Colm O'Rourke: It's not just the style of football that is sub-standard; so too are many of the players
The problem isn’t just the style of football, it’s the standard of players, writes Colm O’Rourke
For many years I have banged on about the changes that have taken place in Gaelic football, the move away from the original skills of the game, the increasing drift towards handpassing and the burying of individualism among the slow-moving rucks of players who clinically carry out a particular role.
The Derry-Dublin league game provoked a huge reaction after Derry decided to take defence to a new level. The team and their manager Brian McIver were roundly criticised. But these most recent converts to the inherent sickness of football should have been congratulating them rather than denouncing this extreme form of playing the game. Derry just brought the whole sorry mess to a head and if it promotes change then McIver deserves our congratulations. Just like Shakespeare’s Othello, he will have done the state some service.
Since that match there have been a few good games with the defenders of the faith using these examples to declare that there is nothing wrong with the game. If Dublin or Kerry are involved in a game there is a good chance of it being more entertaining, the Derry-Dublin match being the obvious exception.
The reason is not hard to figure out. They have most of the best players who are capable of playing football off the cuff which can beat all the other teams. They are not in a straitjacket because of their class. Cork and Mayo played similarly during the league. The rest were bland. Swap the jerseys and there is no obvious differences between many, or maybe any, county. It is mostly bad teams playing a bad style badly.
This style can be summed up by a short kick-out, a thousand handpasses up the field and an attempt to get the ball to a select few kickers who either have a shot or draw a free. That is if the ball has not been lost by then.
The defensive system is to flood back almost everyone to deny space to the opposition. If the ball is won back there is no option but to short-pass out of defence as there aren’t enough players in the other half. The difference between the top few is that they have enough high-quality players who can kick more accurately and get forward quicker. Having a wider spread of scorers helps too. Many other teams get by without some players ever kicking the ball.
I don’t buy into this moralising about the game either. Either there is no such thing as ‘win at all costs’ or it has always been there. Personally, I think that phrase is stupid and contradictory. If you try to win at all costs then it will probably result in defeat. Neither do county managers have any more responsibility to the game than anyone else. Their job is to win matches on behalf of their county. They are not bound by some unwritten contract to play the game in a certain way.
Over the course of this league I have seen a lot of teams either on TV or live, most of the live games were Division 2. From a purist’s point of view, I thought Down and Roscommon had a rotten style. Down, the great innovators and a county renowned for flair, were nearly the worst I have seen from a handpassing point of view.
Do the Down players care? Does Jim McCorry, their manager, lose any sleep over the way they played? Are the Down County Board complaining? The answer, very firmly, is no. They are looking forward to playing teams like Kerry, Dublin, Cork and Mayo next year in the top tier. And anyway, when they played the traditional Down style they were going nowhere.
The same is true of John Evans and Roscommon. Why should they apologise? They played by the rules and it is a wonderful achievement to get into Division 1. I am quite sure these counties had a great celebration last Sunday night and nobody was crying about the state of the game. That is not their concern.
The same applies to Cavan. Their style probably grates with the old-timers, but in the new world, consolidation in their division makes it a good league for them. And if Meath had been promoted there would be thousands of Meath supporters looking forward to weekends away in Castlebar or Cork or Killarney or, better still, the Dubs coming to Navan, something not experienced for a decade and a half in the league.
The criticism of Tyrone can be dismissed too. Their style under Mickey Harte has not changed. It was never easy on the eye and now looks dreadful. The reason is the quality of player is not there anymore. There is no Peter Canavan, Stephen O’Neill, Owen Mulligan, Philip Jordan or Brian Dooher to add a bit of flair to the dross.
If people think this is a modern, cynical approach by teams then they should arise from their Rip Van Winkle slumber and look at reality. I remember most of the football played by most of the counties for the last 40 years and cannot see any great change in team philosophy.
The great sides of the 1970s and ’80s were Dublin and Kerry. The Dubs of that time were brilliant but they had players who could almost take your life if you got in their way. Brian Mullins, Seán Doherty, David Hickey and Gay O’Driscoll could play rough or smooth and were better at both than most.
So too Kerry teams of that era. Behind the pace, skill and brilliance there was Páidí Ó Sé, Tim Kennelly, Seán Walsh, Eoin Liston and a few others who would give you a thump if you deserved it and sometimes if you didn’t. They were great players, but they were no angels. The Meath team I played on had a few lads you would want with you in a dark alley, so cynicism or will to win has not just taken hold in the last few years.
In coaching football at underage level, there is a responsibility on everyone involved to try and ensure that the proper attitudes prevail. I like to think it shows in the manner we play football in our school: players are encouraged to kick the ball, always look for space and express themselves freely, but there is still a healthy emphasis on defence, blocking and tackling. In other words, using all the skills of the game.
Yet if you moved forward to adult club football and gave players a choice of winning the junior, intermediate or senior championship playing stink football or losing by playing a loose expressive type, then there is only one answer. The way of the world is winning.
The point of all this is that it is up to administrators to police any game and few have been so far behind the curve as in Gaelic football. Appealing to some type of moral suasion is a waste of time, the onus to act is on those who have the power to frame the legislation. As someone who actively works in managing teams at both underage and adult level rather than just writing about it, I will put forward a template for change next week.
There is no simple solution and limiting handpassing is not a quick fix to all problems. Any suggestions from my four readers would be welcome!