Joe Brolly: Jim McGuinness advocates a defensive strategy that would bore us to death
I stopped in Enniscrone for a coffee the other day. Sitting outside in the bright sunshine, a beautiful old lady came over to say hello. She told me she was Maureen Loftus, née Ó Sé, originally from Dingle, and that her brother Tomás Ó Sé had played for the Kingdom in the 1950s. "It's very sad what has happened to the football," she said. "I prefer to watch the hurling now." Maureen is not alone.
With Mayo and Kerry gone before the semi-finals, the others bar Dublin were all established zonal defensive teams. It is therefore no surprise that an average TV audience of only 449,000 tuned into the Dublin-Galway semi-final, while a mere 447,000 watched Tyrone v Monaghan the following day.
Last year by contrast, Mayo v Kerry attracted 729,600 TV viewers (almost 300,000 more than this year) with Dublin v Tyrone garnering 663,400 (almost 200,000 more than this year). As for that immortal 2017 final between the Dubs and Mayo, it brought in a whopping 1,141,200 viewers.
This huge year-on-year drop of 36 per cent is a statistic that doesn't lie. People are switching off in huge numbers from zonal defensive football, preferring to walk the dog, or watch Columbo, or topless darts. This doesn't just apply to the TV-watching GAA public. Croke Park a fortnight ago felt more like league games than All-Ireland semi-finals, with the attendance figures for our field of dreams down by almost 25 per cent from last year.
The fallacy increasingly being pedalled by the zonal defensive coaches and apologists is that this is because of Dublin's dominance. It is, of course, nothing of the sort.
Last year, when Dublin were going for their fifth Sam in seven years, RTÉ revealed that the final was the most watched sporting event of the year (and second only to the Toy Show in the overall standings) with almost 1.2 million tuning into the national broadcaster for the game. These massive viewing figures were because the GAA public and neutrals knew they were going to get fantastic, entertaining contests when they tuned in to see the Dubs versus Mayo or Mayo versus Kerry. It is a truism to say we want to be entertained when we commit to an hour and a half of TV viewing or a long trip to Croke Park. The entire point of the game, after all, is entertainment. Entertainment for the players, the supporters and the larger GAA family.
In his weekly interview with Keith Duggan in The Irish Times last Tuesday, Jim McGuinness blames Dublin (this is not a misprint) for the fact that the game has become boring. He tells Duggan (make sure you're not sipping from a cup of hot coffee or tea while reading this) that "Dublin's influence is spreading in that we are seeing Tyrone and Monaghan and others go through long passages of play where nothing much happens". He goes on to say: "Dublin don't particularly care if they score; they just don't want to cough the ball up and give the other side a platform."
Who needs laughing gas when you can read Jimmy on a Tuesday? A fortnight ago against Galway, Dublin scored seven points from their first seven attacks, on their way to amassing a total of 1-24 from 32 attacks. All this against one of Jimmy's patented zonal defences.
But as the comedian Jimmy Cricket was known to say, 'there's more'. Jimmy continued by saying: "I think we are going to see these extended passages of play where nothing much happens more and more next season. I have no problem with it as a policy or tactic but there is no denying that it is boring for the spectators, particularly in comparison to Dublin's previous model or philosophy."
Jimmy might not have made it in China, but a career beckons in the Trump administration. The bottom line is that Jimmy was single-handedly responsible for bringing Gaelic football to this sorry state, his zonal defensive system spreading like myxomatosis. Now, he is trying to divert the blame, to spread it around.
He peddles the fallacy that Dublin now adopt an "extremist game plan" that involves patiently holding the ball and trying to draw blanket defensive teams out. What else can they do faced with a 13 or 14-man defensive system? Should they dash themselves into the rocks like they did in 2014? The real affront is in Jimmy blaming the Dubs for crafting a high-scoring game plan to deal with the zonal defensive system he pioneered.
It is worth repeating this line: "Dublin's influence is spreading in that we are seeing Tyrone and Monaghan and others go through long passages of play where they don't particularly care if they score." Which was, as I recall, a speciality of his Donegal team. I can still vividly remember the way he dragged this great game into the mire in the 2011 semi-final, confiscating his players' mobile phones on the morning of the game so they couldn't tell their bemused relatives that they were going to play with 15 men inside their 45. By the way, they managed a total of 0-6 that day, which sounds like a team that didn't particularly care if it scored.
Or what about his team's nihilistic strategy in the 2014 final, by common acclaim the worst and most boring final ever played? Inevitably, this zonal system created a template for copy-cat coaches all over the country to spoil the majority of county and club football and deter people who loved the game from going to watch. Jimmy, however, merely washes his hands of responsibility. The good of the game and the wider GAA family are irrelevant, sentimental considerations.
The schlock film director Ed Wood was told by an enraged investor in one of his early movies that it was the worst film he had ever seen. "You think that was bad?" said Wood, "Wait till you see my next one."
So, I come to Jimmy's recommended game plan for Tyrone in next Sunday's final. Go on . . . can you guess what it is? You have it. In fairness, it wasn't difficult.
So, he duly advocates that Tyrone should "take 15 men and get them behind the ball on defence". He goes on to say: "Imagine Tyrone set up as following: three full-backs, three sweepers, three half-backs and then the rest of their outfielders along their defensive 45," (I'm trying not to) "and Mickey Harte issues the following edict to his 15 players; under no circumstances do you advance beyond that 45. Let Dublin have the ball for as long as they want. It could become very ugly and farcical . . . It might lead to a farcical and even notorious All-Ireland final."
And a game that no-one wants to watch. Oh how Jim would love to see Mickey Harte adopting this plan. It would help spread the blame for the destruction of Gaelic football and its reduction to a farce. His zonal defensive system has been systematically ruining the game. Jimmy's solution? To make the game even worse.
What next? Maybe county managers should scour the county for three very tall men of around 6' 6" or more and get them to stand permanently on the crossbar to prevent points. This would reduce the zonal defence to a mere 11 bodies, but they could group in a semi-circle inside the 45. This in turn would force the opposition to kick for points from around 40-45 metres. The three tall men on the cross bar with their arms above their head would mean those kicks would have to go at least nine feet above the crossbar for them to go over.
If the Dubs managed to go 0-1 to 0-0 up in the sort of purgatorial final Jim recommends, they could spend the rest of the game passing the ball about amongst each other in their defence. "Look at how boring Dublin are," he would say.
Oisín McConville was joined by many observers of the game when he described last year's football final as the greatest ever played. It is hard to disagree. It was a fabulous, unforgettable, heart-stopping contest where we saw how great the game can be. Afterwards, the great David Hickey was moved to say the GAA should commission one-off gold medals for all of the players from those Mayo and Dublin teams in commemoration of their services to Gaelic football. Who could disagree? We came away from that match hopeful that the example of those two great teams might begin the process of saving Gaelic football.
The essence of the game is a shared journey. For the players, supporters and the wider GAA family. Instead, because of Jimmy and his legacy, the fabric of Gaelic football is being systematically ruined, and we are shedding spectators by the hundreds of thousands. Jimmy said that "there is no denying this will be boring for spectators". He needn't worry. If the game continues to be played his way, soon there won't be any.
Sunday Indo Sport