New generation of talent can atand alongside great warriors
Well over a decade ago, Tyrone manager Art McRory stood on the Dungannon pitch after a league win, answering questions about Ger Cavlan's superlative point-kicking from acute angles.
Both McRory and Cavlan were brought up as Dungannon Clarke’s men, and; “He knows where the posts are”, was the verdict of the great afficionado of both greyhound racing and the opera.
Cavlan had the ability to thread the ball through tiny gaps and he was joined in the Tyrone attack by Stephen O'Neill in the late '90s. The current Tyrone captain turned such stunts into an art-form, but his late brace of scores in the closing stages of the league semi-final last Sunday put a thick underline and an emphatic exclamation mark on his talent.
That win means that after the league final, Tyrone will have played 14 competitive games in the Dr McKenna Cup and league, to Donegal's seven league games after they looked down their noses at January football. Interesting.
Yet, while Mickey Harte has almost crammed two season's worth of development into the last few months, there is a sense that veterans Conor Gormley, Sean Cavanagh and O'Neill are propping the whole project up with their genius and experience. Gormley in particular, with his gloves tied into his shorts in a homage to footballers of the '80s, is one player that epitomises the quality of experience.
While O'Neill may be 32 years old, long breaks caused by his troublesome hamstrings have, perhaps, left him with more freshness in the legs than many of his peers. It is no coincidence that this year he is operating at a level above everyone else now that his body is no longer betraying his talent.
In today's age when we talk of ‘shot selection' and nurture players through structured systems of development squads, there are fears that players are becoming automatons and having their natural instincts coached out of them.
Here's an alternative view.
When we eulogise a golden generation of the like of Ollie Murphy, Graham Geraghty, Peter Canavan, Oisín McConville, Paraic Joyce, Maurice Fitzgerald and Colin Corkery, we gloss over their minor faults.
Of today's vintage, who is to say Colm Cooper, Bernard Brogan, Paddy and Eoin Bradley and Colm McFadden do not belong in the same bracket?
These players are the glamour boys of the team, stationed mainly in the full-forward line. The role of half-forwards has changed much that they are now merely providers for the half back line. In this year's National League, Derry centre back Mark Lynch scored more in five starts than forward Daniel Heavron in five plus two substitute appearances. Likewise, Leo McLoone in Donegal who trumped Ryan Bradley and Martin McElhinney, and Declan McCusker of Fermanagh who hit three more points than playmaker Shane McCabe.
Contributions of full-forwards are the most visible in a match. Whenever one of these franchise players retire, another one will come in and step up, both within the team and the public consciousness.
When Maurice Fitzgerald retired after the 2001 season, frustrated and unfulfilled with Paidí's designated role for him as impact sub, Kerry thought they would never see his like again. By the following summer, they were in thrall to a skinny kid from Killarney who went by the name of the Gooch and could do things beyond the comprehension and imagination of the Kingdom faithful, who remain the harshest of footballing judges.
Jamie Clarke and Stevie McDonnell only got to line out on the same Armagh team for one and a half county seasons, but he is the closest thing we have in the north to a Cooper. Michael Murphy can be played anywhere from centre-back up, but many lament him not being played as a mountain on the edge of the square.
This National League has also witnessed the emergence of natural-born finishers Paul Mannion of Dublin and Niall Kelly of Kildare. A tally of 2-30 for Down man Donal O’Hare is another indicator of his precocious talent and proof of genetic links to his second cousin Oisín McConville.
After the league semi-final, Mickey Harte praised the willingness of Stephen O'Neill to work on his weaker right foot from when he was a minor. We know that Rory Gallagher has personally supervised Michael Murphy as he develops his left foot. Managers like James Horan have been preaching the gospel of deliberate practise relentlessly over his two and a half years with Mayo.
Don't buy the theory that natural skills are being coached out of the game. To invoke the famous Christy Ring quote; “Let no one say the best hurlers belong to the past. They are with us now – and better yet to come.”