Saturday 22 September 2018

Joe Brolly: Losing ugly can never be defined as a success story

This Galway team has excellent, powerful forwards, such as Damien Comer, who are capable of beating anyone if they are instructed to play as forwards. Photo: Sportsfile
This Galway team has excellent, powerful forwards, such as Damien Comer, who are capable of beating anyone if they are instructed to play as forwards. Photo: Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

My son and some of his schoolmates were giving a concert in Belfast during the week when Prince Charles dropped in, something that wouldn't have happened in my day.

I tweeted a picture of Charles engaged in a very serious discussion with them, with the prince saying, "What I don't understand boys is, why is Lenny Harbinson playing with only one forward?" Lenny is the Antrim manager and a good sport. A few minutes later, he tweeted back: "LOL Joseph, wondering myself."

Two days earlier, Antrim played Offaly in their first-round qualifier and adopted the 1-13-1 formation used by coaches with no imagination. As the great Stevie McDonnell put it recently, "anyone can put 14 men behind the ball and hope for the best".

For this formation to work, it depends on the other side setting up in the same way. Unfortunately for Lenny, Paul Rouse has taken over as Offaly manager, and anyone who knows Paul knows he is not afraid of anything or anyone. So he instructed his team to play man to man, to push up on the sweepers, mark them and hem them in. Offaly played with a full set of forwards, played with an adventurous mindset and destroyed Antrim.

For 40 minutes Offaly played with only 14 men, but the 1-13-1 system doesn't include forwards, so Antrim couldn't get the scores anyway. Afterwards, Rouse said that his philosophy was to play the game in the right way, and that it was crucial the players and supporters were able to enjoy their county team.

Lenny, meanwhile, said that it was only his first year and that he was "going to have to look carefully at the way we are playing and decide whether to switch to a more attacking style". Anyone who was unfortunate enough to witness Carlow v Antrim earlier this year in the league will pray he makes that switch. It was perhaps the worst non-game of non-sport ever played on these islands, consisting of a lot of pointing and passing backwards, in the sort of atmosphere one normally finds on the moon.

Last Sunday, in Croke Park, Carlow replicated Antrim's performance, only in front of a bigger crowd. For the third time this season against Laois, a fellow Division 4 team, they played with the 1-13-1 formation, although on several occasions they switched to the 1-14-0 system, presumably because Turlough O'Brien and Steven Poacher became worried they were too open at the back.

Laois attacked them, so they laboured to an inevitable keeping-the-score-down defeat, in the same manner as they did last year when they proclaimed themselves heroes after losing to Dublin by 0-19 to 0-7. In fairness, last Sunday they trumped that excellent seven-point tally, managing a superb eight points, with a whopping three of those coming from play.

Afterwards, their coach and manager again proclaimed themselves heroes for the small counties - #carlowrising. Turlough O'Brien said that if they had converted their four goal chances they would have won it. By goal chances he must mean the odd occasion when a lone Carlow player soloed past the 21 into the arms of several Laois defenders and couldn't get a shot off, or on target.

Ugly and all as their performance was, as Dublin and St Vincent's great Mossy Quinn tweeted, "the ugliest thing so far is Stephen Poacher constantly waving the imaginary card at the ref/linesman for nearly every Laois foul."

How three successive and virtually identical defeats against a fellow Division 4 team, using an inflexible game plan, causing a horrendous spectacle, can be spun as a success story is beyond me. Especially when these coaches' defence is "winning is all that counts". Unwatchable dross for no good reason.

The typical pattern is that when a county senior team plays a system, this is then copied by the county's clubs. This happened in Donegal after Jim McGuinness. Their club football became unwatchable until a fantastic, attack-minded Kilcar team came along last year and broke the mould. If Carlow's clubs follow this example, the football people of the county are in for several dire years.

Derry, like Carlow, also tried to defy the laws of physics last Saturday, playing without forwards. I took several photos of the Derry attacking half of the pitch when we were five, six, seven and eight points down. In all of these, there was one Derry attacker inside the Kildare half, with four or five Kildare defenders (sometimes with hands on hips) loitering in his vicinity. What is the point?

The Dubs showed us once again last Sunday how it ought to be done. From the throw-in, their man-to-man pressure on Longford's sweepers put them under impossible strain. You do not have to have outstanding players to push up and mark. As a result, the Dubs caused multiple turnovers in the danger zone. They forced the Longford keeper to kick the ball out long by pushing up man to man, something he wasn't comfortable with or used to. The Dubs dismantled those kick-outs, and the pattern was constant Dublin attack.

Why teams don't do this is beyond me. Meanwhile, as Derry fell further and further behind against Kildare last Sunday, we persisted in retreating into our defensive area for their kick-outs, allowing them to have a 100 per cent success rate in finding an unmarked Kildare defender. How Longford must have wished they were playing Derry.

Galway's manager must quickly absorb the excellent tutorials he and his team have been receiving in the last eight weeks. Against the Dubs, they remained in their defensive shell, in Salthill and then Croke Park, thereby keeping the Dubs in the game. In the league final, Dublin were a man down for 27 minutes, against the breeze, yet Galway refused to push up and take advantage, instead drooping towards inevitable defeat.

After those two games, I thought that Kevin Walsh would see what is blindingly obvious: that this Galway team has excellent, powerful forwards who are capable of beating anyone if they are instructed to play as forwards. Instead, they resumed the same pattern against Mayo. For almost three-quarters of the game, Galway had an extra man after Diarmuid O'Connor was sent off. Yet they kept a poor Mayo team (minus Lee Keegan) in the game by dropping off into their 1-13-1 formation. The sight of Damien Comer labouring in the middle of the blanket said it all. In injury-time, Mayo went a point up after Kevin McLoughlin scored. Only a goal conjured out of nothing won it for Galway at the death.

I believe their coaches are getting it wrong, failing to allow this highly talented group to realise their full potential. There are, however, some encouraging signs. In a recent A v B game at the opening of the Killererin pitch, each team played the first half in their blanket defensive system. My spy at the game told me it was awful. But in the second half, they went man to man and the 'A' team attack was electrifying. The crowd left in high spirits.

Against Sligo, they did what Monaghan should have done against Fermanagh, and went man for man. Sligo would have been hoping that Galway would stick with their defensive system, thereby keeping the scores down and creating the outside possibility of a shock a la Fermanagh. Instead, Galway went for them, hemming them in and blowing them away with style and swagger. For each of their goals they had a full complement of forwards ahead of the ball, and looked absolutely devastating. It must have been a huge relief to the Galway support and, more importantly, hugely enjoyable for the players and an enormous boost to their confidence.

Two years ago, they kept Roscommon in the contest with the 1-13-1. The first game was an abysmal draw. The second, Galway won it, but it was clear they were going to be doomed when they hit Croke Park. Last year, they were well beaten by Roscommon. Today, they have a choice. They can do what champions do. They can go out and play like Kerry or the Dubs: push up on Roscommon, keep a half-forward presence and their lethal attackers in position. Or they can cop out like Carlow or Fermanagh, go for keeping the scores down, and hope to squeeze a penalty or a goal against the run of play at the end to sneak it.

Brian Clough decried Leeds United's negative, cynical system of play under Don Revie. He said that they were an unhappy team that would never be loved. He was asked by the reporter what he meant by that. Clough said: "They couldn't have played football that way if they were happy."

I believe Galway are far better than they have shown us. I believe they can be serious challengers to the Dubs, or to anyone. But to do that, their manager must show courage. It shouldn't be hard for him. He played on a team very like this one. Except that team was happy because they were allowed to express themselves and went on to play some of the most brilliant football ever seen in Croke Park, winning two All-Irelands and creating memories that will never be forgotten, for Galway people and the entire GAA family.

Kevin should take out those old videos and watch them with his players. Get his old mojo back. Then pass it on to his team. A happy Galway can beat anyone.

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