My first ever training session with the Glen U12s was a slightly terrifying experience.
It took place on a crispy, cold, Saturday morning at Glenview Primary School. I have since worked out that I was seven years old. I know because Adrian ‘Clucker’ McCloskey was there and he’s five years older than me.
Clucker was demonstrating his ability to kick the ball off the ground. I was impressed. I’d never seen anyone kick a ball so hard and so far (about 35 metres). I was also a bit scared.
Clucker and the other boys looked enormous. My main concern was that one of them would run over me. And it was cold.
I didn’t go back. But that was then. It’s different now. Nowadays a seven-year-old would be coached alongside his peers. Some clubs even run indoor coaching classes for children as young as six. The Omagh squad which won the Ulster U21 Club Championship last Sunday has been together since U8s. They epitomise the modern team.
Following a Tyrone game a few years ago, the current Omagh U21 side had a training session on Healy Park. They trained while we wrote our match reports. I recall watching them playing a few small-sided matches with a rugby ball. The oval-shaped ball provided a bit of novelty. But it was also designed to improve their handling. Such concepts were unheard of when Clucker and I were in our prime.
While there has been a lot of discussion about the incredible fitness levels of the modern player, there has been a grudging reluctance to acknowledge the fact that Gaelic footballers have never been so skilful.
When Anthony Tohill returned from his stint with North Melbourne in 1991, he revealed that all AFL players were coached to fist pass the ball with both hands.
It was a skill practiced exhaustively. It was only on his return to Ireland that Tohill noticed how many footballers were incapable of passing the ball with their weaker hand, never mind their weaker foot.
Tohill’s remark sprang to mind when I was talking to a club minor manager noting the fact his players were up to AFL standard. Yet, as Tohill’s point bears out, it’s not that long ago that some county players lacked those skill levels.
Pundits like Pat Spillane repeatedly argued the execution of the basic skills has deteriorated since Kerry stopped winning the All-Ireland every year. The hard evidence contradicts this opinion.
Empirical analysis of so-called classic games like the1977 All-Ireland semi-final reveals there was an abundance of mistakes and misplaced passes.
While it’s true that a huge emphasis is now placed on strength and speed, it’s easy to overlook the rise in skill levels.
Just 30 years ago, two-footed players were a rare species, usually in the full-forward line. Spillane’s all-conquering Kerry side is a prime example. Often lauded as the most gifted group of players ever, the fact remains that John Egan and Mikey Sheehy were the only truly two-footed players from that storied team.
Many would consider it heretical to suggest that the recent Kerry teams were more skilful. But look at the evidence.
Colm Cooper, Bryan Sheehan and Declan O’Sullivan regularly score with their weaker foot. Darragh, Marc and Tomás Ó Sé are also completely two-footed. Even the Ó Sé’s brother, Feargal, who didn’t play for the county senior side, is two-footed.
Unlike Micko’s legends, the Kerry players entered combat with teams just as fit and skilful.
Consider, for instance that Justin McMahon, Joe McMahon, Davy Harte, Sean Cavanagh, Stephen O’Neill, Peter Canavan, Owen Mulligan, Peter Harte, Brian McGuigan, Philip Jordan and Martin Penrose have all scored for Tyrone with their weaker foot.
And then we’re being told the standard of kicking has got worse. Clearly, that’s just not the case.
The dramatic improvement in underage coaching has started to bear fruit. The Go-Games model which rewards skill rather than size has shown coaches how to structure training so the big children don’t dominate.
Perversely, the maniacal focus on tackling and defensive systems has also forced players to improve technical aspects.
Amid all the controversy around the 13-man defensive system employed by Donegal last year, it’s easy to forget the dramatic winning point in their All-Ireland quarter-final was kicked by a defender. Kevin Cassidy landed the winner from the outside of his weaker left boot.
Unfortunately, it must be conceded the emphasis on blanket defences has made it harder for players to express themselves.
Faced with a wall of jerseys, the invariable response is to pass and probe. Truth be told, it looks like basketball on a big, green court. The real tragedy is that the game deserves to be so much better.
Many of today’s players have enjoyed quality coaching since they were toddlers. Given that players have never been so accomplished, we should really be living in a Golden Age.
And maybe it is.
Yet right now, as we prepare for another weekend of clogged defences, it really doesn’t feel like it. But that’s down to tactics, not any lack of skill.
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