independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Martin Breheny: Brendan Devenney comments highlight the problem facing Gaelic football


Message to the public: 'Don't expect a good match'
Message to a player: 'You're not going to enjoy this'
Message to the GAA: 'You'll have empty stadiums'

SUCH is the banality which glues itself to most post-match quotes across all sports that if criticisms of the referee from the losing side are discounted -- on the grounds of wearisome predictability -- it's rare to mine even one nugget from every 10 interviews.

And then it happens. A raw November evening in Ballybofey unloads itself of several gems, each ventilated with striking clarity and no little sadness, even if the occasion had a joyous backdrop for the speaker. However, personal satisfaction was tempered by the circumstances in which it had been achieved.

Step forward Brendan Devenney, once a free-spirited Donegal, Ulster and International Rules forward and now coach to his home club, newly crowned county champions St Eunan's. They beat Naomh Conaill by a point, scored off a '45' conceded when a 25-metre backpass to the goalkeeper skewed well wide of the target.

There was a time in Gaelic football when passing back to the goalkeeper was classed as defensive heresy -- now it's actively encouraged by the coaching intelligentsia whose response to claims that it's yet another triumph for negativity is to dub critics as old-school fools with no appreciation of modern methods.

Old or young, boring is boring. On a league table of watching-paint-dry tactics, passing back to the goalkeeper on a repetitive basis is top-four class. Soccer recognised that a long time ago and restricted the backpass, but Gaelic football continues to embrace it.

St Eunan's were beneficiaries of a wayward kick last Sunday but that wasn't what exercised Devenney specifically as he issued a withering assessment of the direction football has taken. No, the whole package left him queasy.

Try these remarks in what was his club's hour of glory: "I said to people (in advance), 'don't be expecting a good match.' I knew it wasn't going to be.

"Having to say to young Conor Gibbons (St Eunan's right corner-forward), 'you're not going to enjoy this match'... that's just the way it's gone. It has become a dog-fight."

"It's a bit like the scenario with Donegal. If you try to play a normal game against them, they're going to beat you. I don't like that type of football.

horrible

"For years when we (St Eunan's) had ding-dongs with Glenties, we didn't play like that. We used to go out and try to outplay them.

"We had two bad years, so for us to get a footing in the championship, we had to protect our defence. I was standing there thinking 'this is horrible.'

And then perhaps the most telling -- and worrying -- comment of all.

"It's getting to the stage where neutrals and people half-interested in club football are not going to come to games unless we do something about it and start improving the product. Every game seems to be 0-4 to 0-3, 0-6 to 0-4 at half-time. It's not good."

Devenney's comments will, no doubt, elicit the predictable response from some quarters -- 'that's Donegal football for you.' They're wrong. It's football everywhere now.

Jim McGuinness came in for ridiculous criticism last year when he succeeded in devising a system which closed Donegal's defensive channels so tightly that they conceded a miserly average of 8.8 points per game in six championship outings.

He acknowledged afterwards that the next phase of the development required a merger of the tight security with a higher strike rate, which Donegal achieved so successfully this year that they won the All-Ireland.

A coach's job is to develop a structure that gives the squad the best opportunity of winning the maximum number of games their talents allow. It's unfair then to blame coaches for devising tactics which achieve good results, even on a 0-2 to 0-1 scoreline.

Just as the coach's responsibility is to maximise the success rate, administrators have a duty to shape the rules so that a sport maintains a high entertainment value. After all, thinly populated stadiums serve nobody, least of all the players.

In fairness, one of Liam O'Neill's first initiatives as new president was to create a committee to examine the state of Gaelic football. Chaired by Eugene McGee of this parish, it has consulted widely and is working its way diligently towards producing a report.

The final conclusions will be eagerly awaited but, as the committee shapes them, Devenney's comment that the public will lose interest unless the product is improved should be uppermost on the agenda.

He's right. At one stage during the Rhode-St Patrick's Leinster club first-round game in Tullamore last Sunday week I counted 22 of the 30 players shoe-horned into a tiny space, slaves to short handpassing. Where's the entertainment in that? A near-empty O'Connor Park provided the answer.

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