Tuesday 22 October 2019

Joe Brolly: Creating an environment of self-expression pays off

Jamie Clarke’s goal was truly a work of art. The three-dummy goal is the holy grail for poachers. I never thought I’d live to see the day. Photo: Sportsfile
Jamie Clarke’s goal was truly a work of art. The three-dummy goal is the holy grail for poachers. I never thought I’d live to see the day. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

I love lobs. They make me happy. They remind us that great, memorable sport, in the end, is an art, not a dull science. The brilliant documentary Red Army tells the story of the Magnificent Five, the iconic Soviet Union ice hockey team that won two successive Olympic golds.

Later, after Glasnost heralded the break up of the Soviet Union and players were allowed to move abroad to play ice hockey professionally, all five were recruited by the Detroit Red Wings and promptly won the Stanley Cup. In the process, they bewitched the hockey world, playing a brand of hockey that could not be understood in any conventional way, moving Detroit coach Scotty Bowman to say: "Their game was an intricate artistic tapestry. I never really got to understand how they did it. In the end, I just let them do what they wanted to do."

Since childhood, the five had been coached by Anatoli Vladimirovich Tarasov, the father of Russian ice hockey. Or rather, they were encouraged by this beautiful, selfless man to fathom the mysteries of the game. "Hockey is an art," he said, "so the players must be like artists. They must express themselves. They must create something beautiful."

Anatoli didn't follow any manual. Instead, he devised his own. The five learned to ballet dance, spending time with the Bolshoi ballet company. This brought balance, and grace. He brought them to Anatoly Karpov, the chess grandmaster and world champion, who taught them to play chess. The idea was to develop thinking, probing minds, to think about the world in a deeper way.

The essence of his approach was skill, graceful play, camaraderie and a common purpose. For this reason, Anatoli famously introduced a rule that in order to make the line-up, each new player had to be approved by the team. The players became masters at skating backwards, at crawling along the ice on hands and knees then jumping to their skates in one motion, at the no-look pass.

He taught them to dance. All sorts of dances, from the Cossack hopak to the boogie woogie. So the players gyrated and wobbled on the ice. He taught them to juggle balls while they danced and tumbled over. They learned to juggle their hockey stick like the drum major's twirling baton, throwing the stick from hand to hand, passing it under their legs, behind their backs, throwing it in the air and catching it as they skated. In one sequence, the five are shown playing keepie-uppies, knocking the puck from one to the other in the air with their sticks. The puck never hits the ground.

The documentary has a lot of footage from their games. The striking thing is the beauty of their movement and their absolute cohesion. They approach the defensive team with bewildering circular skating and magical inter-passing.

When they first played the great Canadian team captained by the legendary Wayne Gretzky, the universal view was that they would be destroyed. As the first game in the five-game series begins, in front of a baying home audience, the commentator says: "Everyone agrees Canada will clobber the Russians. There are two good reasons for this. We shoot better. We skate better." The Russians won 8-1. They went on to annihilate the Canadians in a 5-0 series shut-out. Afterwards, Gretzky said: "You just can't compete with them. It's too difficult. They don't seem to follow any plan".

There has been nothing like them before or since. Tarasov set out to create a thing of beauty. It developed organically, so that even the five, long after they had retired, were unable to explain their method of play. This is because it was art and in the end, great art cannot be explained.

Which brings me back to the lob. On Sunday, in the course of a very dull destruction of Down, Tyrone were unable to score a goal, even when their opponents were wide open. Cue Ronan O'Neill, in whom Comrade Tarasov would be well pleased. His first touch was a beautifully taken goal to the bottom corner. Next up, a fabulous lob that illustrated a youth well spent. The sort of goal that is the preserve of only the very great artists.

For the neutral, it made watching the rest of the match worth it. It also showed the importance of real skill and took the bad taste off Sean Cavanagh's roll around on the ground. Down's leader Kevin McKernan got black-carded, a decision that was swiftly rescinded by the CHC when they watched the footage. If Sean isn't taking one for the team, he's taking one off the other team. It is ironic indeed that a man whose cynicism on the field helped create popular support for the black card has become one of its main beneficiaries.

Last Saturday night, by contrast, Armagh provided 75 minutes of terrific entertainment. About a year ago, sitting in the house feeling depressed at another calamitous, mind-numbingly boring year of Armagh football, Geezer, flicking around the channels, must have chanced upon Red Army. What a conversion. On Saturday night they looked unrecognisable from the blanket defensive, hand-passing drones of 2016. Instead, they played a really exciting long-kicking, strong ball-winning, passionate game. The contest was full of thrills and spills, with great high catching, full-blooded hitting and a hatful of brilliant scores.

Having been highly critical of Kieran McGeeney in the past, I have to give him huge credit for what he is achieving with this group. It took a major leap of faith to convert to this style of open, adventurous football. Creating an environment of self-expression requires a manager to swim against the tide. It means being less controlling and having patience and confidence in the group as they make the transition. It also requires strength to overcome the reservations of players used to the false safety of the blanket.

Kieran might easily have lost his nerve after Tipperary beat them in the league promotion game a few months ago, but he held it and last Saturday night, he began to reap the reward.

Jamie Clarke's goal, like young O'Neill's, was truly a work of art. The RTE commentary team wrongly suggested he had lost control of the ball half way through, when in fact he deliberately dropped it to his left instep after the goalie hadn't taken the first two dummies. The three-dummy goal is the holy grail for poachers. I never thought I'd live to see the day. Even the great Owen Mulligan never tried it. The true delicacy of the finish revealed itself in what happened next. The slight touch to the right with his left, then another touch with the right, before stroking it home to mama with the right.

Armagh have a lot of potential. It seems to me they need to do four things. One, put Stefan Campbell into the full-forward line. Two, keep Jamie close to goal. Against Kildare, this will create mismatches inside.

In the Leinster final last Sunday, Dublin deliberately engineered a mismatch with Bernard Brogan and Ollie Lyons, then moved the ball to Brogan as much as possible. Armagh will have serious attack power with these two and Andrew Murnin close to goal.

Thirdly, they need to calm down a little. At the moment, everything is too frantic, too lacking in composure. They look like greyhounds let out in the park by their owners after a long car journey. So against Down, in spite of dominating possession and regularly penetrating their defensive zone, they continually went for goals instead of keeping the scoreboard ticking over.

Finally, they need to stop fouling in the scoring area. There is a bit too machismo in this regard, and it was this rash fouling that lost them the game against Down and kept Tipp in the game last week. Here, they need to take a leaf from Tyrone, who are perhaps the most composed tackling unit I have ever seen. Their tackling last Sunday was so steady, focussed and relaxed, you almost expected them to ask the Down boys to hand the ball over and save them the bother. As a result, Down got one free in the scoring area in the first half. In the second, the referee awarded a series of frees against Tyrone in that area but these were not frees at all, merely an exercise in humanity.

The final delight of the weekend was the perfect cameo of Brogan against Kildare. It is hard to overestimate the poetry of his performance, judging everything to a tee, swerving the ball over the black spot with either foot, basically hugely enjoying himself and giving us enormous entertainment in the process.

The next day he launched a new menswear collection, pouting at the camera and causing the young ladies of the nation to faint. The boy is so handsome, he is illegal in nine countries. Thankfully, not in Ireland.

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