Monday, April 05, 2004

A Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You - Is Mick O'Dwyer the Only Man that Can Save Gaelic Football?

The coming football season has the potential to be one of the most significant in the long history of the game. The past two All-Ireland titles have been won by Armagh and Tyrone, both by playing a style of football that has purists retching (will we ever forget Pat Spillane's "puke football" comment immediately after Kerry were humbled in the semi-final by Tyrone?) but has every one else involved in running football teams scribbling notes and ordering extra steaks and vitamins for the lads.

Tyrone and Armagh have become the Borg of Gaelic football, the teams against whom resistance is futile. The comparison extends in how difficult it becomes to differentiate between players, as the individual identities and even positions are subsumed into one thought, which is to hunt down and destroy. The opposition are coursed like a hare in a field of hounds, and there are enough sharp-shooters among the hounds to pick off the occasional scores that eventually make the difference and allow the Borg to continue to assimilate.

The traits of this style of football are supreme fitness, supreme organisation and, most significantly of all, supreme hunger. More than anything else, that was the difference between Tyrone and Armagh this year - Armagh's victory in 2002 took just the slightest edge off the Orchard County's hunger, and this New Age Football is all about edges and percentages.

Tryone will probably fall by the wayside this year too - the sheen taken off them by the win last year and also, of course, from the fallout from the tragic and awful death of Cormac MacAnallen, which may put football in too much perspective for them. But the danger is that the Blanket defense is spreading among the other contenders, who will see it as the great leveller, a means to make a peasant equal to a King, if only for seventy minutes.

Equality is a fine idea, in life as well as sports, but it would be a mistake to assume or presume that bringing a King down is the same as raising a peasant up. If we bring down the King, if the country all starts playing this Blanket Defense game, then the old game, that game that brought glory and happiness to so many in high summer, will be lost, and all we will be left with is rugby league, one of the uglier team games on the planet. The Earls will have fled once more, and darkness will reign in Erin.

Which is why An Spailpín is cheering like crazy for Laois to win Sam this year.

The first motivation, like all GAA motivations, is parochial. An Spailpín's own county is limping along in the wilderness right now, without anyone having the common humanity to put a bullet behind its ear and put it out of his misery. As such, my bloodshot eye surveys the scene, and, through all the wreckage and detritus, there is one county, above any other, which is keeping the game alive, which is keeping the faith with the hopelessly old-fashioned notion that players giving full expression the skills of the game is better than, and will always win out over, any System.

That the county in question is Laois is an irony not lost on seasoned football watchers. In the doldrums for so long, Laois became known only as a crew of tough guys, without the focus of Meath, without the players of Dublin, without the money of Kildare.

And then Micko arrived, and all was good. The week after Mick O'Dwyer was once more disgracefully snubbed by the Great Pooh-Bahs of the GAA when it came to the managership of the International team, O'Dwyer could be on the verge of his greatest achievement - saving the game of football itself - and the GAA doesn't even realise it.

How long will it take the GAA, and the people of Ireland, to realise that Micko is a man you don't meet every day? What does he have to do to make you love him? What does he have to do to make you care?

Kevin Heffernan's advocates always maintained that, with the team O'Dwyer had in the seventies and eighties, anyone could have been manager and they would still have won. In the absence of a control to measure against, this is a pointless pursuit, but it is also interesting to remember that when O'Dwyer took over, Kerry football was at a very low ebb indeed. For his appointment as manager to have suddenly coincided with the arrival of that Golden Generation is a very big coincidence indeed. So big that it clearly isn't a coincidence at all, and Mick O'Dwyer was as much a part of that Kerry team as Spillane, Sheehy and the rest.

Those that accuse O'Dwyer of staying on too long are forgetting that, if he hadn't stayed on as long as he did, Kerry's second three in a row of that era wouldn't have happened. Nobody was calling for Micko's head after Kerry came back from seven points down to win by six against Tryone in 1986, but many were the mutterings in the Kingdom after Kerry shipped the double blows of Séamus Darby in 1982 and Tadhgie Murphy in 1983. O'Dywer brought his men back from the dead to win three All-Irelands in a row, and yet all people remember is that scorching summer of 1987 when O'Dwyer's team suddenly got old, and aged twelve years in seventy minutes. After Kavanagh, the angel wooed the clay and lost his wings at the dawn of day - the nation could never forgive that Kerry team for growing old, for not going on forever, and, by implication therefore, never fully forgave O'Dwyer.

O'Dwyer's time in Kildare, those strange years, are seen as failures because Kildare lost the All-Ireland to Galway in 1998. It might be closer to the truth to say that getting what was in truth a very middling Kildare out of Leinster when Meath were still in their pomp, Offaly threatening and Dublin always dangerous (sometimes literally, of course) was a considerably bigger achievement than the four games O'Dwyer had to win to win Kerry another trophy back in the day.

But wouldn't it be something if O'Dwyer's greatest hour were to come this year - facing into his sixty-seventh summer, the sting of the Ireland managment rejection still under the skin, but able to look across a field at a team of footballers instead of automons and say, yes, I can deliver these men to the Promised Land.

It won't be easy for Laois. Galway are as committed to classy football as O'Dwyer's charges and their own manager/guru, John O'Mahony, clearly believes they still have an All-Ireland in them; Cork are bubbling under as Billy Morgan returns to try to save them once again, and even now the St John's ambulance people are in spring training in preparation for the annual apocalypse that is the Ulster Championship. But for Laois, a county known and feared for their robust and rambunctious approach, for Laois to win an All-Ireland playing football of snow-white purity, all under the guiding hand of the prophet that isn't recognised in his own country, that would be a Championship to savour.