Saturday 24 June 2017

We need the innovators who kick out the old ways

When the father of the Brogan brothers was in his prime, Dublin had a playmaker who ran the show from centre half-forward.

Tony Hanahoe was a classic number eleven, the fulcrum around which his attacking colleagues orbited, including Bernard Brogan Snr.

Nowadays the man playing the number eleven role for Dublin is wearing the number one jersey. Or so it seems, such is Stephen Cluxton's ongoing influence in how the team plays.

The tactical evolution in Gaelic football over the last ten years, with its emphasis on defence, has gone through all the phases that accompany almost any new line of thinking -- starting with that old reliable, scepticism. Scorn, resistance and controversy too.

But if new tactics are seen to be working -- and Tyrone and Armagh proved spectacularly that they were -- then resistance gives way to begrudging revisionism among the doubters. Eventually there is acceptance that this is the modern way; that there is no going back; that like it or not, this is where the game is at now. Suddenly everyone else is scrambling to catch up, especially those teams that have been on the receiving end of these very same tactics in previous years. Hence, for example, the sea change in Donegal this season: they have adopted the new orthodoxy with the zeal of the converted.

The current fashion for massed defence has left a lot of people unimpressed, and with good reason. But the upside has been overlooked. Tyrone and Armagh played some scintillating football during their years at the top, and it was their defensive platform that enabled them to do it. Tyrone's sweeping counter-attacks out of defence became a trademark. Armagh would use turnover ball to hit long, direct diagonals into a full-forward line that revelled in the space left by opponents who'd been caught stranded high up the field.

Hindsight will judge these teams a lot more kindly than they were at the time. The bottom line in both cases is that they had an array of quality players, superbly marshalled by two outstanding managers. But the system of play both managers developed may have given them enough of an edge to get them over the line and into the history books. Armagh and Tyrone were pioneering teams, not just because they won senior All-Ireland titles, but because of the way they won them.

Any reservation about their style has to be balanced against the fact that they shook up the game, spread the honours to new counties, and raised the bar for everyone else. Gaelic football owes a debt to them, and to Ulster in general where most of the innovations have happened. There have never been so many coaches and players who are actively thinking about how the game can be played. Whatever the pros and cons, this is the sign of a game in vibrant good health.

Otherwise there is always the danger of stagnation, especially in a one-country game where influences from the international sporting culture can only be minimal. Which is not to say that the game is totally isolated: influences from soccer, basketball and rugby are discernible. But the drive for change and innovation must come primarily from within.

And what Cluxton is doing is also nudging the needle forward on the dial. He is breaking new ground -- at least in football. Hurling goalkeepers like Donal óg Cusack have been dictating play in their game for a number of years.

But Cluxton's kick-out strategy is dictating the pattern of football matches to an unprecedented degree. It is tailored for Dublin but it also has wider implications for the game: it is marginalising the traditional high-fielding contest in midfield. The plan seems to be to avoid the midfield jungle at all costs. He is now routinely spraying his re-starts out to the wings, sometimes barely beyond the 20-metre line. And it is a long way from there to the other end of the field. It is asking a lot of his team-mates in terms of their speed and stamina and ball-carrying skills. The receiving player has to be able to tick all these boxes.

But the greatest pressure is on the goalkeeper himself. What he does requires exceptional kicking skills. Cluxton can call on a variety of chips, wedges, grubbers and drives to find his target. And it requires a lot of nerve too: opposing teams have done their homework and are trying to cut him off at source. It was intriguing last Sunday to watch the cat-and-mouse guessing game between he and the Kildare players as they tried to anticipate his next kick-out. He managed to stay ahead of them, just about, primarily because of his ability to disguise the whereabouts of his delivery until the last second. Teams have traditionally relied on a goalkeeper's run-up to read the direction of his kick-out. Cluxton has virtually dispensed with the run-up. One stride and he's hitting it wide right or wide left with remarkable confidence and precision.

It is a high-risk strategy: one interception, or one good tackle, and the opponents are in on goal. The pay-off for Dublin is that they are keeping control of the ball.

The jury will remain out on this particular innovation until the Dubs win their All-Ireland -- or not. But if they do, the goalkeeper as quarterback will quickly become the next widespread trend in the game.

thecouch@independent.ie

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