DEFENDING: it just ain’t what it used to be.
In the old days, when 30 players shadowed each other for 60, 70 or 80 minutes, it was all very simple. Your man was, well, your man. Keep him quiet, preferably off the scoreboard, and you could walk off knowing your job was done.
Now we have things called tactics, weird formations, zonal marking, massed defences and counter attacks. Now it isn’t enough just to guard your own patch, you have to be mindful of your neighbours’ bit of land too.
That, in itself, asks a great deal more of defenders than in days gone by, but there is also the added onus on men once restricted to negating scoring opportunities to create and even contribute goals and points at the other end too.
In an era of defensive wing-forwards and attacking wing-backs, the only surprise now is that some people still express surprise at the sight of corner backs popping up to tap the ball over the opposition bar or into the net.
Donegal have mastered the one-size-fits-all approach this past two years and it is one that asks vexing questions of the opposing defenders whose task it is to chaperone Mssrs Murphy, McFadden and McBrearty, aka the most lethal full-forward line in the country.
“A lot of teams have adopted this defensive approach where players go behind the ball,” says Monaghan defender Colin Walshe. “Defenders themselves have to be able to attack too and it’s something that we would have done a lot. Myself, I would be attack-minded.
“It’s something everybody has to adapt to, be able to play on the ball as well as defend.
“Whenever teams have only two up front, it’s important not to leave yourself wide open.
“You seen when Armagh tried to push up the field against Cavan they left themselves wide open. They got cleaned out that day.”
The presence of Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden and Patrick McBrearty must only add to any feelings of insecurity. Down found as much in the semi-final when, despite their newly-minted conservative tactics, they still fell foul to a litany of long-range points.
The likelihood is that Walshe will be detailed onto one of that trio tomorrow having conceded just one point from play to two of the country’s most penetrative attackers — Antrim’s Paddy Cunningham and Cavan’s Martin Dunne — in Monaghan’s first two fixtures.
Though still only 22, Walshe plays with the intelligence and nous of a man much older and a glance at his burgeoning list of achievements is enough to prompt the suggestion that this is a future Monaghan captain.
A member of the minor side that lost out to Tyrone in the 2008 Ulster final, Walshe captained Monaghan to a Vocational Schools title in 2009 and was called up to the senior team by SeamusMcEnaney that same year.
BY THE end of that January’s McKenna Cup campaign he had fashioned a groove for himself on the starting team, has rarely vacated it since, and he continued his education by skippering DIT to a first Sigerson Cup title earlier this year.
DCU and UCC were both dealt with comfortably on that final weekend in Athlone and Walshe has no doubt that he has profited significantly from his experiences alongside players such as Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea and Kerry’s Darran O’Sullivan.
“College football is great for mixing with players all over the country. You are coming up against top players that you see in other counties and you are getting to know them as well as getting to know their game as well as players in your own county.”
Like Monaghan, who lost Ulster finals to Tyrone in 2007 and 2010, DIT knew what it was like to bang their heads on glass ceilings before they finally broke through in 2013 and lessons from that latter loss to Mickey Harte’s side have been banked. Walshe remembers how Monaghan strode to the final three years ago after easily accounting for Armagh and Fermanagh and how Harte’s side dispossessed them of their notions effortlessly.
Like Down against Donegal last month, Monaghan had their chances that day but failed to take enough of them. The margin in the end was ten points but the current pretenders won’t be surrounded by such elevated expectations this time.
“The hype going round the team at that time, we were being tipped to take them. We probably started to believe it ourselves. Then Tyrone came out with all guns blazing and took us apart. It’s definitely something we didn’t cope well with at the time.”
Coping is the minimum requirement tomorrow.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved