Our game is changing – and changing for the better. So far, this year’s championship has been far from a bore-fest with a lot of teams going out to win the match first and foremost without being overly concerned about containing their opponents. With this type of attitude, we have seen higher scoring games and the re-emergence of top-class individuals lighting up the championship. In recent weeks, Con O’Callaghan, Enda Smith, Pádraig Hampsey, Jamie Clarke and Lee Keegan have all thrown off the shackles and performed exactly the way we expect them to given their raw talent.
Yes, of course, all the teams remaining in the championship play to their own system, some more loyal to it than others but in a way this allows players a freedom to go and express themselves because they are now safe in the knowledge that they have backup coming from their teammates. Hampsey, for example, plays at six for Tyrone but he frequently forays up the field to join their attack because he trusts that he is being covered. He is not alone in this as Tiernan McCann quite often supports him from deep. I would class Tyrone as having a defensive system that is hard to break down, but when they gain possession they break with intent and that intent is to get a score. They are averaging 11 different scorers per match this championship so that creates multiple headaches for their opponents.
Dublin and Kerry have got a great mix of blending defence to attack also, normally leaving four players in attack at all times so they can act as an outlet for long direct kick passing with the likes of Donnachadh Walsh and Ciarán Kilkenny instrumental in setting the template for their teams’ work-rate. Their ability to support in droves means that they are prepared to commit players forward which, in turn, means there is a higher percentage that they will score. Roscommon, Down and Armagh have been three leading lights in this year’s campaign, simply because of how they set up and because they are prepared to kick the ball a lot more and attack teams more often. Connairre Harrison has been a revelation for Down at full-forward because of the quality supply of ball he has received as have Jamie Clarke and Gavin McParland for Armagh.
Lee Keegan was able to score his goal last week against Roscommon because Roscommon committed players forward and it left space open for Keegan to carry the ball 30 yards. There was no wall of yellow and blue preventing Keegan from breaking through. While this goal took a freak deflection, what really impressed me about it was the area Lee actually shot from. He had options inside but he was on form. A deflection or not, he simply caught out the Roscommon defence and keeper by shooting for goal that far out. Keepers certainly don’t expect it and it’s something that I believe forwards should try more often. Goals decide so many games and the element of surprise can sometimes see a team over the line.
Kildare and Galway are teams that are starting to emerge once again. They both have fantastic managers in Kevin Walsh and Cian O’Neill but the thing that I noticed most about these sides is that they almost needed someone to hold their hand and talk them through a game. They seem to be a bit uncertain about some aspects of their play, but the games that they have played well in are the games that they were inclined to let lose every now and again. You can’t be lose all of the time but you can certainly play with a freedom outside of the regular system that I’m sure their managers would like to see from time to time. Moments of magic on a consistent basis.
This weekend, the old rivalry that I was once very much part of, Tyrone and Armagh in Croke Park, reinvents itself. Tyrone as serious All Ireland contenders against an Armagh team brimming with confidence that have in fact had the upper hand on Tyrone in recent times. Like the days of old, I expect both teams to bring out the best in each other. There will be fireworks but with both teams averaging 10 to 11 different scorers per match, will it come down to that individual piece of brilliance from Seán Cavanagh, Mattie Donnelly, Clarke or Rory Grugan or will there be a surprising unsung hero? This game has whetted my appetite and it sure has captured the imagination of the country once again. In a sell-out Croke Park, let’s hope that it lives up to the expectations and, of course, Armagh continue to hold the upper hand between the sides in recent times