Brendan Crossan: Gaelic football's golden era was the unmistakable 'Noughties'

All-Ireland winning captain Peter Canavan is carried across the Croke Park pitch by Tyrone supporters
Brendan Crossan - The Boot Room

I STUMBLED across a re-run of the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final between Armagh and Tyrone on Eir Sport during the week.

For that hour and a bit I was transported back to Croke Park 13 summers ago where one of the greatest games of Gaelic football unfolded.

When you watch old games you’re sometimes inclined to sneer at the prevailing standards of the day especially when you dip into earlier archives of the 1970s and 80s, the alleged 'golden era'.

But the ’05 meeting between Armagh and Tyrone will always stand the test of time, for intensity alone.

It was an era-defining game that scorched the hearts and minds of those who lived and breathed every second of it.

And yet, Gaelic football has since evolved to the point where it is ambivalent to the football played in the ‘Noughties’.

What made that game – and indeed that era truly great – was the balance between tactical innovation and spontaneous football.

Talk of the third midfielder and the defensive sweeper was the currency of the day.

"Puke Football" was Pat Spillane’s infamous description.

How wrong was Spillane?

In the 'Noughties', the game still retained enough one-on-one duels and the football was fast and loose.

Francie Bellew on ‘Mugsy’. Michael McGee on Oisin McConville. Andy Mallon on Peter Canavan. Ciaran McKeever on Stevie O’Neill. ‘Ricey’ on Stevie McDonnell.

What struck me immediately about the game was how goalkeepers Paul Hearty and Pascal McConnell went long with every kick-out, where the ‘middle eight’ scrapped for primary possession.

In the ‘Noughties’, there was significantly less interest in keeping hold of the ball compared to today’s game where possession is 10-tenths of the law.

Armagh’s half-back line kicked the ball at every opportunity into their forwards; Tyrone slightly less so.

The fact there were plenty of angled kicks that didn’t reach their intended target and a fair sprinkling of unforced errors didn’t take away from the spectacle one iota.

Almost with every kick the ball was put at risk. And it didn’t matter if possession was lost, the team that lost it backed themselves to win it back again.

Every spill added to an utterly compelling narrative.

The game took flight when Stevie O’Neill, who played the game with ice in his veins, smashed home an unsaveable penalty towards the end of the first half.

Moments later, Kieran McGeeney replied with a thunderbolt of a score from 50 metres. There were leaders in every sector of the field in either team.

The rivalry between the two counties was unbelievably intense. In a reflective interview with Armagh boss Joe Kernan last year, I asked him did Armagh and Tyrone hate one another.

“I’d say there was hate there but we had respect for Tyrone,” he said.

“Fair play to them, they went on to do something that we didn’t do, and we’ve got to look at ourselves and say why. Was there much between us? A piece of thread.”

Some of the points Stevie McDonnell hit in that game, and indeed throughout the 'Noughties' were uncoachable pieces of skill.

The great thing about the Killeavy man was he didn’t care how tight his marker got, he was as strong off his left foot as he was off his right.

In the modern game, managers and coaches would baulk at some of the audacious angles McDonnell would shoot from.

The practice would be discouraged.

The modern footballer is conditioned to work the ball into better scoring positions and as a consequence we see a lot of the same type of scores in games and a lot less of the swaggering, devil-may-care forwards like McDonnell.

The game is impoverished as a result.

McDonnell didn't learn these spontaneous acts in development squads or in training drills.

He was self taught, just in the same way Peter Canavan was self taught on a small pitch called 'The Holm' deep in the heartlands of Ballygawley where as a kid his imagination ran free every day.

It’s amazing what a kid with fertile imagination can achieve.

Canavan's quick hands that set up Shane Sweeney for a crucial score towards the end of the epic semi-final was another example of uncoachable skill.

Armagh and Tyrone had stolen a decisive march on Kerry, Dublin and Galway as well as Ulster rivals Down, Donegal and Derry.

Joe Kernan and Mickey Harte were great innovators of their time.

But a tactical apocalypse was just around the corner up in Donegal.

If it wasn’t Jim McGuinness another coach would have come along and turned Gaelic football on its head in the same way he did in Donegal.

Under his watch, Donegal became the fittest, most tactically astute team in the country.

I recall watching Frank McGlynn blaze a trail through the Down defence in Clones to score in the 2012 Ulster final and thinking that nobody would stop them on the All-Ireland stage.

Not every stage of the game’s evolution can be lauded.

Since Donegal’s dramatic intervention, the game has become more prescriptive, strictly possession-based and playing the percentages.

Players take less risks and are coached to within an inch of their lives.

Players don’t shoot for points the way Stevie O’Neill, Stevie McDonnell, Ronan Clarke and Sean Cavanagh did in the ‘Noughties’.

Tyrone and Armagh were littered with big personalities who had media profiles, who weren’t media-trained in the art of anodyne quotes.

Many of those players have done well out of the game.

You only have to survey the newspaper and on-line columnists, the radio summarisers and the pundits on podcasts to see that the vast majority of them earned their reputations in the ‘Noughties’.

Everything about the inter-county game these days seems the same, manufactured, cloned.

Players are ridiculously proficient in the execution of the rules that govern how Gaelic football is played today – but the games don’t get us on the edge of our seats any more.

For me, the most memorable moment of 2019 so far was Peter Harte’s miss against Monaghan.

The Tyrone man’s dazzling run and audacious chip over Rory Beggan didn’t even yield a score but it was a priceless piece of skill that was a rare reminder of the infinite possibilities of Gaelic football.

Everyone refers to the halcyon days when their team was successful.

But the game's golden era was the unmistakable ‘Noughties’. Back then Gaelic football was at its absolute zenith.

More drama than we could ever have hoped for.



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