Joe Brolly: I used to practice kicking points blindfolded... I was impossible to block down
Bruce Lee, the legendary kung fu master, used to spar blindfolded. The purpose was to give him a deeper understanding of space and time. Watching some of those taped sessions it is hard to believe that his eyes are covered. He fights like a man with eyes in the back of his head.
Kenny Dalglish was once asked to define great players. He said they were the ones who always had time and space. Watching the league finals last weekend it was easy to pick them out. For Offaly, Niall McNamee. Always in the right place. Always making the right decision. For Armagh, Jamie Clarke. For the Dubs, Diarmuid Connolly. While Kevin McManamon is ramstamming towards goal with his head down, Connolly surveys the pitch like a great quarterback. I believe it is something that can be taught.
As a student in Trinity, I took to going out onto the pitch early in the morning, blindfolding myself and kicking points. First from a few yards in front of the goals. Then 10 metres. Then 20. Then slowly towards the sideline. In the end, I became almost impossible to block down and was rarely caught in possession.
Peter Canavan was a master of time and space. He rarely sprinted in a straight line towards goal. One minute he appeared tied up by defenders. The next he would sprint at right angles to the left or right, completely catching them off guard. As he weaved, his head was always up. So, he could shoot, or he could suddenly fist a pass over the top to a colleague making a late run.
I was privileged to play with him for Ulster. One of his plays sticks out. We were in a battle against Munster. Seamus Moynihan was on Peter. He sprinted onto a ball on the right-hand side of the 21. I had run straight through the middle for the handpass. Canavan didn't give it, instead he lined himself up to shoot with his left foot. Only he didn't do that either. When he was satisfied that he had drawn the defenders, he gave me a reverse handpass over the top. I was completely free and popped it in the net. I like to think that as a boy, Canavan played blindfolded in the training games.
McNamee, Connolly, Colm Cooper and the like possess all the sleights of hand and small deceptions that mark out the best players. Soloing with the right before delivering the pass with the left. Wheeling round into the open space. Looking one way while passing the other. Switching the play suddenly from one wing to the other. What is it that strikes you when you watch them? Well, the first thing is that they always have their heads up, constantly clocking what is happening around them. As a result they don't get blocked. They don't run down cul-de-sacs.
When Maurice Fitzgerald came on to break Armagh's hearts in that famous 2000 All-Ireland semi-final, he soloed in from the right touchline. When he started he was running towards a forest of orange jerseys. But because he had his head up and was scanning his options as he soloed, the defenders didn't know whether to come to him and risk the pass over the top, or back off. He ran almost at right angles across them, so each defender left him to the next. He toe-tapped with his right, drawing them in. When he saw the Armagh goalkeeper Benny Tierney looking to his right, he swiftly drilled the ball into his left corner. With his left foot. Armagh were finally broken. The tightest defence in the country hadn't laid a finger on him.
This time and space that Dalglish talked about comes from watchfulness. How often have you seen Galway's Pádraic Joyce or Tyrone's Brian McGuigan roving left, then right, heads up all the time like a meerkat scanning for predators, then opening the defence at just the right time?
It is something I preach week in week out. I taped a documentary once on the legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. I still have it, and regularly show it to teams I am coaching. Roger the Dodger, as he was known, demonstrates, with impossible beauty, the most important quality required in team sport. He watches. A hand comes to trip him up by the left ankle, he lifts his left foot and pushes the opponent's forehead back with his left hand, before stepping daintily over him and delivering the touchdown pass. He fakes to the left as the defensive end charges him, then pirouettes to the right before running in for the score. Sometimes he passes two yards. Sometimes 50.
Staubach was greater than the others because he never looked down. He won 17 games for the Cowboys with comebacks in the final two minutes. There is a series called America's Team. If you ever get a chance, watch the episode on Roger and his 1972 Dallas Cowboys. One of his team-mates says: "If you freeze-frame the defensive team rushing Roger, you think to yourself, 'he's going to get clobbered here, there's no escape.' Then you press play and he twists and turns, fakes a pass, back-pedals unexpectedly and hey presto, he's free and its another touchdown for us."
Players, even modestly gifted ones, can vastly improve their game by practising watchfulness. Learn to toe-tap without looking at the ball. Learn to change direction when you take possession. Learn to kick-pass without looking down. These are habits. The superior players on any team, at any level, are the ones who keep their heads up, who change direction, who use the space all around them. But 98 per cent of footballers, including county players, play with their heads down. Cork are a good example. They rush and handpass, rush and handpass, kick the predictable pass when it's too late anyway and generally end up getting nowhere. Derry are the same. It is apparent that most modern players have become institutionalised by endless drills inside small squares of cones.
Against Mayo at one point in our recent league meeting, Derry's Seán Leo McGoldrick got a ball around midfield, soloed out to the left touchline and back in, then handpassed it to Enda Lynn, who promptly soloed towards the other touchline and back in. Enda ended up where Seán Leo had started.
Most players watch the ball when they solo-run. They regularly kick the ball into the block. They can see the simple pass but not the one that will open the defence. The reason this happens is because they are not looking. I do drills with underage teams where they must keep their heads up at all times. In the training games, it is a free against if they don't. Driving a car illustrates how amazingly complex our brains are. We watch ahead at all times. We scan our options, discern speeds of other vehicles, finely judge distances, slow down and speed up almost automatically. How often have you been driving a distance when you suddenly realise you have been on auto-pilot for 15 minutes, thinking about something completely different? We don't look down at our feet or at the gears when we change them. We watch, constantly scanning our options.
Watchfulness should be the basis for coaching our games. As Roger the Dodger will tell you, you can only pick the right option if you see it. Time for coaches everywhere to cancel the cones and order blindfolds.
Sunday Indo Sport