Tomás Ó Sé: Look on the 'scrap heap' and you might find gold
Published 09/07/2016 | 02:30
There is an iconic photograph of my uncle Páidí's last day as a county player. It was taken during the 1988 Munster final against Cork in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, and there, on the bench alongside Páidí sit Ogie Moran, Ger Power and 'Bomber' Liston.
Over 30 All-Ireland medals between them, but all now on the periphery of business as Kerry head for a single-point defeat.
It was the first time since his debut in '73 that Páidí had been dropped by Kerry after a run of 52 Championship games. That same day, Cork brought Dinny Allen back into action after a four-year absence and his 1-1 would prove crucial in beating the Kingdom.
Páidí was like a bear after. As soon as the game ended, he walked deliberately close to Mick O'Dwyer, growling "Dinny Allen wouldn't have got that if I was out there!"
Páidí did not speak to Micko for about three years after that before he finally relented and, reluctantly, admitted that maybe, in hindsight, Micko's decision had been right.
And they resumed a great friendship after, especially once Páidí's own experience in management began to bring home to him the importance of keeping the right energy in a dressing-room.
You always need fresh legs and minds in a team, even more so now that levels of fitness at inter-county level have gone through the roof.
The cliché today is that it has become 'a young man's game' and it's hard to argue when you hear more and more about the 24/7 commitment that managers are now all but demanding of those wearing a county jersey.
And there's no doubt age has a way of implanting an instinctive fear in the older player - fear that some young buck is going to come running at you relentlessly and make you look stupid. Reputation is no protection if an opponent gets the slightest whiff of that fear in you. He'll go for the jugular. He'll be like a shark sensing blood in the water.
In that sense, space becomes the enemy. It's all you can see. Acres and acres of grass for this fella to give you a good skinning. You try everything to avoid it, to close it down, to make it disappear. My whole make-up as a footballer was based on a love of defending but, as I got older, I became more insecure about my capacity to be good at it.
Maybe, more than anything, my capacity to close that space.
Pace is the problem. Most older players simply don't have it and, without it, the last thing you want is to be left in a 50/50 chase with somebody who has it.
But that then leads to a reflex pigeon-holing of people, to the prejudice of believing that when a player reaches a certain age he has nothing left to contribute.
Look around you and you'll see how the smarter teams are challenging this prejudice. They do so on an understanding that the role you give a player doesn't have to be inflexible if he is a good enough footballer to adjust.
Look at Donegal's use of Karl Lacey this year, or Tyrone's use of Sean Cavanagh.
Some people see blanket defence as an eye-sore, but I could watch it all day. The key, of course, is that there's good blanket defence and bad blanket defence. But then, as in any walk of life, I suppose there's smart and there's stupid. And, in the realm of modern-day Gaelic football, stupid is the problem.
Blanket defence isn't just about numbers. It is about management of space. The biggest blight on Gaelic football today is management teams who don't quite understand that, who just look to create a traffic jam with no idea whatsoever about how they might then try to win a game.
That said, the way the past gets romanticised, you'd swear there was no bad football played before now. Maybe the game was more open ten or 15 years ago, but my view is that the better teams today would probably win against the better teams of that era.
Why? Because they put so much more thought into what they're doing. Why I mention Lacey and Cavanagh is that I played against both men and it's brilliant to see how their skill-sets are being assimilated into the modern-game by managers who can balance the value of real football intelligence with the huge athleticism now demanded of a county footballer.
I look at a lot of weaker teams and they just seem pre-occupied with finding athletes before ascertaining whether or not they can actually play. It's breath-taking to see the number of players wearing county jerseys today who lack even the most fundamental skills.
Trust me, in a tight game coming down the home straight, whether you're defending a lead or chasing a win, you want possession in the hands of your smartest players.
I watched both Lacey and Cavanagh closely last weekend. Both were brilliant. But they were brilliant in a system that essentially protected them from exposure. Donegal and Tyrone both get so many numbers back that, defensively, you're never more than ten, maximum 15 yards away from a team-mate.
They almost always have 13 men behind the ball and, as an older player, I'd certainly prefer to be a back playing for Tyrone today that I would be a playing for Kerry or Dublin.
True, Kerry played defensively last Sunday. But that defence started on the opposition's '65' not, as Tyrone's does, on their own '65'. In other words, Kerry's structure is far more stretched than Tyrone's.
I think the attention to detail required to do what Tyrone and Donegal do is lost on most people watching them. That management of space is exceptional, the work-rate unrelenting. But I think the wisdom of Lacey and Cavanagh, in keeping everything together on the field, in cajoling the younger players, in communicating the right message relentlessly, has become a real example of how to manage your resources well.
Just think of Cavanagh's mileage on the clock, but he is surrounded by pace now with guys like Donnelly, Harte, McCann, McShane and Sludden. In my later years with Kerry, I'd have killed for wing-men like that.
Years ago, I toured Australia with Sean and, even then, he was just an absolute professional in how he looked after himself. You could tell he was a born leader and it's not difficult to imagine the influence he now has in a Tyrone dressing-room that has only something like four senior Ulster Championship medals in total.
You can't put a price on that kind of experience in such a callow dressing-room. Now pace is key in the modern game and I don't believe for a second that there'd be room for three or four Sean Cavanaghs in the Tyrone team today. But one of them can be invaluable.
When you go back to this year's League final and remember how so many Kerry defenders were left looking so exposed against the Dubs attack, I'm inclined to argue that that simply wouldn't have happened if they were playing for Donegal or Tyrone. Because the systems these teams play don't allow their backs get exposed to one-on-ones as the Kerry backs were against Dublin.
Now I'm not advocating Kerry deploy blanket defence, not by a long shot.
But I think older players have more to offer if a game-plan protects them from that one-on-one predicament. They have a key role to play in bringing the best out of those around them, in setting dressing-room standards, in having an input at team meetings.
I'm still playing club football now at 38 and, when I see the likes of Lacey and Cavanagh thriving, I can't help but think there might have been another year in me at inter-county. Neither is the player they were six or seven years ago, but the point is that neither is being asked to be that player.
This, I believe, is where Cork particularly have made a big mistake.
Just look at who they've discarded over the last year or so - the Canty, O'Connor, O'Neill, Kissane, Murphy and more recently, Michael Shields. Do they honestly believe they've such deep resources that none of these lads could have anything left to contribute? Madness.
As a Kerryman, I couldn't help smiling because every new departure was great news for us. Another serious footballer down? Keep it coming Cork.
What was it Alan Hansen said about winning nothing with kids? I know, he was proved wrong when he said it about Manchester United. But, trust me, he'd have been right if he was talking about a team trying to win the Sam Maguire.