Monday 23 April 2018

Basketball tactics held key to Dublin beating the dreaded 'blanket' defence


Karl Donnelly (R) in action for Na Fianna with Jason Sherlock in 2001. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / Sportsfile
Karl Donnelly (R) in action for Na Fianna with Jason Sherlock in 2001. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / Sportsfile
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

There was a time in the past decade when calling Gaelic football 'basketball' was clearly a pejorative side-swipe at the proliferation of hand-passing in the game - but not anymore.

Those who have played both sports to the highest level identified Dublin's All-Ireland semi-final destruction of Tyrone's blanket defence as straight out of a basketball play-book and see the growing comparisons as a compliment.

In fact, former Kerry and Tralee basketball star Mike Quirke says this growing cross-sport pollination was critical to finding a way to defeat a defence that some now regard as the scourge of GAA.

"What was coined a 'blanket' defence in football is essentially a zone defence in basketball," Quirke says.

"The principle of zone defence is that we think we're not strong enough to match up with you man-to-man so we're going to force you into a low-percentage shot, either from longer distance or much more difficult angles."

Donegal, he says, even used the 'box and one' variation in basketball defence whereby one defender is assigned to mark the opponent's best forward while his team-mates cover the rest of the zone.

"We know Dublin brought in Mark Ingle (a renowned basketball coach) a few years ago, and that Jason Sherlock has played a lot of basketball, and they have been particularly effective in counter-attacking the zone," Quirke notes.

"In basketball offence, you're trying to get the zone to move, or get it to collapse, to pick holes in it and create better shooting options, so you put a runner into the space. Even if they don't get the ball they're looking for it and occupying defenders to try to collapse it."

Like many hoops experts, Quirke noticed the huge number of back-passes that Dublin used against Tyrone.

"In basketball there's a shot clock - where you have to get a shot off within 24 seconds. But with no shot clock in football you can stay really patient and reverse the point of attack," he adds.


"If you get a good start - like Dublin did the last day with the early goal - you've all the advantage then. You can be patient, spread the ball from one side to the other and, eventually an opening will appear and Dublin have the poise for that."

He also spotted how wide Dublin's forwards are playing this summer; "nearly standing on the sideline. They're pulling that zone as wide as they can, looking to create larger pockets of spaces to hit."

Dublin, Quirke stresses, aren't the only team to use the 'penetrate and dish' basketball tactic but particularly excel at it because they've got players with the combination of power and pace as Jack McCaffrey and James McCarthy.

Former Ireland basketball star Karl Donnelly, who also played club and county football alongside Jason Sherlock, says basketball principles have now seeped into Gaelic football at every level.

"Basketball is very structured in terms of offensive plays. I don't think it's quite like that in football," he stresses. "But what you can do is establish principles about space and depth.

"It's something we do at club level, coaching how you leave space to be exploited and where you don't loiter. These are all basketball principles," says the Na Fianna senior selector.

"The big test for Gaelic players is to have that patience," Donnelly stresses. "They've been brought up to attack, attack, attack when they have the ball, to go as fast as possible. To instil that patience and change of pace is harder and it's definitely not an overnight thing with Dublin."

Defensively, Mayo, Kerry and Tyrone - and even Fermanagh last year - have also used a basketball-like 'full-court press' to try to negate Stephen Cluxton's virtuoso kick-outs.

Both hoops experts say that tactic is particularly suited to kick-outs.

"It was very noticeable last year that Kerry had a very different and deliberate set-up to mark the Dublin kick-out after they had a scoreable free," Donnelly says.

"It is directly comparable to free-throws in basketball. In football you have the same opportunity to put more structure on how you're going to defend the kick-outs when you've got a free."

Dublin's complete dismantling of Tyrone's uncharacteristically badly-executed zone defence will have Mayo on red alert.


But they may use variations of a zone defence and both sides are likely to press kick-outs as two codes continue to cross-fertilise.

"If Mayo deny Dublin an early goal it'll be a game that will go right to the wire like last year," Quirke says.

"The problem is no matter what you throw at them they can find a way around it. And when it gets to 55 or 60 minutes the quality of their bench is the killer. Two former Footballers of the Year didn't get on the pitch the last day."

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