Thursday 23 February 2017

McCartan's case for the defence

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Aughrim last July paraded many of the worst excesses of modern-day Down football, but it also incorporated better parts too. Enough to provide a fingerpost for James McCartan on his appointment as their new manager.

The embittered fall-out from that appointment continued to linger until recently, with Pete McGrath, who was the expected replacement for the Ross Carr/DJ Kane axis, steadfastly refusing to attend the banquet honouring the 50th anniversary of Down's first ever All-Ireland title on a point of principle.

However, McCartan has gone on with the business of reconstruction.

The visit to Wicklow's stronghold provided him with everything he needed to know. On that afternoon, at a venue not conducive to high scoring, Down were on the mark 17 times, much more than Fermanagh and Cavan, who had disappeared before them into Gaelic football's version last summer of the Bermuda Triangle.

The trouble was that Wicklow scored 16 times, with Leighton Glynn's timely goal tipping the balance in their favour.

As likely as they were to score through the intuitive attacking skills of Benny Coulter, Daniel Hughes and Paul McCumiskey, they were just as likely to concede. That, it seems, has been the way of more recent Down teams.

Magnificent

Think back to that magnificent night in the Marshes in 2008, one of the games of the last decade when Tyrone were knocked, however briefly, out of their stride. Down won after extra-time, but still coughed up 21 points in what has been the team's finest performance in recent times.

So, McCartan set about drawing up a new blueprint for the way Down would play. Together with Brian McIver, who cultivated a similar approach with Ballinderry and latterly Donegal, and Paddy Tally -- one of Mickey Harte's lieutenants in 2003 -- they have set about changing every pre-conceived idea we've had about Down football.

The propensity for flair and panache has had to make way for a new-found pragmatism. Ulster bluebloods have become less image-conscious and built a system designed for curtailment.

Defence has become paramount and the results so far seem to endorse the makeover. Down have ditched their instinct to ensure parsimony par excellence in the league.

The finer points of the systems deployed by Armagh (2002) and Tyrone (2003-2005) have been merged to some extent.

Six wins and a draw have all followed much the same script. If it takes numbers to defend, then they have been more than prepared to commit them. It hasn't been an uncommon sight to see 11 and 12 Down shirts cordoning themselves off within their own 45-metre line and calling a team on to them.

Much of their game-plan has been developed to suit the presence of the two central lights from the 2005 All-Ireland minor-winning team.

For different reasons, the expected impact of James Colgan, the '05 captain, and Martin Clarke, playmaker in chief, did not materialise.

Clarke had gone to Aussie Rules club Collingwood within 12 months of that minor success, while Colgan never quite caught the attention of the previous management.

However, McCartan and company have found a tailored role for Colgan, a centre-back with the portfolio of a 'libero', a free role that allows him to read and the play and sweep.

Just as Tyrone's Gavin Devlin occupied the 'D' and Kieran McGeeney was given a pillion passenger in Tony McEntee around the same time, Colgan positions himself as a blanket between his full-back and half-back lines, with the gap filled in numbers from midfield and half-forward.

Goals against have been at a premium -- just three conceded in seven games, one of which was a penalty against Armagh and the other a goalkeeping error that Brendan McVeigh has to put his hand up for.

It's no coincidence then that Down boasted the best defensive record in all four divisions of the league at the end of the group stages.

Kildare, Meath and Westmeath all managed just eight points against them, Armagh took them for just 1-6, Donegal managed 0-11, a goal less than Tipperary, while the pressure was off when Laois ran up 1-13 in the last game.

What McCartan is trying to achieve has the hallmarks of Pat Gilroy's rebuild of Dublin. At the other end, John Clarke and Benny Coulter are left in isolation as their half-forward line retreats, their vacuum usually filled by Paul McCumiskey.

Clarke hasn't taken long to re-adapt since returning from Australia and while some of the commentary on his performances has been over the top, he has, nonetheless, armed this Down team with a sublime vision that has been missing since he left.

He rides the tackles well, he kicks his frees well, he has broad peripheral vision -- but there's more in him to come.

The impact of John Clarke has been relatively greater since his inter-county exile ended, a man clearly buoyed, as McCartan acknowledged this week, by the return of his brother.

Between the Clarkes, Danny Hughes, McCumiskey and Coulter, Down have potentially one of the best attacking units in the game. But their priority is to defend first. They're tackling harder and working harder.

It's taken adjustment for their supporters used to seeing a different way. But McCartan has clearly taken to the maxim that if you can't beat them, then you're as well to join them.

Down have been late getting to the great defensive party, but for McCartan the timing may well be impeccable.

Irish Independent

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