A few weeks ago I got talking to a manager of a county football team. His team had made good progress playing a fine attacking style of football but in recent games had come unstuck against extreme massed defences, writes Kieran Shannon.
The quandary had him not so much wrecking his head trying to work out how to overcome it as have him wrestle with his conscience.
The day before we spoke his team had found that almost every time they tried to come out with the ball they were invariably fouled in their own half, the stoppage allowing the offenders time to file back and set up their massed defence.
“I always took the view that in managing a team you were simply holding the torch for someone else,” he said. “You had an obligation to the game and to the team, to develop the players and their skill level, before you pass it on.
“But then you see one of the great managers of our time, Mickey Harte, put 14 men behind the ball as he feels it’s the only chance he has of beating Mayo.
“To me that’s a warning flag for the sport. Instead it has been taken by others as a sign to follow his lead. Now I’m realising my philosophy was incredibly naive.”
In Apocalypse Now, one of its underlying themes, was that the reason it was the first war America ever lost was because enemy forces didn’t play by conventional rules and were ultimately prepared to get down lower and dirtier to win.
If Brando’s Colonel Kurtz was looking down he could see “horrors, horrors” that football has also seen. In observing Jim McGuinness taking the blanket defence to its ultimate conclusion by retreating to its own half en masse like a basketball team playing zone defence, he’d have recognised, “My God... the genius of that! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.”
Then in last year’s All Ireland final McGuinness met his match in Eamonn Fitzmaurice who for one game at least parked all obligations to the judging purists in Kerry football. “Because,” as Kurtz tells Martin Sheen’s Willard, “it’s judgement that defeat us.” For Fitzmaurice knew what really governs the Kerry psyche and which Kurtz knew and imparted to Kurtz in a deleted scene, “It is ‘right’ to win. And it is ‘wrong’ to lose.”
And to win, “You have to make a friend of horror.”
For awhile there you could tolerate one side setting up like that. Even Pat Spillane would concede that “a contrasting clash of styles” could be “absorbing”.
It offered a certain fascination and also equality, a prime example being last year’s Donegal-Dublin All Ireland semi-final.
In his most recent book, David and Goliath, Matthew Gladwell cites the work of the political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft.
When compiling data of all the wars between nations over the last couple of hundred years, he calculated that a nation or army 10 times larger or more than an opposing one only won 71.5 % of the time. Furthermore, when the smaller force refused to fight along the conventional lines that the larger forces would have desired, the more adaptable David beat the more rigid Goliath a whopping 63.6% of the time. Donegal-Dublin was a classic of the genre.
Like Michael Collins’ guerrilla-warfare tactics, Jim McGuinness had invented rules of his own. What though when both teams set up like David?
As in last year’s All-Ireland final. Or in Letterkenny last Sunday where the scoreline said it all: Monaghan 0-9, Donegal 1-4. Alan Foley, the Donegal beat reporter, described it as “the worst game of football ever played”.
It’s true to say that when you have teams line up and play like you had with Kerry-Dublin and Kerry-Mayo in All-Ireland semi-finals over the previous two summers football is as fine a spectacle as any sport there is. But football does less than other sports to increase the likelihood of such games.
Back in 2001 when Tyrone developed a more cynical edge in the Ulster championship manager Art McRory remarked, “There’s no point me putting manners on my boys if the fella up the road isn’t putting any on his.” Now that ruthlessness applies to defensive setups.
This time last year Brian Cuthbert was waxing romantically about the young fella in the back garden and how he and his Cork team wanted to play the game.
Now romantic Cork is dead and gone. Dublin this year against Donegal remembered what Pat Gilroy learned after the startled earwigs experience. In Mayo too there are signs that there’s been a realisation that occasionally within games you should set up more like Jimmy and David than Goliath all the time.
What’s wrong with any of this? Because it’s being aped around the country. Because it’s a lot easier to show your team and players how to get men behind the ball than how to kick properly, from underage right up, a lot easier to stifle skill than reward and coach it.
In basketball over the last 10 years they brought in the no-hand-check rule, because beforehand all the bumping was allowing defenders to easily block quick, skilful, smaller guards. Now that league is dominated by small skill merchants like Steph Curry.
Right now hurling is more like the NBA — a spectacle that rewards skill. Football is more like college ball; still interesting, generating great passion, but in need of greater scrutiny, love and legislation from its legislators. It should aspire to more, demand more.
Seriously consider a rule that at least four men need to be in the opponent’s half of the field at all times.
Do more to reward and replicate Steph Currys, Lionel Messis, Alan Cadogans, Peter Canavans. Do more to help our coaching friend hold on to his idealism than feel naive.
Otherwise we’ll just keep having more and more games like Letterkenny. The horror, the horror!
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