those players rejoin their club teams after September, their adjustment to playing under different systems, with different players and under different weather conditions should not be underestimated. Add to that the disappointment of being kicked out of the inter-county Championship – particularly if they’ve had an extended run – and one can see why county players do not always shine at club level. As I watched the Munster final, I despaired for Fionn Fitzgerald and Colm Cooper. Nothing went their way.

Subsequently, many media reports rather harshly linked the Gooch’s recent entrepreneurial adventures to his poor performance. The ageing Gooch is a special talent who had an off-day. It is evidence of his mortality.

People should not jump to conclusions on the basis of one bad game. Wasn’t it Patrick Kavanagh who said there is something wrong with a work of art if it can be understood by a policeman.

Gooch will have many more fine games in the black and amber of Dr Croke’s and the same journalists will be scratching their heads in awe at how he can still do what only he can do. What changed my brainstorming exercise from a five-minute task into a four-day debate with dozens of people was the realisation that this is a team game. Every great team has those special players who conform to the team ethos yet shine when it is most needed.

The GAA is much more wedded to the concept of a team than most other Irish team sports. Slaughtneil haven’t won back-to-back Ulster titles because of having a great leader in Chrissy McKaigue, they won it because they have 15 leaders signed up to one goal. Nemo may have a sprinkling of county stars in Cronin, O’Driscoll and Kerrigan, but those players would be the first to acknowledge the efforts of their team-mates in dethroning the All-Ireland champions.

My 15 players are diverse. They could easily be swapped for a different 15. To answer my original query, are they comparable to an inter-county team? I would have to say they are the best club footballers on view. As the chasm between the two concepts – the club player, and the county player, ever widens it is unreasonable to measure one against the other.

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