GAA: The Crying game

There is a real danger that some of the most creative players in today’s Gaelic football are becoming more and more peripheral, believes Dara O Cinnéide.

ONE of the more revealing end of season observations appeared on these pages a short while ago when Colm Cooper took time out of his hectic schedule with Dr Crokes to compare the club game with his recent experiences of playing for his county. As usual, his comments were on the money.

Speaking about the vast gulf between playing for Crokes and Kerry, Cooper’s observations about the “win at all costs” nature of the inter-county scene merit attention.

As well as being the most gifted forward of his generation, Cooper is also a winner and a pragmatist, but his comments carried a note of sadness about how the game he loves has evolved.

“Every team is playing to a structure and a system and if you don’t conform you won’t be playing. I find when I go back to the club, you’ve a little bit more freedom in what you are doing and you can come in and tease things out a little bit more. I won’t say control, but you’ve a little bit more freedom doing what you do and where you play and where you see yourself as a player and where you can influence the game. At inter-county level it’s so structured and rigid, you mightn’t have that”.

As he heads into his 12th season as an inter-county footballer, I’ll bet Cooper, like so many more forwards in today’s game, never imagined that one day he’d end up discussing issues of conformity, structure and rigidity.

The innocence has been gone from the game for some time as more and more bright young coaches devote their time to dreaming up the perfect game of Gaelic football, the system to end all systems.

Up until recently, tactics were incidental to most counties’ game-plan, with a few notable exceptions. The Donegal-Dublin semi-final of 2011 is held up by many as the watershed moment when tactics overtook technical ability as the key element in the art of winning football matches.

Sometimes, however, too much is made of the role played by that infamous match in the changes the game has undergone. It is arguable that tactics have always existed over the 128 year history of the GAA, but today the influence of basketball, rugby and other sports and the slavish devotion to structure is sapping the creative spirit of the likes of Cooper.

For all the success that conforming and playing to a structure and a system brings, gaelic football has been blanched of much of what made it different. Tactical revolutions are more prosaic than poetic and in today’s game good to middling players are rewarded for performing limited jobs superbly. Meanwhile, the creativity of maverick talents is being stifled and self-expression is discouraged.

This past season saw the clearest example yet of the lack of scope within the game for a maverick element. This time last year Kevin Cassidy had accepted that he would no longer be part of the Donegal panel because he expressed too many opinions in gaelic football’s answer to The Satanic Verses.

Those of us who thought that Donegal might struggle in Cassidy’s absence underestimated just how committed to the programme his erstwhile team-mates were.

While we lamented the absence of the Gaoth Dobhair man, we were forced to acknowledge that Donegal have brought the art of the dispossession followed by counter-attack to a new level and that despite all talk of their system and their structure, they also have some of the best individual players around right now.

Still, the feeling remains that the greatest feat of individual imagination in their success belonged to the manager rather than to any of his players.

The great challenge for Jim McGuinness in 2013 is to find more ways of allowing individual talent to flourish. He must find more ways of encouraging expression within the game that he has developed so well over the past two seasons.

There were glimpses of that un-choreographed freedom in Karl Lacey’s late point against Kerry in this year’s quarter final and once again in Lacey’s diagonal ball and Michael Murphy’s catch and turn that produced one of the great All Ireland final goals.

But the point surely is that those moments and that freedom of expression is too rare a sight these days. And it’s not just Donegal. There is a real danger that some of the most creative players in today’s game are becoming more and more peripheral.

When was the last time we saw Cork’s Patrick Kelly influence a game to the same degree he did in the 2011 league final against Dublin? Bernard Brogan is coming off the back of a very frustrating year because he’s had to try too hard to settle into a system that demanded constant collective grind and very few moments of instinct or intuition.

Colm Cooper has shown all winter what he might be capable of given the freedom to drift out the field and pick a pass, but can you imagine that happening at inter-county level?

One of my own favourite players, Mark Poland from Down, has appeared distracted and burdened by the over-reliance on him to produce moments of inspiration in a hostile environment. It is extremely hard for genuine talent to shine through given the way the game is being played right now.

In this context I was surprised to see the chairman of the Football Review Committee, Eugene McGee, declare this month that handpassing “is a trend, a fad if you like, that comes and goes at the behest of good managers who decide that they have the kind of players that suit the hand pass.”

I was surprised because the over-use of the hand-pass is more than just a trend. To my mind, it represents a lack of daring and resourcefulness that is almost ingrained in the game at this stage.

Sure, it’s a team game where the collective will is always more important than individual enterprise, but the danger of the current over-reliance on the hand-pass is that it promotes conformism and conservatism above all else.

We saw so often in the 2012 season how the retention of possession at all costs was the order of the day as nobody wants to be the player to give up the ball anymore. By not tackling the hand-passing malaise properly, I believe we could leave ourselves open to the endless “box game” where keeping the ball is almost as important as getting a score.

So many of the tactical nuances we have seen introduced this season had the ultimate aim of nullifying the opposition. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in 2013 the tactical innovators found a way to reward the risk taker and the maverick.

That the likes of Colm Cooper’s passion for playing for his county remains undiluted is a testament to his perseverance and love of the game, but should we not be worried that the likes of Colm Cooper seems to be taking less joy in his sport?

And even if you are inclined to argue that it doesn’t matter a damn how much pleasure Cooper takes from playing, is it not a little sad that the game no longer allows him to bring the rest of us the joy he once did?


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