Sunday 22 September 2019

Joe Brolly: The b******t of science simply can't handle quality football

Donegal hammered Fermanagh to win the Ulster title
Donegal hammered Fermanagh to win the Ulster title
Champions: Donegal's Patrick McBrearty and Michael Murphy celebrate
‘Things that won the game were not mentioned... Paul Cribbin running riot against Keith Higgins’. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Pat Spillane said an interesting thing to me last week. We were talking about Kerry and he said "the last time Kerry had this number of championship debutants was 1975". For the younger reader, that was the start of the Kerry Golden Years team, and eight All-Ireland titles.

There has been a lot of debate over the last few years about the usefulness of science in the game. System v Spontaneity. Statistics v Creativity. Jim McGuinness, for example, is a leading proponent of the system-based approach. Presumably, it was on this basis that he predicted in a recent Irish Times column that Fermanagh were capable of winning the Ulster final because they "have the capacity to keep Donegal to 0-10". He went on to say that his prediction was based not on ability and flair, but on science.

"This is not about the best team; it is about the best system."

Donegal managed 2-18, as it turned out, so just the 2-8 more than Jim predicted. No doubt he will explain the science behind that in a future column. As for Kerry's destructive path through Munster, he explained this on the basis that, "Kerry have reached a flow state". This, he wrote "is an intense, highly-focused concentration on the present where the participant gets sort of lost in the activity and where there is a sense of time being altered". I'm not sure about the physics behind that, but I certainly had a sense of time being altered trying to read the piece, which seemed to go on forever.

The problem with a lot of this bullshit is that it pretends to bring scientific certainty to a game that is inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable. If Karl Lacey's long kick to the square in the 2012 All-Ireland final had gone slightly askew and wide, instead of straight to Michael Murphy, or if Murphy had dropped it, Donegal would not have got the early goal that relaxed them and thus exerted such enormous pressure on a Mayo team craving a decent start in a final.

Had the Mayo defender controlled the ball moments later rather than fumbling it to the waiting Colm McFadden, there would have been no second goal either.

These were entirely unpredictable, spontaneous events, giving Donegal a seven-point cushion and presenting Mayo with an impossible task against Donegal's novel screen defence. Precisely the same screen defence that collapsed entirely against the same opposition in Croke Park the following year.

Luck, mishaps, creativity, confidence, human fallibility, an off day, an on day, a sending off (deserved or undeserved) are all central players in the great drama of sport.

The great Argentinian World Cup winner Jorge Valdano said a few weeks ago that he loved football "because it's the opposite of science: contradictory, primitive, emotional".

He targeted "the army of people getting close to the game with sophisticated ideas that appear to have the solution to every problem. When football club directors are in a bind, all they want is someone to lie to them offering a version of events that is optimistic and irrefutable, based on scientific evidence." Those people, he points out, are "winning the battle for football". So, systematic, risk-free soccer is now the norm, and players are "becoming just another piece in the machinery".

This will all be very familiar to Gaelic football lovers. Yet what we are seeing, very clearly, with the pre-eminence of Dublin, Kerry and (until this season) Mayo, is that it is the teams who have continued to play the game properly - by that I mean picking teams based on skill, creativity and ability, and encouraging them to express themselves within the context of more or less man-to-man football - that are flourishing. Donegal, after five years of science which culminated in some of the worst football ever played by this proud football county, are now going back to playing the game. They have some way to go, but their progress back to sport has been very heartening. Some of the individual moments of flair in their Ulster final victory were reminiscent of Ulster football in the 1990s and 2000s.

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'Eamonn Fitzmaurice (p) makes one change to his exciting starting 15 as Brian Ó Beaglaoich is preferred to Ronan Shanahan at corner-back as they look to build on their phenomenal attacking display against Clare where they hit a whopping 32 points.' Photo: Sportsfile

Kerry are a good illustration of the point. For the last four years, Eamonn Fitzmaurice (whose Kerry team played simply brilliant football in the epic 2013 semi-final against Dublin, losing one of the most incredible games I have been privileged to witness) has experimented with science: a withdrawn half-forward line, a wing-back playing at number 11 and a full-time sweeper, have all been tried.

These were symptomatic of a loss of confidence on the part of management. Fitzmaurice fell for the delusion that football based on skills and going man to man was old fashioned, even ridiculous. The result was that Kerry have not looked like Kerry. They have picked types, rather than the best players. They have played systematic football rather than football, and in general, they have played like a team that is unsure.

When Mayo thrashed them in the replayed semi-final last year, Fitzmaurice was at rock bottom. What he did next may prove to be the most significant decision of the coming decade. He ditched the science, picked the best players in the county regardless of age or past history, picked them in their natural positions, and let them at it.

So Paul Murphy is now restored to wing-back. Young Gavin White on the other wing is as fast as Jack McCaffrey and perhaps even the roadrunner. The front six is a thing of beauty. Their individual ability, their skills, their audacity, the delight they take in playing together reminds us what Gaelic football can be. They have a bit to go yet, but already they are starting to look like the great Down forward line of 1991/'94, or the Tyrone front six of 2005. Most importantly, they are brilliant to watch, and when a team play the right way, they become a shared journey for the players, supporters and neutrals. As distinct from the farce created by Jimmy's massed defence.

Like the Dubs, Kerry are feeling the game again, enjoying it. Because they have gone man to man, exerting ferocious pressure on the opposition (something every team used to do before the arrival of the spoofers). They have no uncertainty about what they should be doing. Because they have a half-forward line in position, when they win the ball they are able to kick lovely accurate kick passes to them, the half-backs charge through, the inside forwards make great complementary runs and generally they are a nightmare to play against and a joy to watch. A bit like any good team before the advent of science.

Mayo’s Diarmuid O’Connor. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Sky told us at the weekend that Mayo's Diarmuid O'Connor ran 16 kilometres, according to the computer chip in his jersey. But they weren't able to tell us whether those runs were creative, whether they assisted a team-mate to get a score, whether they were smart runs or dumb runs. In the end, he cramped up and lay on the field as the clock counted down. Like Forrest Gump, maybe he ran too much. And Kildare won.

The things that really won the game for Kildare were not mentioned. Aidan O'Shea's needless turnover, Cillian O'Connor's anonymity, David Clarke's terrible kick-out straight to three Kildare men, Stephen Coen's failure to make any contribution from midfield, Paul Cribbin running riot against Keith Higgins, Paddy Durcan (who had a brilliant game) blazing the ball over the bar when he was clean through and, most of all, Kildare having a serious on-day. Human stuff. Stuff that we all understand.

So, it was very heartening to read Enda McGinley's column in this week's Irish News. Having been an apologist for defensive systems for several years, Tyrone's renowned three-time All-Ireland winner has finally had enough. He said in his column that having previously taken the view that the obsession with defensive systems was "an evolutionary phase" he has had "a Road to Damascus conversion" during this year's Ulster championship.

McGinley goes on to describe what we have all felt over the last five years as this once great game has fallen into disrepute. "A sense of frustration, even boredom" watching games unfold. The article is well worth reading. He concludes by saying, "To call a spade a spade, this is not the game I love, nor the game 95 per cent of people love." I rang him on Friday afternoon for a chat. "95 per cent? You're having a laugh Enda," I said. "I'm saying 99.9 per cent minimum. The 0.1 per cent is made up of a small number of self-promoting coaches, the Sky studio team and people on high doses of Prozac."

Science has very confined limits. It needs to be treated with suspicion. If the battle between humans and science is lost, then our players will become part of a dour machine that is the opposite of sport. We are already seeing this in many counties. This is why McGinley in his piece suggests that "a revolution" is required.

Great sport, in the end, is about courage, imaginative attacking, intuition, self-expression, luck, and footballing wisdom that has been passed down through the generations. Kerry are beginning to rediscover that. Time for the rest of us to do the same.

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