Art of fielding slips out of favour in possession game
Football's evolution is making the classic midfielder obsolete, writes Damian Lawlor
WHEN he first arrived on the inter-county scene, David Brady lorded the skies. He averaged six or seven catches in the middle of the field and thought nothing of it. By the time he retired, however, those stats had dropped alarmingly and he was lucky to make two clean fetches.
"There was some change over the years," he admits. "At the start the main thing was to strike up an understanding with your fellow midfielder. Most of the time you tried to catch the ball cleanly but you'd also try to find your partner with a flick or a tap.
"By the time I finished up with Mayo, though, I barely even bothered to contest kick-outs. The throw-in was about the only opportunity I had to win clean ball without seven lads around me. I went from about six catches a game to one or two."
Brady is right. In the Munster final between Limerick and Cork three years ago, there were only five catches from kick-outs throughout the entire 70 minutes -- and that was with giants like Alan O'Connor and John Galvin on the field.
Modern-day Gaelic football is no longer about a 'keeper kicking to numbers eight and nine. The cultural shift that has taken place means that it's now about the eight or nine who play in the middle of the field.
Such congestion leads to persistent fouling and limits the time the ball is in play. It diminishes the excitement for supporters. The 2009 Leinster final between Dublin and Kildare, for instance, is widely deemed to be one of the most action-packed games of recent times, but the ball was only in play for 37 minutes and 27 seconds as free after free was awarded around the middle of the pitch. With clean fielding close to being non-existent that day it's easy to see why there were 288 handpasses executed. That game went down as an epic and yet in hindsight supporters can feel a little short-changed.
The wheel started to turn when Tyrone moulded the sublimely talented Seán Cavanagh into a different type of midfielder. An out-and-out strong man he wasn't, but he won successive All Stars at midfield from 2003 to '05 playing a much different brand of the midfield game, functioning as a rampaging and prolific attacker. Opponents quickly sat up and copied Mickey Harte's template.
Now players are used in midfield to make space, draw opponents to the wings, claim second- phase possession and run an average of nine kilometres per game. Fielding doesn't really come into it that much, nor does kicking. Stamina and energy are now more important components to possess.
After eight league games this year, the Kildare defence had scored a whopping 3-14 from play between them. You're now more likely to bypass midfield and are often better placed to score from defence.
"I have no problem with teams finding new ways around things," Brady insists, "but the downside is that it absolutely looks brutal when a fella comes down out of the skies with the ball in his hand and is swarmed by four opponents. A great skill has been turned into something that is absolutely shocking to look at."
"I still think that if you have a player of that vein on your books you use him in the middle and target him," insists Carlow selector and coach Anthony Rainbow. "We have Brendan Murphy and Darragh Foley at midfield, two powerful, very talented players and natural midfielders and we'd be mad not to use them. I know loads of teams are avoiding such pairings but you still see fielding in Division 4 quite a bit."
Rainbow accepts, however, that the traditional use of midfield has been frowned upon elsewhere by coaches. His former Kildare teammate Dermot Earley is probably the last man to really dominate this sector in the orthodox style.
Earley hasn't been helped with a catalogue of injuries, nor has Kerry's David Moran who was emerging as a real force in the engine-room until the curse of the cruciate put him out for two years. With Moran's progress stunted and Darragh ó Sé in retirement, Kerry have tried to adjust but it hasn't been easy -- in the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Down, the first two players replaced were midfielders Micheál Quirke and Seamus Scanlon.
Bryan Sheehan, a forward for 99 per cent of his inter-county career, was summoned to fill the gap. People doubted his ability to step into ó Sé's shoes and his mobility was questioned, but he scored 2-18 in last year's championship and now averages 0-4 from play as opposed to 0-3 a game in his forward days.
His absence was sorely felt against Cork, not for his fielding or physicality, but for his creativity and support play. Sheehan, like Seán Cavanagh five years ago, is setting new boundaries for the position. Again, opponents are monitoring closely.
"Kildare are utilising Rob Kelly and Paudie O'Neill there now," adds Rainbow. "Two guys who were forwards all their lives. You see that switch happening all over the country -- Sheehan is the most obvious but Meath are doing it with Graham Reilly to great effect.
"Teams originally copied what Tyrone did years back and it worked. They're refining it now -- kick-outs are mostly short and into space and teams are building from the back because they have a better chance of keeping the ball."
A return to the halcyon midfield days looks some way off. Dublin conceded almost every kick-out to Tyrone in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final and only started defending at the '45. It allowed their players time to filter back and position themselves. It was brutally effective but hard to watch.
In the next game out, the semi-final against Donegal, there was a better chance of seeing an uncontested tackle than of witnessing a long kick-out. And against Kerry, in the final, they conceded a whopping 15 clean catches to the Kingdom. Ten years ago, that stat alone would have wiped them out but Dublin are now happy to wait for chances to dispossess and then grind teams down with their power.
"Dublin have massive guys down the middle but they rarely go there," Brady notes. "Instead, Stephen Cluxton will kick a ball out to a spare man who has dropped deep or he'll deliver into space. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. It's like basketball. Call me old-fashioned, but I'd love to see more high fielding in the middle. That's what puts spectators on seats."
Modern coaches see a player who is 6' 5" or 6' 6", weighs maybe 17 stone, and they wonder if it will simply take too much work to incorporate him into their game-plan. You can't coach height but you don't necessarily accommodate it anymore either.
"When I was playing you'd go sniffing around midfield for breaking ball and that would be your best chance of gaining primary possession," says former Kildare footballer Eddie McCormack, who is now managing Straffan. "If I was playing now, I'd be starved of attacking ball and I'd probably be back in defence most of the time. I think I'd crack up. It has to be enjoyable too."
The notion of introducing a mark from kick-outs was defeated at Congress, even though it would tempt longer kick-outs, produce a better standard of fielding and eradicate the swarming that occurs when opponents crowd out the fielder.
"I've been thinking a lot about that," Brady continues. "When a team scores there should be a dedicated zone enforced for the subsequent kick-out. That zone should be between the two '45 lines. I would only allow four players into it. No other player should be allowed get their hands on the ball unless one of those four designated players first touches it. It would cut down completely on the crowding that takes place at the moment.
"And if that grey zone was infiltrated without one of the four players first touching the ball, a free should be awarded. I'd have the two linesmen policing it. It would only be implemented after scores and it wouldn't be too complicated. We still need something to encourage a bit of fielding."
It will be interesting to see what ideas Eugene McGee's football workgroup comes up with to improve the game. For the moment, though, midfield remains a wilderness in Gaelic football. Natural flair and dynamism have been sacrificed for practical, purposeful and productive players. The original template, one that produced many heroes of the game, has been rendered obsolete as the sport evolves.
We're losing a great skill, mind you. Two weeks before a recent minor championship match, a top midfielder was taken aside by his manager and told not to attempt to catch but to break every ball instead for fear of being swarmed and conceding a free if he landed with the ball.
A message like that seeping down through the ranks can hardly be good for the game.
Sunday Indo Sport