Monday 17 December 2018

Joe Brolly: The physical impossibility of excitement in the mind of a Gaelic football supporter

Niall Sludden should be used by Tyrone as the quarterback, in the pocket occupied by Con O’Callaghan for Dublin. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Niall Sludden should be used by Tyrone as the quarterback, in the pocket occupied by Con O’Callaghan for Dublin. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

It is no surprise that Tyrone's manager for life was upset last week when some journalists at the pre-match press conference had the gall to ask him actual questions. The problem arose when journalist Michael Clifford asked Mickey about Sky flatly denying Mickey's allegation that it was they who had narrowed the Omagh pitch for the Dublin match.

Clifford (the sheer gall of the man) wanted to know who was telling the truth. Mickey's answer was: "Did you get that answer? Good man. For me, that's finished, that's over and done with, I'm not talking about this anymore." Which reminded me of Father Ted when he was caught red-handed with the stolen whistle and said that he had a perfectly adequate explanation, but he just couldn't think of it at the moment.

I understand that as a result of Clifford's impertinence, a new rule is to be posted on the wall of the press room at Garvaghy that journalists are no longer allowed to look directly at the manager for life. Or ask him questions. A boycott against Sky Sports is also being considered. If things continue this way, Tyrone will soon have to launch their own TV channel.

In the 66th minute of that game at Narrowpitch Park, Omagh, Tyrone - who had remained in their ingrained 13-man defensive formation until then - were five behind and Dublin were handling them with ease. Then, something exciting happened. Something that got the blood pumping. Something that happens in a hurling match right from the throw-in. Tyrone pushed up on them, overloaded on the Dublin kick-outs, swarmed them as they tried to carry the ball out and committed big numbers to the attack.

I watched it several times and it is like watching two different games. The first minute to the 66th was Tyrone on the training ground. The 67th to the 75th was Tyrone playing blood and thunder championship football. Mass-produced football rolling off the factory conveyor belt versus real football.

It is apparent that it is time for teams to start rebalancing their systems (slightly would make a significant difference) in favour of attack. Having watched these Tyrone players develop into good, powerful footballers, with plenty of manliness and courage, I see nothing to fear in loosening up their system, thereby giving the team the flexibility to adapt as the game unfolds.

Dublin, like the All Blacks, have shown us that it is how a team performs in broken play that determines the outcome of a field game such as ours, which is fluid and where breaks in play are relatively rare (unlike, say, American football where teams routinely learn more than 50 plays). This is why the modern tendency to treat the game as nothing more than a series of rehearsed plays does not work.

If things remain as they are, then Tyrone cannot win Sam. What happens is that the zonal defensive system becomes ingrained. When this is the default setting, then caution becomes automatic. So, for example, Monaghan were unable to put manners on Fermanagh when they went behind in the Ulster semi-final. They got a few incredible points near the end to go ahead, but got caught. This was because their defensive system is inflexible.

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The same thing almost happened to Tyrone against Meath. Meath played with a full-on, 13-man defence inside the 45. Tyrone could not put manners on them because, like Monaghan, they are entirely dependent on a system that is inflexible. In the end, they were fortunate to squeak home by a point against an inferior group of players. This is because the system does not reward individual excellence.

I was chatting with journalist Cahair O'Kane last week and we were talking about how difficult it is to pick a man of the match when both teams adopt the 1-13-1 formation. He made the point that unless you know the precise role allocated to a player, it is usually impossible to know whether he has performed well or poorly. So, for example, if you didn't know that John Small had been instructed to mark Peter Harte and nothing else, you wouldn't realise how effective he had been. Or what about a player who tackles and prevents attacks very successfully in his zone, is very efficient at moving the ball to a team-mate, but is not asked to do anything beyond that?

Another related issue that is created by the zonal defensive system is that the backs and midfielders in this set-up tend to play with far greater confidence than the inside forwards. This is because the inside forwards have a much more difficult role to perform. Not only do they have to drop into a zone, tackle, then break forward, but they are also getting the ball late, rarely to their advantage and are often swarmed when they do.

So against Dublin, Tyrone's inside forwards were swallowed up. After a while, this experience results in their confidence being dented and their expectations of themselves lowered. Because the system does not reward individual excellence, it is not necessary. So, if Con O'Callaghan were playing for Tyrone, he would labour anonymously in the heart of the zonal defence. There are umpteen athletes who can perform that role. Which is why our game looks increasingly mass-produced.

The bottom line for teams like Tyrone is that they could - and should - tweak their system. As it is, they do not engage the opposition in the tackle until they hit the Tyrone 45. This absence of pressure on the ball means that when they do turn the ball over, they have to run it from very deep. If they are playing against a team with a similar set-up, they can carry it through the no-man's land between the 45s before they have to go into probing mode themselves when they hit the first line of the opponent's zone.

Against Dublin, it meant that the Dubs were able to protect their comfortable lead with ease. On four separate occasions, with Tyrone up to five points down, Dublin held the ball outside Tyrone's zone for more than two minutes. On three of those, the Dubs broke through for scores.

Instead of 1-13-1, Tyrone could move to a more flexible game plan. Niall Sludden should play as the quarterback, in the pocket occupied by O'Callaghan for the Dubs. Peter Harte can play alongside him, doing exactly what he does at the moment, gambolling forward to shoot for points. They could then play with a two-man inside line, leaving them with a 1-10-2-2 formation (incidentally, a formation favoured by Glen Maghera minors when they won their fourth consecutive Ulster minor club championship). Colm Cavanagh could still sweep on the square. Frank Burns could still tuck in, in front of him. They would be left with two additional defenders who could play in front of the number 6, on either side of him, to pick up any runners. In effect, it would be a 1-3-2-2-3-2-2 formation.

I appreciate this may be starting to sound a bit like Jim McGuinness's immortal article last year headlined, 'The five simultaneous game plans required to beat the Dubs', but this is where the system-based approach leads us.

The modern football movement, exemplified by the headline above, is a bit like conceptual art. Damien Hirst's pickled shark in a fish tank was entitled 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991'. It was a dead shark that Hirst bought, put in a fish tank, and pickled, like tinned tuna. Only this shark wasn't even edible. The important thing is that it sold for £7m. Anyone who criticised this movement was branded an ignoramus. In the same way, if we do not profess to be 'fascinated' by the modern game, we simply do not understand it. We are relics of the past.

Seriously though, the 1-3-2-2-3-2-2 formation automatically creates a better balance between defence and attack. This way, teams like Donegal, Galway and Tyrone would be able to pressurise the ball in the opposing half and like the Dubs, their forwards could come in and tackle the runner from behind as he goes forward. Also, players like Sludden and Shane Walsh would be in a position to show their skills to good effect. At the moment, it is far too difficult for them to make a big impact on the game. Against Dublin, Sludden was anonymous, as a result of Jim Gavin instructing Eoin Murchan to man-mark him. Likewise, we have only had a few glimpses of Walsh's vast potential. How easy is it to man-mark a forward when he's mostly in his own defence?

This would be a far more dynamic platform and would immediately result in a better defence/attack balance. As I demonstrated on The Sunday Game a fortnight ago, using the overhead cameras, Dublin play a man-for-man game, save for the fact that Cian O'Sullivan drops off and protects the full-back as the opposition attack advances. This is what gives Dublin a superior defence/attack balance and allows them to perform so well in broken play.

If a single sweeper is good enough for the five-time All-Ireland champions, why would four sweepers not be enough for teams as strong as Tyrone, Galway etc?

As it stands, it is virtually inevitable today that Donegal will play in a mirror image of Tyrone and the game will be a carbon copy of the 2016 Ulster final, a thoroughly modern stalemate, won in the last few minutes by Tyrone when they kicked two enormous pot-shots and Michael Murphy missed an enormous free. Big games nowadays between zonal defensive teams are a bit like the FA Cup final. You look forward to it. You go to the pub early. You order your pint. The whistle blows, then both teams do nothing for 80 minutes before having a go late on if they go behind from a corner.

Today will be 75 minutes of fascinating conceptual art, decided by the free-takers, a red card, or perhaps even a penalty. Perhaps the game could be entitled, 'The physical impossibility of excitement in the mind of a Gaelic football supporter, 2018.'

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