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“The football I know or knew is not the football of today,” - 16/03/2016

Danny Hughes - Irish News Column

16 March, 2016 01:00

I RECENTLY met an ex-county footballer in a local gym who played during the 1970s and '80s. Still sporting the athletic figure of a man half his age, he proceeded to tell me that he trained most days, which included a walk, cycle, jog and a mixture of weights.

Having long since banished alcohol from his diet, some of the best stories he told involved the night out after the game, which regularly turned into days in some cases. It was very much a philosophy of work hard, play hard. I asked him if he still went to games.

“The football I know or knew is not the football of today,” he stated.

“It should not even be called football.”

With that, I quickly presumed that this man had no love for the ‘modern’ game. He also made an interesting comment: “You go to any game and you will actually see plenty of young people, current players and fans, but a whole generation of ex-players and supporters would not even go and watch a game of football nowadays at both club and county level.”

“Why, though?” I asked.

“There is no flair and imagination, it’s too cynical and too damn expensive,” was his reply.

Need he go on? I was never one for statistics, but one look through the various scoreboards for Ulster teams in divisions one to four last weekend would not support the argument that the games are becoming more defensive or even less exciting.

Last weekend, Derry and Laois drew a game with both teams sharing six goals and a cumulative points score of 32. Monaghan lost their game despite scoring 1-13. Tyrone won and racked up 1-17 in the process. Cavan won convincingly after inflicting a 17-point defeat of Armagh the previous week.

The game doesn’t look like it is suffering from a lack of attacking emphasis or indeed excitement. So what is making a whole generation of ex-players and supporters unwilling to attend games? One possible explanation lies with club football. When club football was thriving in most parts of the country, you regularly had fixtures county players played in without exception.

They talk of fixture congestion these days, but in large parts of the country in bygone summer months, a lot of major clubs actually had weekend tournaments with huge levels of prestige for the winners. The county players played for their clubs in these, irrespective of when the county team played or was due to play.

Even if the county had a game the previous day, it was a ‘given’ that the county player would be playing for the club. Nowadays, you are lucky if your county representative gets to play in the club championship each year.

I know at the recent Annual Congress and, indeed over the last few years, ‘burnout’ has been a real issue, particularly at minor, college and U21 level. To give you one example, if a county player is training or playing on Saturday for the county team at whatever level and a senior club game was fixed for the Friday night or Sunday, I can say with certainty that there is no chance that player would be allowed to play for the club, even if the player in question was a ‘fringe’ county player.

However, he would still be expected to be in the gym on both days as part of an inter-county training regime to squat, dead-lift and bench press. The problem here has little to do with the fixture calendar in this instance or burn-out. It is simply a case that the emphasis on county football and squads in general now relegates club fixtures to an irrelevance.

It is okay for the player to tire himself out in the gym, but not okay for him to go out and develop and ply his skills for a 60-minute match. When I was in inter-county mode, to be honest, I was no different.

The county manager was ‘the boss’ and you were reluctant to even ask permission to play for the club for fear that they would think that you were not focused on the greater prize. I can understand why the player is in this unenviable position. For a lot of players, a club championship title will be an unrealistic prospect. An inter-county title is a more calculated and achievable dream.

A second possible reason for some people staying away from matches may lie within their psychology. You know what they say about those who shout the loudest. There are plenty of opinions out there regarding the state of the nation in a football context – especially those of the negative disposition, of which I am also guilty of on occasion. Because these tend to be focused on more closely each year, sometimes those opinions stick. A wise man once told me just because someone says something, it doesn’t make it true.

A third possible reason for the apathy is that the gap between the best and the also-rans is growing. Those heady days when Down shocked Meath in 1991 and Derry and Donegal followed with All-Ireland wins in close proximity are becoming less common.

The Qualifiers gave the stronger teams a second bite at the cherry, while the weaker teams may have benefited from a few extra games, but ultimately only delayed the inevitable conclusion to their season.

When Down beat Derry in 1994 in Celtic Park, widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever, it would have be interesting to see the result had the same teams squared off a couple of months later in the same competition.

I can only guess that, for the neutral supporter, the resurgence of a Roscommon team and their continued good form will benefit the Championship this year and a possible surprise may be on the cards. Everyone loves a fairytale and no better example of this than Leicester City’s bid to become Premier League winners this year.

This should really serve as an inspiration to many teams should it happen. For me, county football was one of the most rewarding, exciting and fulfilling aspects of my life thus far.

It gave both me and my family some very proud moments and even better memories. It gave me some great friends and also made me a few enemies. It came at a cost, of course, none moreso than the club. Fixtures missed, games lost and opinions divided.

I am sure for the generation who are currently staying away, the price they are paying is probably not of their own making. Football has evolved for a number of reasons. If it is to reacquaint with a ‘lost generation’ it could restart at club level.

This means county players playing at club level, week-in, week-out. Not lifting weights in the gym.