Danny Hughes: Stakes high in Ulster derby; Peter Canavan and Jarlath Burns have the vision to transform football

Peter Harte (Tyrone) and Stefan Campbell (Armagh) are likely to be central figures when the counties clash in Omagh on Saturday Picture by Philip Walsh
Peter Harte (Tyrone) and Stefan Campbell (Armagh) are likely to be central figures when the counties clash in Omagh on Saturday Picture by Philip Walsh Peter Harte (Tyrone) and Stefan Campbell (Armagh) are likely to be central figures when the counties clash in Omagh on Saturday Picture by Philip Walsh

ARMAGH and Tyrone face off in what is a huge game in the second-round of the All-Ireland SFC group stages on Saturday night at O’Neills Healy Park.

Armagh needed to beat Westmeath and they did. How they beat Dessie Dolan’s side is largely irrelevant; Dolan would rather have left the BOX-IT Athletic Grounds with two points and played badly rather than the opposite.

Westmeath played extraordinarily well and the test for them now is following the Armagh performance up with a similar approach against Galway.

When Padraig Joyce initially took over, there was an expectancy that Galway would be more offensive than Kevin Walsh’s sides.

It took Joyce two full seasons and in season three Galway met Kerry in the All-Ireland final. Joyce deserves huge credit in how Galway have moved from a naïve group of individuals in year one to currently the form team in the country.

It is likely that Armagh, Tyrone and Galway will all progress from the group, however should the Orchard beat their bitter rivals Tyrone and Westmeath fall to Galway, the pressure of the final group match involving the Red Hands is something the GAA will have sought to achieve in this new structure. Monaghan and Derry played out a draw and in the grand scheme of things, from an Ulster perspective, a good result all round.

Donegal could qualify should they beat Derry on Sunday in Ballybofey and for a team beaten by Down in Newry in the Ulster Championship, this would rank as one of the best turnarounds thus far in the season.

Derry are experiencing mixed emotions in a way, due to these last few weeks, and it will be interesting to see how they fare out against a side who know what it’s like to operate in a state of chaos.

Read more: Tyrone v Armagh: "We went up there to give it a skelp," recalls Aaron Findon

PETER Canavan was one of the best forwards and GAA players to have ever played the game. He was as tough as he was skilful. The game his sons now play is very different to the one their father graced. Canavan this week stated that the game will have to change.

It is inevitable, Canavan has said. Jarlath Burns, the new GAA president, will have an inbox full of issues to deal with when he takes the reins later in the year, however he will certainly be drawn towards football-related problems that need addressing. After all, Burns made his name in the game at the highest level for Armagh – there will be a natural soft spot.

Peter Canavan and such players are held in high esteem and respect among the great and good of the GAA playing fraternity – their opinion will not have gone unnoticed.

Like Peter, I hope in later years my daughters and sons will play the game but I am realistic enough to understand that the one they will play will be different to the one I have played.

It is true, even since my time, the game has become even more complicated by tactics and formations. Some coaches will call it innovative, others plagiarism. Some will call it ‘puke’, while others will call it compelling.

An example is the short kick-out, which has only been adopted within the last 12 years or so. Only in my final few seasons was the short

kick-out even contemplated. It is hard not to look on the many matches we may have won as a team had we been more ‘tactically astute’ and adopted some of the modern tactics now seen as standard.

Possession is nine-tenths of the law they say. In football, it is now 10-tenths of the law. If you continually or consistently give the ball away, you won’t play. Not against good teams anyway. This ‘fear’ prevents anyone from taking a risk. Not all players are a David Clifford. They don’t have his natural athleticism and height. They recognise this and are another cog in the wheel of a well-functioning team (most are defenders).

It is important to say that no rules are being broken in the way the modern game is being played.

The GAA have (in the last two decades) adopted minor rules in the hope of improving the game as a spectator sport. This strategy is either that or the rules have been introduced to stem football’s descent into the toilet from an aesthetics perspective. Like Canavan, I see the game as changing immeasurably as a spectator sport, and not for the good in many instances.

Of course, we still get extremely good viewing in some instances, particularly in League football when the stakes, if we are honest, are not as high as in the Championship.

I do think that the GAA have lived in hope that their changes can be enough to make the natives happy. Step by step, though, I consider these ‘minor’ changes over the years as merely a sticking plaster, ie the forward mark (slows the game down), kick-out mark, forbidding the goalkeeper to take the first return pass from a kick-out. Has any of these actually worked to improve the game as a spectacle?

The GAA and all stakeholders, including us as fans, need to decide on one thing to begin with – what sort of game do we want to see? When you decide on the destination or goal, then you can decide on how to get there. I do not think that the GAA has considered the goal or destination, or if they have, trying to get there via minor changes has become too cumbersome and slow. Perhaps we need to create more space to facilitate an offensive mindset. We rip up the rulebook. The same playing numbers applicable in the 1890s apply today.

Is this realistic any more? Given how fast the game has become, how much more powerful and professional the players now are, you would have to think that the teams naturally should revert to a 13-a-side game. By increasing the number of allowed subs to seven in tandem perhaps also negates any concerns over player welfare.

The introduction of a second referee has been the call of many in these last few years and this would certainly help to reduce the reliance on one person. It could also alleviate the fear of having to introduce a TMO-style system – a system that would inevitably slow down the game.

I am sure many punters out there have heard the saying ‘go big or go home’.

And certainly the GAA, and Jarlath Burns in particular in his new role, need to take the time to think about the goal in our sport.

We want excitement and scores and hits and fairness. We want a spectator sport. So we need to go big or go home.

So long as the ones being listened to are people like Canavan who understand both sides of the game.