“For a forward, it is a nightmare to play in,” Benny Coulter would say last week about Ulster championship football upon retiring at 32. “I would say that (next) year (2015), all the Ulster teams are going to be very defensive in how they set up. Including Down. We will put a lot of bodies in defence and try and counter at pace. You have to play teams at their own game. If you go man to man against that system and try to push out, it just won’t work.”
Six years ago Brendan Devenney walked a similar path, singing a similar sombre song. When this column met him only about 18 months ago, he still knew the words by heart. “See going up to Clones? I’d be dreading going in the door.”
Devenney had been long frustrated, bordering on disillusioned, with the game, especially as it was played within his home province. It manifested itself most obviously in his sending-off in a 2004 qualifier against Fermanagh in – where else? – Clones when after receiving plenty of verbal and physical attention throughout the day, he would push the referee upon being shown a second yellow card.
Back then Ulster football was afflicted with needle and niggle. It was even worse in the 80s and 90s. Coulter’s own clubmate Mickey Linden preceded him as Down’s most dangerous forward – and therefore most targeted.
“There was a lot of stuff going on off the ball,” says Linden. “Boys thumping you into the ribs, pulling and dragging, lots of elbows. As a young fella starting your county career it would definitely have affected me.”
It wasn’t just an Ulster thing. Everywhere it was lawless. Shane Curran’s terrific new book Cake has a particularly brilliant chapter entitled Crime And Punishment which vividly illustrates how reckless football was and how umpires and the GAA itself repeatedly seemed to turn a blind eye to the corner-forward being blackguarded by corner-back.
“That’s why I don’t understand the critique of the game these days,” he told this column recently. “I understand that there’ll be a bad game, fine, but the way the likes of (Joe) Brolly, (Pat) Spillane and even (Colm) O’Rourke are constantly rubbishing the modern game when it’s so much better to when they were playing.”
As much as Coulter understandably yearns for a return to a time when there were no massed defences, it would be a mistake to romanticise a past that never existed. Instead of blanket defences, you had to contend with hatchet men. Instead of mere negativity you had to deal with sheer cynicism, even thuggery.
Eugene McGee has recently and regularly called for a greater emphasis placed on the skills of the game, especially passing and scoring with the foot. And of course he is right to wish for that – so do we. But there is no evidence to back up his latest assertion that the quality of kicking has decreased in recent times. Certainly taking an International Rules game as evidence of this when the Irish players were affected by the fear of being creased by a tackle that rightly does not exist in our game is hugely selective.
Was kicking the ball accurately really “second nature” to most county footballers in the past? Was their shooting far more accurate than the generation of Coulter & Co? We wonder.
Take the four provincial finals in 1986. Kerry 0-12 Cork 0-8. Meath 0-9 Dublin 0-7. Tyrone 1-11 Down 0-10. Galway 1-8 Roscommon 1-5. We seriously wonder.
As for corner-backs, sure they might have been able to lump a ball with their boot, but not necessarily pass it.
As Curran observes, “It’s so much faster (now). I hear people giving out that nowadays there are too many athletes, not enough footballers. At least now they’re either athletes or footballers, often both. You look at corner-backs playing today: Paul Murphy, Keith Higgins, Johnny Cooper. They’re not depending on acting the maggot.”
There’s a lot we’d agree with Coulter and McGee on though. While trainers back in the day weren’t necessarily any better at coaching the art and skills of kicking the ball, today’s coaches and games could do with a lot more kicking. In a proper set-up, strength and conditioning is there to complement skill – to ensure you’re able to break that tackle or still able to make that run to kick a score in the last five minutes – rather than negate it or compensate for a lack of it. And just as the game’s legislators helped eliminate so much of the blackguardism previous generations of corner-forwards were subjected to, there does need to be a serious reassessment if the game we want includes more and more teams putting 13 men behind the ball.
Of course it’s “intriguing” when Donegal set up as they do. But what if everyone sets up like them, like Kerry did in September and Coulter envisages everyone doing in Ulster next year? Then there is no fascinating “clash of styles”. Instead you end up with scorelines like the 1986 provincial finals, or more worryingly, the 2014 Ulster club championship.
Of course there are no rules against a college team playing two sweepers, a development that depressed Coulter. Of course that college team aren’t breaking any rules. But there could be rules put in place to encourage the kind of game that Coulter and McGee and most fans want. It’s not a slight but rather a compliment to Jim McGuinness if he were not only to have changed the game but its rules. In the 60s basketball introduced numerous rule changes – the three-second rule in the key, the goaltending rule among others – after the advent of the behemoth 7 foot Wilt Chamberlain. Soccer used to have a three-man offside rule, then a two-man one before coming up with the rule we have today.
Football owes it to Down’s latest retired great and itself by making it more fun to watch – and be – the Coulters of tomorrow.