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Ciaran Whelan: Fear of conceding has turned football on its head


Kildare’s Tommy Moolick is surrounded by Cork’s Eoin Cadogan, Donncha O’Connor and Mark Collins.

Kildare’s Tommy Moolick is surrounded by Cork’s Eoin Cadogan, Donncha O’Connor and Mark Collins.

Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey accelerates away from Westmeath’s Dennis Corroon in the Leinster SFC final.

Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey accelerates away from Westmeath’s Dennis Corroon in the Leinster SFC final.


Kildare’s Tommy Moolick is surrounded by Cork’s Eoin Cadogan, Donncha O’Connor and Mark Collins.

So who is responsible. Jimmy McGuinness? Mickey Harte? Or maybe Pat Gilroy?

Yes, all were winning managers who presided over teams that were built on solid defensive structures. All leaders in their own right who changed the culture within their own counties and laid the foundations for success. 

Lead with success and many will follow. The GAA management world can at times replicate a game of "Simon Says". "Sure it worked for them so let's try it ourselves".

The modern Gaelic football game is now founded on the principle of defence first and the attack will look after itself.

I fully accept the merits of implementing a strong defensive system and believe it can be a necessary part of a tactical plan depending on the game or opposition to hand. Add to that there are certain teams like Donegal, Cavan or Tyrone that now have it engrained in their DNA. Howver, many other counties are just not comfortable with such a system of play and they can be poor exponents of it.

On the other end of the scale there is Mayo and Dublin.

Two of the leading teams who play to their strengths. Both teams press high up the field and suffocate their opposition and they will beat the large majority of teams that play with this attacking mind set.

However, when they are critiqued by pundits and experts, it is the exposed defence that is first on the agenda.

Granted that criticism can be fair enough based on the recent big games where the concession of goals proved detrimental. The key difference though is that they trust their players and their attacking systems to win most games.

Yes it is accepted that there will be a point in time where both Mayo and Dublin will have to meet fire with fire and ensure their defensive system is in place.

In a way it was refreshing to hear Mayo's Pat Holmes say recently, after conceding 2-11 to Sligo, that they were confident their forwards would put up a big score by playing a high line.

Dublin played in exactly the same manner against Donegal in last year's All-Ireland semi final and when they blitzed Cork in the National League Final.

They pushed up on the Cork sweepers and pressed them when in possession in their own half. Cork had no answer but Cork are also not Donegal!

The team that has the ability to adapt with a varied style of play will win Sam Maguire just like Kerry did last year.


As mentioned earlier, there is merit for certain teams to set up defensively depending on the particular game.

However, I believe there is now deep fears amongst a lot of modern day inter-county managers to play any other way.

In that regard it was extremely frustrating to watch Westmeath and Cork go out of the championship with a whimper last weekend.

Why did Brian Cuthbert and Tom Cribbin not show more trust in their teams? Did they really fear Kildare and Fermanagh that much? Did they not believe they had players to win individual battles or the firepower up front to win their respective games?

Westmeath got caught in this defensive web after playing Dublin. Plaudits were thrown their way for how they stifled the championship favourites for 35 minutes in headquarters.

So they went out against Fermanagh and did exactly the same. Fermanagh are not Dublin, so why did Westmeath play the scoreboard and not the opposition?Why did they not play to their strengths? Instead they proceeded with similar defensive plan inviting Fermanagh to attack their defensive zone hoping they could turn them over and counter-attack.

Did they really think by sacrificing any sort of offensive threat that a tally of nine or 10 points would win that game? What happened to the Westmeath team that pushed up and cut loose against Meath in the second half?

Cork are the biggest culprit of following the 'Simon Says model' and can only blame themselves for where they are at now. After a trimming by Kerry in last year's Munster final, they reverted to a defensive structure for the game against Sligo in Round 4 of the qualifiers. It is not in the Cork DNA to play that way but they have stuck rigidly to this tactic since which ultimately failed them again last weekend.


Cork in recent games persisted to play with natural defensive minded wing-forwards that dropped into their defence behind midfield. Cork also employed a sweeper last weekend when Paul Kerrigan was asked to sweep in front of his full-back line which left them with no attacking plan.

Sure what was Kerrigan going to sweep up against a Kildare team that were going to play a running game? It is hard to fathom why Cork did not man-up and push forward to try win the game from the start. Again it was example of conservatism and ultimately the fear of conceding scores or being beaten.

A quick review of the scoring averages for the team's remaining in the hunt for Sam clearly shows that whilst defensive systems might be king, its also about putting the ball over the bar or in the back of the net!