GAA Football

Brendan Crossan: The Ulster final - beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Donegal captain Michael Murphy on the final whistle after being beaten by Derry in the Ulster final at Clones Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

THE 2010 World Cup final between Spain and Holland in Johannesburg was a game that was instantly dismissed as a terrible spectacle.

I suspect I’m in the minority who was utterly transfixed by the game from start to finish and still find it an absorbing watch years after.

Spain eventually triumphed after 120 minutes of football in Soccer City thanks to a wonderfully clinical strike from Andres Iniesta’s right boot towards the end of extra-time.

His description of the moment that won the World Cup was also epic.

In his authorised biography ‘Being Iniesta’ (2016), the midfielder said: “It is not the goal the people see on the television. It resembles it but it was not quite like that. Through my eyes, the perspective changes. The feeling I had on the pitch is something I can’t put into words.

“I don’t know how to do it justice. Everything around me froze for a few seconds. I heard the silence. That sounds like a contradiction, but I can’t think of a better way of describing it: an audible silence.”

Cesc Fabregas cushioned a pass into Iniesta’s path on the right hand side of the Dutch penalty box. The ball sat up absolutely yearning to be struck on the volley.

The Barcelona magician duly obliged. Boom!

Maarten Stekelenburg, Holland’s goalkeeper, got a right glove to Iniesta’s shot but the velocity more than anything beat him.

It took some time for justice to be served. Spain were world champions.

Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.

Obviously, the stakes couldn’t have been higher for the game. Spain had recovered brilliantly after losing their group opener to Switzerland and went on to own the ball every time they took to the field thereafter.

Spain's Andres Iniesta celebrates after scoring the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final

Holland, meanwhile, were bludgeoning their way to the final. They had ditched their Total Football philosophy in favour of a crude template that was illustrated by the amount of destroyers they had in their ranks.

Nigel de Jong had somehow escaped a red card in the first half after hammering his studs into the chest of Xabi Alonso.

Throughout the tournament, Marc van Bommel was a wrecking ball, kicking everything that moved.

Perhaps this was Holland’s deep, dark experiment to see if they could win football’s biggest prize by this austere approach that had drawn universal ridicule. And they almost pulled it off.

Spain, on the other hand, kept playing their tiki-taka football, which also drew derision in parts for its lack of cutting edge.

What this game had was a rich narrative, plots and sub-plots all over the pitch, a clash of styles, both within touching distance of pure gold.

And yet, for so many football fans, the 2010 World Cup final was one big turn-off.

For those tuning into big occasion games, they want the perfect spectacle.

They want it to be free-flowing, aesthetically pleasing, end-to-end and preferably high-scoring. We all do.

But sometimes games don’t tick all these boxes.

Last Sunday’s Ulster final didn’t tick enough boxes for a lot of people.

Huge swathes of the television audience were turned off by how Donegal and Derry approached the Anglo-Celt decider.

This was understandable.

After all, there were long spells of lateral passing and passive possession, few goal chances, it was also ultra-defensive and risk averse. What is there to love in that?

And yet, I found it an absolutely compelling watch.

Sometimes if you have high expectations of a big final before it starts, it’ll nearly always disappoint you.

The thing about this year’s Ulster final was it was never going to be ‘aesthetically pleasing’ in the most conventional sense, but that is not the same as saying it was a bore fest.

Quite the contrary.

This final was always going to be one of moments. Of course, reporting on a game and tuning in five minutes before it starts can be worlds apart.

Throughout the build-up, the Irish News sports department covered every nook and cranny of this year’s Ulster decider.

Therefore, the media is already deeply invested in the game. Perhaps we're easier pleased than the casual fan.

Could Derry end their 24-year wait for an Ulster title? And would the real Donegal please stand up?

How would Chrissy McKaigue fare against Patrick McBrearty? And Brendan Rogers on Michael Murphy?

Conor Glass against Donegal’s twin giants of Jason McGee and Caolan McGonigle?

Who would track Ryan McHugh? And Ethan Doherty? Would Donegal press up on Derry’s kick-outs?

Who would be brave in the big moments?

And watching Rory Gallagher on the sidelines just added to the day.

It’s strange how it all unfolded, but those long drawn out lateral passes along both ’45-metre lines didn’t float the boat of the TV viewer, while inside St Tiernach’s Park these seemingly unending passes were akin to putting the opposition on a carousel and when they were sufficiently dizzy, the team in possession would pull the trigger.

And to watch the cat-and-mouse duel between Rogers and Murphy made for compulsive viewing, and how the Slaughtneil man finally broke Donegal’s totem in extra-time will forever be ingrained in the hearts and minds of those who were in Clones.

The greatest thing about high stakes games like last Sunday is that you always get answers. Derry answered emphatically in extra-time.

It was a highly technical, deeply tactical battle that required outrageous levels of concentration and heart from each player.

The game wasn't to everyone's liking. That will always be the case when some of the viewing public are invested in the intricate detail more than others.

But the fact that we're still debating whether last Sunday’s Ulster final was one for the archives or an instantly forgettable affair is welcome because it illustrates the lack of tactical homogeneity in Gaelic football and that the end of ideas is some distance away.

For some inarticulate reason - always the best kinds of reasons - I was transfixed by the events in Clones last Sunday afternoon.

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