Shooting from the lip

Obesity, ill discipline and the state of Kerry football. Just the headline acts in a two-hour chat with Pat Spillane. Michael Moynihan did the listening.

AS interview subjects go, Pat Spillane isn’t a challenge. Some candidates you have to pry and poke, some you have to cajole, but not the former Kerry star. A casual opener about the league final leads ultimately to modern full-back play, and there aren’t too many degrees of separation.

“I thought the league final was a reality check for Kerry,” says Spillane. “I didn’t expect them to get to a league final, but once you get there you don’t turn your back on it. But they were so unfit — they looked six or seven weeks behind in terms of fitness. And there was an 11-point turnaround in 50 minutes. Kerry teams don’t normally do that.

“That’s taken a slight bit of pressure off them, but it means the foreign training camp is all hard work. I know they’ve a long break to the championship, but I still expected them to be further along.”

Having already offered more opinion than a flock of current intercounty players, Spillane skewers a couple of misconceptions as we continue.

“There have been a couple of myths going around recently in Gaelic football. One was that Tyrone had a conveyor belt of talent and were so well organised that they’d be at the top forever. The same myth applies to Kerry, that there are so many top class players coming through they’ll be there forever.

“But Tyrone found out when a couple of marquee players aren’t around — Canavan, Dooher, O’Neill — there were no players to take their place. Kerry have had a conveyor belt of a lot of good players coming through, but top-class players who are ready for championship? They’re not as plentiful as we were led to believe. What disguised that for Kerry in the league is that they had the championship defence out — that camouflaged the problems, which was mainly that Kerry don’t have too many top-class championship forwards in reserve.

“The biggest reason Kerry lost to Derry was the absence of Paul Galvin. He performs a role that isn’t glamorous — he’s not going to be highest scorer, or the conductor of the attack, or involved in all the sweeping moves, but he’s the man for second-phase possession, for the breakdown if he was playing rugby. Getting down and dirty and winning breaks, getting a hand in — that’s his job, but Derry won all of those balls in the league final. Every team needs a player like that.

“Kerry don’t have a natural full-back: Marc Ó Sé is the Red Adair of the defence, he has to put out every fire, and he struggled with Paddy Bradley — though in fairness to him, I’d have Bradley in my top three footballers in the country. Number three, probably.”

Mentioning top full-forwards leads inevitably to the lack of top full-backs. He’s off again.

“The trouble with full-backs is that the stereotypical six-three, John O’Keeffe or Darren Fay-type commanding the square doesn’t exist any more. That’s because the typical game now has half-forwards playing deep or a two-man full-forward line, which means the amount of high ball into the square — apart from Kerry and Donaghy — is negligible. It’s low, fast ball, so you need a mobile full-back.”

Marc Ó Sé rather than Darragh Ó Sé? “Exactly. Your mobile guy at 5-10 is more valuable than a 6-4 guy who’s relatively immobile, the way the game is played nowadays.

“Tactics have come into Gaelic football compared to years ago — I’ve said to Tony Hanahoe he must have been the only man to win an All Star by running to the sideline! But he was probably the first, trying to take Tim Kennelly out of the centre.

“Against Derry, Kerry were tactically naïve – they played Eoin Brosnan as a sweeper and brought the half-forward line back. But you can’t defend a lead in Gaelic football — we know well, we lost the five-in-a-row because of it. You’re inviting the opposition on to you, and that can work sometimes against a running team, you can stop them 40 yards from goal, but if the opposition can kick the ball over the bar from 40, 50 yards, then you’re in trouble. That’s what Derry did in the league final, they were able to kick long-range points.”

As a man who kicked his fair share of long-range points, it’s no surprise to hear him bemoan the decline of kicking as a skill.

“We hear ‘it’s all ballwork’ at intercounty training sessions, and teams have gone away from laps and hill-running, but if you go to one of those sessions you’ll see that drills from other sports, usually basketball, are being used. That means handpassing. You can have on average 150 hand-passes per game as a result, because that’s how the teams are being trained.

“That’s why the Australians found us out in the Compromise Rules. We’re just athletes who pass the ball, and the one strong point was our long, accurate kicking; when we didn’t do that we came up against stronger, fitter athletes who beat us.

“Players don’t know how to tackle in Gaelic football. I remember when Donal O’Grady coached Cork he went back to holding hurleys, hooking and blocking. The basics. Our players don’t get good coaching. If a golfer misses a putt he goes to the green and practices for two hours; if Ronan O’Gara misses a kick he’ll take kicks for a couple of hours at training. If a Gaelic football team loses a game by kicking 14 wides, they’ll do laps of the field at their next training session.

“So much is programmed in training now that when a game loosens up — and becomes unprogrammed — players can’t handle it.”

Spillane wouldn’t be averse to reducing the number of players per side, and opening up space on the field (“It’s a point, bringing it down to 14 or 13), but sports psychologists and statisticians leave him cold.

“I don’t go overboard with psychologists and statisticians. If you need them to get the 1% to get over the line, fine, but you’ll notice that when a team wins an All-Ireland the psychologist is lauded. But the team they beat in the final probably had a psychologist as well. What about him? A great manager doesn’t need to be told the stats. He’ll recognise that midfield isn’t being won, or that a corner-back is in trouble. My favourite story about statisticians is the time three of them were out shooting. A duck flew up and one shot and missed him by three feet on the left. Another statistician shot and missed by three feet on the right. ‘I’m not going to shoot at all,” said the third, “Statistically speaking that duck is dead’.”

BROADENING the debate broadens the focus. Parnellgate is still fresh in the memory, and Spillane takes the specific incident to illustrate a wider truth about the GAA.

“Too many of the Dubs play with a scowl on the face, and that in-your-face aggression comes from the top down, from management. The incident involving Dublin and Meath was fairly low on the Richter scale, but it was the week after Nickey Brennan made a big statement about discipline. If you had sense you’d know not to make trouble, because the next teams that stepped out of line were going to get punished . . .

“The shortest fully constructed sentence in English is ‘I’m sorry’. But they’re the most difficult words for GAA people to produce. The two managers shouldn’t have been joking about Arsene Wenger and ‘I didn’t see it’, they should have apologised, the two county boards the same –— but no.

“In fairness, you wouldn’t get that in the championship. But take the Cork-Clare thing last year, it was trivial, and the suspensions were completely over the top. When you see one of the greatest sportsmen in the GAA, Sean Óg Ó hAilpin, getting a massive suspension, you know something is wrong with the system. Sleeveenism is alive and well in the GAA, and unfortunately more so at official level than player level. The rulebook needs to be rewritten, and to be made simpler.

“But that comes back to a wider issue in Irish society. There’s no respect for elders, for teachers, for gardaí — in the GAA there’s no respect for referees, and there’s no excuse for the abuse they get from players, managers and supporters.”

On those wider issues Spillane is downbeat, and with good reason.

“I see a society I don’t like now. It’s a disaster. I’m a PE teacher and 30% of my first years have never played sport — and that’s in rural west Cork. They’ve come through primary systems where they’ve never had sports facilities, and now they’re playing their Wii, Xbox, etc. By the time they get to 16 they’ve given up on those for drugs, drink and anti-social behaviour.

“We’re heading into a disaster zone. We have a society which is overweight, unfit and uninterested in sport, and now the Celtic Tiger is coming to an end what have we been left with? The GAA has been part of that. It’s had a magnificent run, but the golden era is over for the GAA. We’re not dealing with the major problems. Our flagship competitions aren’t as good as we want them to be. Football is mediocre, while hurling is confined to six or seven teams.”

It’s not all complaints. Spillane appeals for GAA players to be used properly in marketing (“A transition year class would come up with better marketing for the GAA”), for county panels to get a slice of the gate to spend as they want, and for a career structure to appeal to young GAA players, but the frustration is still close to the surface.

“Urban-focused legislation is ruining rural Ireland and country GAA clubs are struggling, while at the same time the Association hasn’t dealt with urbanisation. The big towns and cities aren’t being catered for. We had a gravy train and milked it to the last, but I don’t think the GAA is spending its money the right way — on coaching in primary schools. In 30 years as a post-primary teacher I’ve never been offered any coaching help, but if I rang the IRFU tomorrow I’d have a coach at the school the next morning.

“There were less than 16,000 people at the four league finals this year. That’s frightening, and no-one is saying ‘this is serious’. People are saying the championship is coming around, but what’s camouflaged things for the last couple of years is the Dubs. The GAA has been lucky that the media has hyped up the games and done its work for it; the GAA only had to collect the money. But if they don’t get the same exposure for some reason . . .

“The warning bells are ringing, and they’re ringing loudly.”

Who’s listening?


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