DICK CLERKIN: Cynical play now a required tool for success

If I have one regret from this year’s championship it is that I didn’t cynically block Conor Laverty’s run in the closing stages of our first-half against Down in the Ulster semi-final.

Instead of checking his run, I attempted, unsuccessfully, to intercept a fist pass over my head and ended up taking myself out of the play.

This allowed Conor to continue his run, take the return and win the penalty which proved the crucial score of the game as it gave Down an unexpected life line just before half time.

In a season that has witnessed an increased amount of cynical play and deliberate fouling, it is ironic a distinct lack of this in our play against Down ultimately cost us that match. Even more ironic when you consider how we were labelled as a physical and cynical team over the years.

I would agree with that sentiment somewhat. Physical and aggressive? Yes. Cynical? Unfortunately not enough.

Even in the second-half, when we were still ahead, all be it a slimmer margin, we were far too naive and honest in our play, allowing Down into our half time and time again. Like many other teams have done so far this year we should have been deliberately fouling them further up the field and slowing down the play.

I can honestly say that, as a team, we never worked specifically on this as a part of our game plan, more a footnote to what we should do if in such circumstances. But, like any game plan, if it is not worked on week-in week-out on the training field you can’t expect it to just happen on the field of play. So when we needed it against Down, as a team we were not tuned into what need to be done, and more specifically how to effectively implement it.

So when I watch the way other teams are employing the tactic in games this year it is clear they are specifically focusing on this in training, such is the calculated and methodical way players are behaving.

Someone asked me over the weekend is it more prevalent with the better teams? Well it is not so much that it is more prevalent with the top teams, more they are better at it than most, and therefore one of the reasons they are in the closing stages of this year’s championship.

So as things stands I am effectively advocating cynical play as a required tool for any team to have a chance of success in the modern game. Not a good place to be, I admit, and as I write these words it makes me feel there is something amiss when, along with many other coaches and players, I am openly advocating cynical play as a must in the modern game.

Don’t blame the player, blame the game is a saying I frequently use when attempting to explain why people behave in a somewhat illegitimate manner, contrary to what many would feel is morally or ethically correct behaviour. Be it understating our tax bill, taking receipt of over generous welfare payments or simply not putting a parking ticket on our car, we all are guilty at times of pushing the legal and ethical boundaries. It is inherent in Irish society we will happily go about our business and get away with as much as we can until something eventually happens that incentivises us to change our behaviour.

So when trying to understand why managers and players partake in this cynical play, it is really just an extension of how we behave in society in general. Whilst unpalatable to watch and unquestionably at odds with fair play and sporting ethics, cynical play and deliberate fouling, as it stands is a very useful tool to have in ones armoury.

With all the advancements in modern day tactical approaches it is not surprising so many have caught on to its benefits. Indeed many of the top teams left in this year’s championship have had charges of systematic cynical play laid at their door following games this year. So whilst we all agree this type of play is blight on the game, we shouldn’t expect it to change just because it is unpalatable for some. If anything more and more teams will recognise its importance and, come next year, it will be even more prevalent.

So how can it be addressed?

First thing to do is introduce a penalty system for individuals who repeatedly pick up yellow cards. A turkey voting for Christmas I hear you say! Players have become more savvy at ‘carrying’ a yellow cardnowadays so they will happily take a card in each game knowing it has no consequences down the road.

However, if two or three cards accumulated in a season meant an automatic one match ban you would quickly see players behaving differently. Also it may be possible to implement a team sanction should a certain number of yellow cards be issued during the course of a game.

Say that five yellow cards per game are permitted but each subsequent booking merits a ten-minute sin bin for the offending player. Again players and managers wouldn’t be as quick to flout the law with such consequences.

Unfortunately with most things in life people rarely change their behaviour based on morals or ethics. Incentives or in this case, disincentives, is what impacts on our behaviours and actions. In the same way motorists in Dublin are much more likely to pay for a parking ticket since clamping was introduced; players and managers will only change their behaviour once they are incentivised to do so. Until then we shouldn’t expect things to change in a hurry.


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