Saturday 21 April 2018

Eugene McGee: Full-backs virtually a redundant species in modern era

Rory O’Carroll has decided to step away from the Dublin set-up for this year. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile
Rory O’Carroll has decided to step away from the Dublin set-up for this year. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile
Eugene McGee

Eugene McGee

A casual remark by Dublin manager Jim Gavin in relation to the upcoming 'leave of absence' of first-choice full-back Rory O'Carroll reminded me about the changing nature of even the most traditional roles in football teams.

Gavin said: "In the past the full-back position was more of a pivotal position, but the way the game is changing now I think we have got good cover.'

In other words, replacing O'Carroll will not be a huge problem. We will see!

For over a century, the make-up of Gaelic football county teams was largely dominated by a handful of players who occupied key positions and were recognised by the public as pivotal to the team.

To justify that rating they had to be seen as the best players and real leaders in every team. Usually the vital positions, at least as far as the fans believed, were the centrefield players, the centre-forward, the full-forward and the centre-back.

But there was one other key player on all the great teams of the past, the full-back. In translation, Gavin means that in county football the old-style full-back is a thing of the past, and really any quality footballer, of which Gavin has a surplus that other counties envy, should be able to fill that role.


And of course he is right because team formations are no longer static; player versatility is the new order, and good luck to them on that. More players are nowadays able to express themselves and display their range of skills better, and that can only be good .

But before we mark the complete death knell of the old-style full-back, let me recall some of the men who became legends in that role.

Full-backs tended to become folk heroes in Gaelic football because they were regarded as the last line of defence in open play and the public loved them, generally.

Their role required certain minimum standards without which you could never wear the No 3 jersey. You had to be big, and strong, fearless above all, and also a very capable footballer.

But above all you had to keep a cool head, because full-backs were often opposed by the brainiest player on the opposing team, so a football brain was essential.

In the days when men were men in football, the heroes were people like Joe Keohane, Ned Roche and John O'Keeffe (Kerry); Phil 'The Gunner' Brady (Cavan); Jack Quinn and Mick Lyons (Meath); Dan McCartan (Down); Lar Foley (Dublin); Greg Hughes and Paddy McCormack (Offaly); and Noel Tierney (Galway).

Those sort of full-backs were expected to instil fear into the hearts of their opponents while their two corner-backs 'dealt' with those 'knacky' corner-forwards who often availed of the breaks arising from the clashes between the No 3s and No 14s.

Full-backs like these were expected to be warrior-like, almost Cuchullain-type icons, but of course they were just as fallible as any other player on their team. But once you got a good reputation as a full-back you were set up for life.

There was one variation on the theme, which was that many of the greatest No 3s of all time actually started their careers as midfielders - such as O'Keeffe and Brady.

And a few, like Foley, even ventured upfield to play full-forward at times.

But for your average GAA fan of 40, 30 or even 20 years' standing, full-backs - and this applied to hurling as well - had a definite job to do: stop the full-forward.

That task was carried out in different ways both within and without the rules. The real heroes were the ones who came to be regarded as 'hard men' when playing at full-back.

Many of these lads, even in club games around the country, were the heroes for the fans because they saw them as the people who stood up for THEIR team and against 'that other crowd'.

The change in the role of the full-back from then to now was first shown clearly when the Donegal No 3 in the 1992 All-Ireland final, Matt Gallagher, did not kick the ball once in the entire game.

Today of course the No 3 on most teams is as versatile as any other player and can even venture beyond midfield with aplomb - something that was football heresy in the old days.

Of course many fans regret the disappearance of those iconic figures in set positions, but all sports change.

And the modern fluid game, for all its faults, has produced iconic personalities too, using a different style of play, to match the classic full-backs of bygone days.

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