'It's more open but it's going to change come the summer'
Paddy Bradley thinks defensive tactics have not gone away
The National League has been exciting and intriguing, a celebration of Gaelic football, but it will be interesting to see if the game continues in such a positive vein as the summer rolls in.
This spring welcomed the black card, the five-second advantage rule and the tweaking of the square ball. The changes limited defensive tactics, fouling and cynicism. Scores from play rose and frees awarded were reduced, from an average of 10 to five per game.
Compared to the checking, pulling and dragging of recent years, we witnessed the game undergoing a paradigm shift. At the start of March, the 13 scheduled games manufactured an aggregate of at least 30 points. Contrast that then to games played at the same stage of the 2013 league and there were three more goals and almost 70 more points scored; that's an average rise of five points per game.
The blanket defence now looks threadbare. Players can't third-man tackle anymore or slow opponents down. Indeed, teams are actually starting to press sides like Cavan and Donegal, who still operate the mass rearguard.
"But some sides are not equipped to press – they can't handle that tactic because it leaves them open," warns Paddy Bradley, the former Derry player. "So wait and see; you will find managers in charge of those teams retreating their forwards as the season goes on.
"Don't get me wrong, the football we've seen this year so far has been expressive and free-scoring, some games are so open that you would hardly compare them to, say, corresponding fixtures of just two years ago. Games were being won 11 points to 10 not so long back but we seem to have thrillers every week now. You are seeing games with up to 34 points and no cynicism.
"It's way more open and that's great but it's going to change come the summer. I just don't see a Mickey Harte team going out and conceding 1-18 against an opposing side. Likewise, a team managed by Malachy O'Rourke will not be engaged in summer shoot-outs. The traditional style of football up here in Ulster for the last five years, especially, has been a tight, defensive one. And there is long enough of a gap between the league and the start of the championship for teams to revert back to their old ways when the pressure really comes on. I think managers have let their teams out with freedom and enjoyment in the league so far and as long as stability has been achieved they are happy enough. But I simply don't see an Ulster championship game ending up 3-18 to 2-15 come summer time.
"The football managers in Ulster are thick old buggers. They will all knuckle down to the way they know best once the serious stuff starts."
Only Cork and Derry are certain of making the Division 1 semi-finals which ensures another bout of excitement this afternoon. With only Dublin carrying a flag for Leinster football, Bradley admits that it's worrying how far behind the other sides have fallen in the province.
Kildare and Westmeath have been relegated in Division 1, likewise Louth in Division 2, and Laois are looking odds-on to fall too. Offaly are having a horrible time and will drop back to Division 4 as will the losers of today's Wexford-Longford game. Carlow, meanwhile, are propping up Division 4.
When it comes to this year's Leinster championship, there is Dublin and then the rest.
"Yeah, the others look set to be playing a championship within a championship," Bradley says. "Sport can throw up shocks but right now only Meath look placed to tackle the Dubs even if they've had a few serious injuries as well.
"I have to say that everyone has been disappointed with Kildare. Jason Ryan did a great job with Wexford and he really needs time now because maybe he is trying to instill new ways, or break down old habits. I still think they could be a threat.
"But league form is always a good indication of where a team stands and things don't look great for the others now. Teams don't seem to be pushing on. The Dubs are just so far ahead – the other night, they drew with Mayo missing Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly, Ger Brennan, Ciarán Kilkenny, Jack McCaffrey and Stephen Cluxton (for most of the game). They are the only team in Ireland who could go out minus seven or eight and still compete. Across the whole of Ireland they are out on their own."
Bradley says Mayo are best placed to challenge Dublin for league and championship honours, although he feels that they still lack something. "It's just an inability to win certain big games, but I do think they will win an All-Ireland sooner rather than later. They should have it easy in Connacht, but winning a league title could be huge for them as they may not be tested again for quite a while. Galway are just too unpredictable – even with their underage talent – and I feel Roscommon have overtaken them as the second-best team in Connacht. They are building a nice bit of momentum."
He feels Tipperary, with their prolific forwards, could threaten Cork or Kerry's dominance in Munster, although ultimately the province's seeding system favours the big two. And in that battle, Cork appear to have the edge as new manager Brian Cuthbert (pictured) has impressed.
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