Saturday 24 March 2018

Defenders shouldering more and more of scoring burden

Emmet Bolton punches the ball to the net in Navan to score Kildare's
second goal against Meath in last year's All-Ireland qualifiers
Emmet Bolton punches the ball to the net in Navan to score Kildare's second goal against Meath in last year's All-Ireland qualifiers
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Darren O'Hagan watched the flight-path of Aidan Carr's speculative delivery carefully as it soared towards a Monaghan rearguard that was feeling the effects of a siege.

When it broke, O'Hagan was far enough advanced to pounce quickest and, within sufficient range, he carefully nudged over the winning point to send Down into the Ulster final for the first time in nine years.

O'Hagan wore No 5 on his back. Nothing unusual about that. He's not the first defender to come forward and kick a winning point.

But he's part of growing breed of defenders who are as comfortable pushing forward to link and finish a move as they are at breaking one up at the other end.

Conventional Gaelic football has taken a battering over the last 10 years.

The idea that defenders stayed at home to mind the house and the responsibility for scoring was left to forwards has long evaporated.

For all the gnashing of teeth and perplexed commentary over the state of Gaelic football, the balance of skills between defenders and attackers has never been more even.

Forget about picking a defender for destructive duties alone. Unless he is comfortable on the ball, he simply won't survive.

It may seem at odds with the current perception of the game, but the concept of 'total football' is being embraced by many managers.

Backs becoming forwards and forwards becoming backs has continued to grow as a phenomenon this season.


Some of the scoring returns are as abnormal as the weather. Adrian Flynn scored five points, each of exquisite beauty, in Wexford's recent Leinster quarter-final draw with Longford in Croke Park. He was one of their wing-backs on the day.

In Tullamore last week, Kildare's Ollie Lyons darted forward to pick off three points to add to his growing collection of scores this season.

When Monaghan met Antrim in their Ulster quarter-final last month in Clones, the game's two goals were scored by half-backs -- Monaghan's Karl O'Connell and Antrim's James Loughrey.

Already this season, Frank McGlynn, a Donegal defender who didn't spend much time crossing the halfway line last season, has popped up for two points in two different games.

Sligo's victory over Galway in the Connacht semi-final is the only match of this championship season where a defender has not got up to register a score from play.

In the 24 games played so far, defenders -- or perhaps it's better to describe them as those who wear numbers two to seven on the back of their shirts -- have contributed 4-54.

It may not seem much against the 41-616 that the 48 teams have chalked up in those matches.

But with 5-208 from penalties, frees, '45s' and sidelines, it means that just under 13pc of all scores from play have come from the boots and hands of defenders.

By comparison, at the same stage of the 2007 championship after six weekends, defenders had scored 5-23 from 43-372 from play in 27 matches -- just 7.6pc of the total.

That's quite a dramatic shift even in the last five years.

Defenders pushing forward to score has been more of an individual inclination than a team policy in the past.

Half-backs like Kerry's Tomas O Se and Galway's Sean Og de Paor followed the example of Derry's Johnny McGurk to push forward and grab key scores in All-Ireland finals. But as a collective unit the Tyrone half-back line of the mid-2000s really drove it on to a new level.

It was rare that one of Davy Harte, Philip Jordan, Ryan McMenamin and even Conor Gormley didn't find their range in a championship match from '05 to '08.

Now Tyrone's revamped defence is following the same path. In their seven group Division 2 matches this season, their defenders accumulated 3-11 from play, with Peter Harte leading the way with 2-4 from a total of 5-5.

Rangy half-back Cathal McCarron contributed 1-6 from his forward forays, while Damien McCaul bagged 1-1.

By contrast, their defenders managed just 0-8 from their 2010 and 2011 league campaigns in Division 2.

McCarron has bagged 1-6, while Damien McCaul has also added 1-1.

By contrast, their defenders managed just 0-8 from their 2010 and 2011 league campaigns in Division 2.

Kildare are the other market leaders when it comes to turning defence into attack.

In the seven league games, seven different defenders contributed 3-13, and for the last-gasp penalty in Galway that ultimately secured promotion it was Emmet Bolton who was fouled, allowing Johnny Doyle to convert impressively.

After that match, Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney acknowledged that the game is evolving.


"Contrary to our past greats who think the game hasn't been good since they retired, the game is changing. That's what it is.

"Even now, I think our full-back line scored eight or nine points in the championship last year," he said.

"Look at Marc O Se. Those types of footballers are the way the game is being played now and, whether people like them or not, they're class acts.

"It is important. Everybody has to be able to play everywhere. Every player has to accommodate himself in every different position."

The 'magnet' effect of teams dropping greater numbers to prop up their defensive orientations is drawing opposing defenders into more advanced positions and presenting greater scoring opportunities.

Longford's Michael Quinn landed a memorable score from over 50 metres in the win over Laois on the opening weekend with a phalanx of blue and white shirts in front of him.

No one came to challenge him.

Ironically, defenders with All-Ireland champions Dublin are less frequent flyers into opposition airspace. Kevin Nolan got that landmark point against Kerry in the closing stages of the final and James McCarthy picked holes in the Wexford defence in the Leinster final for a crucial goal.

The propensity to go forward is less pronounced with Pat Gilroy's team. But the habit of role reversal is growing rapidly in Gaelic football.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport