Thursday 25 December 2014

Colm O'Rourke: Old virtues marked out of game

The rule changes are having a negative impact on the art of tight defending, says Colm O'Rourke

Published 09/03/2014 | 17:00

‘Mattie Donnelly took between 12 and 15 steps in setting up the winning goal for Tyrone against Kildare. Usain Bolt would be halfway to an Olympic gold with this number of strides’

A bright new dawn. The old game has changed. Free-flowing attacking football. Big scores with an emphasis on forward play. A move away from the sweeper system with players who are faster, fitter and more skilful than ever before.

Some of the change is down to the black card, which certainly has made players more reluctant to chance a tackle which could lead to spending the rest of the game in the dugout. So, overall, a much better quality of football is the general verdict.

Well, count me out, at least for the moment, in the rush to applaud. I was quite happy to see the black card introduced and it does serve a purpose in penalising cynical play. Yet there are anomalies. When Andy Moran blatantly pulled a Kerry man's jersey last Sunday, I was waiting for a black card but it appears the referee was quite right in giving a yellow card because the player, Dáithí Casey, did not go to ground.

Now imagine what this conjures up in the devious mind. If you feel your jersey being tugged, you have to dive in order for the player to be sent off with the black card. Will players do it? Does the Pope know the Our Father? Will a referee give a player a yellow card for a dive in these circumstances? A rewording of this rule is quickly needed to list a blatant jersey-pull as a black-card offence whether the player goes down or not.

Anyway, this new free-flowing game, which resembles the Brazil team of 1970, is partly based on abandoning some old-fashioned virtues. Why does a game have to be free-flowing to be good? Why does it have to be fast and open? Why can players not hit each other any more? Within the rules of course but if there are a few borderline hits then that only adds to the occasion. Is there any such thing as a tight-marking defender left in Gaelic football?

What has happened this year so far is that one part of the game has developed at a very obvious cost to others. I can see as much appeal in a low-scoring war of attrition as some of the high-scoring games we had last week. The Kildare-Tyrone match was one such encounter. How could a team lose scoring 1-21? All defending seemed suspended in this shoot-out. Even the referee seemed to decide that anything went in this game as Mattie Donnelly took between 12 and 15 steps in setting up the winning goal. Usain Bolt would be halfway to an Olympic gold with this number of strides.

Yet Kildare should not beat themselves up too much over this result – there is more to be learned from such harsh lessons than from 50 easy wins.

There was a time when a defender was given very simple instructions: mark your man. And if you were a corner-back, it was: mark him even tighter. Now a new type of corner-back is emerging, one who gets plenty of ball, gives nice pretty handpasses and joins the attack. He might even kick a point. In the stats he will get favourable mention as he probably got a lot of ball and did not give it away. But what damage did his man do?

Some defenders still cling to the idea that if their man did not score they could get off the hook irrespective of everything else. So a corner-back could claim immunity as his direct marker did not score even if he set up two goals and six points for others. One of the downsides of this is that few young players want to be corner-backs anymore. There is no glory in that supposedly negative role, yet good tight-marking defensive play is just as much a skill as a free-scoring forward. Part of the problem too for many defenders is that players farther upfield are not performing any defensive role and so they are left to their own devices.

The quality of ball coming in to forwards last weekend in the full matches I saw (Meath v Armagh, Dublin v Cork, Mayo v Kerry and Kildare v Tyrone) was exceptionally high. Part of the reason for that was the lack of pressure on the player giving the final pass to the inside forwards. So it is not just a failure of defenders doing their job, they need a bit of help from their friends at the other end of the field who like to play ball but don't want to put in the hard graft of tackling and chasing and all the other things which don't get mentioned in the paper.

Not everybody can have markers on their team like Marc ó Sé, Keith Higgins, Ryan McMenamin, Graham Canty or, in previous eras, like Mark O'Reilly, Páidí ó Sé, Mick Kennedy, Kevin Foley, Niall Cahalane, Jimmy Deenihan, Gay O'Driscoll and so many more. These type of players were not interested in looking good or playing much ball. They usually ended up on the most dangerous forward on the other team and it was their job to 'look after him'.

So a tight, low-scoring game does as much for me as some of the matches from last weekend which were marked (not literally) by incessant handpassing, no physical contact and very little tight marking. I would be a bit concerned by the advantage rule too as some very obvious frees which should be blown straight away are let run and when the whistle is finally blown, it is causing frustration to players and supporters. It should be used sparingly.

Perhaps we are into a new era of football, one where instead of 1-16 winning a big game to where another three or four points, at least, are needed. If that is the case then the black card or a new emphasis on attack has eroded some of the more traditional skills of the game. When it comes to the championship, I feel teams will drift back to basics and the first principle of any good team is to get the defence right and build from there. And part of that will be a back giving a good solid wallop to some fancy forward and to hell with the consequences.

In the meantime, though, I am taking no chances. This weekend I am going to get the DVD of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men. It is nice to have some certainties.

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