It was one of those inviolable truths that anybody could mouth without fear of contradiction.
Nowadays, we know that once-common refrain is total nonsense.
Teams lose midfield all the time and still win the game.
Increasingly, we have come to realise that what players do with the ball is probably more important than their ability to win it.
The impact of this realisation has become increasingly evident in the selection of half-forwards. In the ideal world, the complete half-forward can do everything: win ball, defend, pass, and score. However, the Brian Doohers and Paul Galvins of this world are thin on the ground.
In reality, half-forwards come in two guises.
There are the rugged, honest sorts who generally play midfield for their clubs.
A jack-of-all-trades, they’re strong enough to withstand the rough and tumble of midfield. They have good stamina and can land the odd point.
Then there is the more stylish half-forward.
A much more accomplished footballer, this player has superior technique and will create and finish more scores than his more robust counterpart.
When the blanket defence came into vogue, managers tended to select the ball-winner rather than the ball-player.
Armagh typified this type of approach.
In 2008, their half-forward line for the All-Ireland quarter-final against Wexford included Charlie Vernon (a midfielder) and Martin O’Rourke (a breaking ball specialist who rarely scored). Armagh lost.
And their defeat illustrated the limitations of such a cautious mindset.
While Ronan Clarke and Steven McDonnell played well, registering 0-3 apiece, only three of their team-mates — Aaron Kernan (0-4, 0-3 frees), Brian Mallon (0-1), and Vernon (0-1) — managed to raise a flag. Armagh’s modest tally of 0-12 wins very few games in Croke Park.
As the blanket defence became increasingly effective in containing the stellar forwards, managers realised that they couldn’t rely on one or two players to post a match-winning tally.
When James McCartan took over Down, he knew the county could no longer be so dependent on Benny Coulter’s goals.
This explains why McCartan picked such an attack-minded half-forward line.
Mark Poland, Martin Clarke, and Danny Hughes would all be classified as ball-players.
Clarke and Hughes are two of the best. That’s why they’re All Stars.
Yet, despite their many gifts, neither is noted for their ability to win breaking ball.
And contrary to popular conception, Down weren’t cleaned out by Cork’s high fielding in last year’s final. The Rebels took nine clean catches to Down’s five.
It was in the battle for carpet ball where Down were obliterated by the Rebels.
Cork dived in to collect 23 breaks to Down’s modest sum of nine.
Cork half-backs collected 11 possessions.
This meant that Cork won 70% possession at midfield.
Some might believe Cork’s victory lends weight to the argument that managers should go for ball-winners. I disagree.
Let’s not forget, despite working off just 30% possession, Down only lost by a point.
If Ambrose Rogers had been fit, if Dan Gordon had been moved to midfield sooner, if a few players hadn’t slipped at vital times, the result could have been very different.
The prevailing thinking appears to be that to succeed in the modern game, a manager needs to have half-forwards who can create and/or score.
Armagh typify the current thinking. At the weekend, their half-forward line of Rory Grugan (0-1), Micheal O’Rourke (0-3), and Anto Duffy (1-0) posted 1-4 from play.
It’s probably the first time in 20 years that an Orchard half-forward outscored their full-forwards.
Unsurprisingly, the preference for skill over sweat had repercussions.
Down won 15 out of the 23 kick-outs (65%) in the first half.
Yet Armagh still managed to win.
Their victory was largely the result of a high-scoring half-forward line and vital points from defenders Paul Duffy and Declan McKenna.
Where scoring half-forwards were once seen as a luxury, now they’re a necessity.
The same applies to half-backs and midfield.
The irony of course is that we are hugely indebted to the blanket defence for this change in thinking.
The fresh emphasis on scoring is simply a case of cause and effect — an ultra-positive response to an ultra-negative tactic.