Kicking the ball.
Shooting practice. Training games.
It sounds like football. It sounds like fun. It was great to have played the game before it became so sophisticated.
As a young fella growing up in South Derry, I was consumed by two passions: fishing and football.
During the summer holidays the recipe for a perfect day was simple.
In the morning, we’d tie the rods to our bikes and ride out to the Moyola River where we’d stay until the evening.
Then, if there was training or a game, we’d return home, shovel down a dinner, and go to the field. Happy days.
Despite my love of football, it wasn’t always an easy decision to make that last cast and head back to the bridge.
The Moyola always fished best on the edge of darkness. Dusk was prime-time.
We called it ‘the twilight zone’. If the stars were aligned and the gods were with you, it could be magical.
But, more often than not, and despite the prospect of hooking a monster, I opted for the pitch.
Back then, I drew huge enjoyment from all aspects of football. It didn’t matter whether it was training or games. I looked forward to both.
Training drills focused on the basic skills of catching, kicking and solo-running. We’d also have games of backs-and-forwards and, if the numbers allowed, a match on the full pitch.
If you were young, competitive and liked sport, it was all you wanted or needed.
As I grew older and moved into senior football, training sessions became more of a chore.
In the early Nineties, the possession game was in its infancy and fist-passing drills were the rage.
The more complex the drill, the better it was deemed to be. There are chess masters in Russia who would have struggled to grasp some of the labyrinthine routines that were doing the rounds at that time. But it got worse. The Nineties were a time of innocence compared to the current decade. By the time I quit playing football, I dreaded training. Being as slow as a carthorse didn’t help matters, but there were other factors.
A typical session consisted mostly of tackling drills and small-sided games played on pitches no larger than a tennis court. It was fist-passing only.
For a midfielder with a fondness for the ancient arts of catching and kicking, there was little or no fun to be had. So I quit.
Looking back, I am grateful that I played most of my football before the blanket defence and the five-yard fist-pass formed the central premise of every team’s gameplan.
When I watch teams training nowadays, I am genuinely mystified how anyone could derive any satisfaction from the experience. Twenty players barging about frantically in a small space. Studied from a distance, they look like a shoal of fish being chased by a shark.
Given the proven effectiveness of the blanket defence, the vast majority of coaches have swallowed the blueprint and they all regurgitate the coaching methods that go with it.
Fortunately, there is one shining exception, one beacon of light that offers hope to those of us pining for a return to more traditional values.
On Saturday evening in Breffni Park, Crossmaglen won the All-Ireland club title for the second year in-a-row.
In doing so, Cross have provided indisputable proof that it’s still possible to kick and win.
As has been stated before in this column, Crossmaglen don’t perform fist-passing drills during their training sessions.
The joint-management team of Tony McEntee and Gareth O’Neill share a common philosophy on how the game should be played.
They believe the ball should be moved from defence to attack as quickly as possible.
To achieve that objective, they coach players to kick the ball.
Kicking drills are conducted using the entire length of the pitch.
In-house games are played on the full-pitch. To cap it all off, Cross don’t employ a zonal defence. They go to man-to-man.
After a steady diet of inter-county league games, it was refreshing to watch Crossmaglen in all their pomp.
Crossmaglen’s excellent use of the boot means they can move the ball at astonishing speed. The net effect is that the opposition doesn’t have time to get 13 men into their defensive positions.
The All-Ireland champions chalked up 2-19 against Garrycastle. After the game, full-forward Francis Hanratty revealed that the players had spent the previous two weeks engaged mainly in shooting practice.
The argument about which system is the most effective is for another day, but I know which game I’d prefer to play, and to watch.
Kicking the ball. Shooting practice. Training games on a full-size pitch. It sounds like football. It sounds like fun. It was great to have played the game before it became so sophisticated. Faced with the prospect of an evening spent running around in small circles, I would never have left the river.
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