Dig deeper to see true reasons for defensive malaise in Gaelic football

Back in the day when I believed that politics could improve the lot of the common man, I used to be enthralled by the British general election, writes Paddy Heaney.

Dig deeper to see true reasons for defensive malaise in Gaelic football

Neil Kinnock versus Maggie Thatcher; Labour versus Conservative, or, as I saw it: The forces of good versus the forces of evil.

It was gripping stuff and I dreamed of a victory for the red rose.

However, those aspirations were always scuppered by a particular feature of the British electorate, which used to leave me boiling with anger. Maggie won because a significant percentage of working class people in Britain routinely voted for the Conservative Party.

I could never get my head around that phenomenon until I read the autobiography of the comedian, Frank Skinner (real name: Christopher Collins).

Skinner’s father was a factory worker and a semi-professional footballer from Co Durham. A bread-and-butter northerner, John Collins could have been a poster boy for the working class. Yet, John Collins voted Tory all his life.

Skinner’s father had a reason for his voting behaviour. He believed that the public school boys of Eton and Harrow were born, bred and educated to make decisions which were beyond the compass of the ordinary man.

John Collins reckoned that the Tories should be put in charge, because that’s exactly what they were raised to do.

Frank Skinner’s autobiography helped me to understand a mindset that had baffled me for years. More recently, it made me realise that it’s not just the British who believe in class hierarchy.

The same thinking exists in the GAA. For Kerry and Dublin, read Eton and Harrow. With their combined tally of 61 All-Ireland titles, it could be said that these two counties form the ruling classes of Gaelic football.

It would also appear that certain sections of the Irish population get distinctly uncomfortable when the peasants gain power. During the past 25 years, the peasants have been the upstarts from Ulster that dared to win maiden All-Ireland titles.

It needs to be stressed that when an Ulster team made a breakthrough, the initial success was roundly celebrated. The novelty was welcomed.

However, the collective celebrations never lasted too long. Once any Ulster team threatens to rise above their station, there is a quiet desire for them to be put back in their box.

This serf-like reverence for Dublin and Kerry becomes abundantly obvious whenever there is any debate concerning the state of Gaelic football.

Take the much-documented match between Dublin and Derry in Croke Park. On the night of the game, an online report on Hogan Stand stated that: “With 19,224 spectators struggling to stay awake, the northerners played with 14 men behind the ball at all times as the Leinster champions tried in vain to find the key to unlock their mass rearguard action.”

That observation would give the impression that Derry pulled every man into defence and held off a Dublin team that attacked them in droves.

That didn’t happen, though. Dublin played exactly the same way as Derry. They set up the same defensive screen and exercised the same caution as their opponents.

Yet, for some commentators, there was only team to blame for the spectacle which unfolded at HQ.

“Last week’s Dublin-Derry match was pretty much the last word in shit. And that’s because the shit was where Derry wanted to drag the game,” wrote Eamon Sweeney in the Sunday Independent.

“Harsh words,” as Jackie Fullerton would say. As an avid soccer fan, Sweeney’s willingness to identify Derry as the arch-villains is surprising.

Let’s put the game in context. Dublin have won 24 All-Ireland titles to Derry’s solitary victory in 1993.

Dublin were playing at home in front of nearly 20,000 supporters. In their last contest at the same venue, the Dubs hammered Derry by 3-19 to 1-10. To avoid a similar bloodbath, Derry manager Brian McIver decided to park the bus.

When Premier League teams visit Old Trafford, they routinely defend with 11 men. It’s par for the course. It doesn’t generate any outcry.

However, imagine the reaction if Manchester United played with 11 men behind the ball during a home game against Hull. There would be mutiny.

Yet, this is exactly what Jim Gavin did when a Derry side fighting relegation came to Dublin. Despite the fact that Dublin were just as defensive as Derry, Gavin was able to peddle the line that his team were the hapless victims of northern intransigence.

“We have a few things to work on, but we played a very defensive team,” said Gavin afterwards.

It’s scarcely believable. Dublin defend with 14 men. Then the Dublin manager claims the opposition are “defensive”, and fawning commentators continue to believe that the Dubs are the custodians of champagne football.

Jim Gavin likes to portray Dublin as paragons of attacking football and he was trumpeting that message after Sunday’s 11-point win over Monaghan.

“We try to play an expansive game. Teams who have employed a different defensive system have been very, very successful and that’s the way it is,” said the Dublin manager.

There is only one problem with Gavin’s statement. It’s not entirely accurate. As a newcomer to Twitter (@HeaneyPaddy), I posted a couple of photographs from the game in Clones. In one of the pictures, when Monaghan were on the attack, Dublin had 14 players inside their own half of the field. Dublin were leading by five points at the time. I believe this is what Mr Sweeney would call: “The last word in shit.”

Yet, Ireland after his team defended with 14 men when leading by five points.

Nevertheless, no-one blinked an eye when Gavin made this statement on Sunday. When I pointed out that Dublin had repeatedly defended with a dozen players, Gavin replied: “They were just following their men. If Monaghan players attack they have to be followed... I don’t think you could suggest that we play a defensive game, but I certainly expect my players to follow their opposing markers when they go into our half and that’s what we did.”

Again, Gavin’s claim doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Look at the photograph. Five Monaghan players are standing in splendid isolation because their markers have joined Dublin’s defensive scrum.

Every time Monaghan got the ball into the scoring zone, Dublin defended in the same manner. Nearly every player in the team retreated into one half of the field.

Yet, any neutral observer listening to the debate surrounding the emphasis being placed on defensive football would quickly leap to the conclusion that it’s a strategy mainly employed by northern teams. Dublin are above that sort of thing.

As for Kerry, on Sunday they committed 34 fouls to Tyrone’s 14. A one-off occurrence? When the All-Ireland champions visited Celtic Park in February, they committed almost three times as many fouls as Derry in the first half (21-8). At full-time the foul count read: Kerry 32 Derry 18.

However, it is Ulster teams that are supposed to be the main perpetrators of negative tactics. Again, there can be a stark contrast between perceptions and facts.

Still, it is good that a debate is taking place about the ultra-negative game plans dominating Gaelic football.

However, the debate needs to centre on what is actually happening. It should be fuelled by evidence and not by the misguided notions of men behind keyboards who still can’t see that the emperor’s team is defending with 14 players.

Follow Paddy Heaney on twitter: @HeaneyPaddy

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