Monday 14 October 2019

Donnchadh Boyle: 'Style Council won't like it but pragmatism will always be in the playbooks of managers'


Fermanagh manager Rory Gallagher. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Fermanagh manager Rory Gallagher. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

Over the weekend, the issue of style, or perhaps more accurately the absence of it, raised its head.

On Sunday, Fermanagh's footballers, market leaders this spring when it came to choking the life out of their opponents, missed out on a place in the top flight on the final day in Navan.

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Around the same time, down in Kilkenny, Dublin were taking a pragmatic approach to their date with All-Ireland champions Limerick and attempted to flood the middle third and operate with an extra defender.

Former Kilkenny star Eddie Brennan described Dublin's approach to their league semi-final as "ugly" and warned that people would stop coming to games if hurling went down that route.

The Laois manager went on to point out that similar hard-on-the-eye tactics had damaged football.

He's not wrong. Figures for 2018 recorded an 18pc drop on All-Ireland football championship attendances.

Brennan, who also pointed out that it wasn't just Dublin who played that way, warned that hurling was on a slippery slope. Fermanagh found themselves in a similar boat.

They had promotion to the top flight in their own hands after five rounds, something that would have been an incredible achievement given the tiny playing base they pull from.

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Underdog stories like theirs are usually celebrated in GAA circles but their style of play meant they won few friends.

Fermanagh are safety-first but on the evidence from their game in Navan at least, they weren't as negative as they were being made out to be.

They committed bodies back but also attacked in waves. And while many claim that style of football will only get you so far, it wasn't their tactical approach that proved to be their undoing but their execution.

They kicked 11 first-half wides, a number that swelled to 16 by the final whistle.

Afterwards, Rory Gallagher laid it out straight. With different players who have different strengths, he would play a different way. But he was cutting his cloth to suit.

"People talk about the style of play. I don't know how many chances we created in the first half but we had 17 altogether," Gallagher reasoned.

"Our style of play suits the players we have and it's not as if we are holding a Bernard Brogan or a Paddy Andrews in reserve. So that's the way it is, we just have to improve on it."

The criticism didn't necessarily irk him but he did point out that they are a little more nuanced than just being ultra defensive.

"I'll put it another way, we squeeze up on every single kick-out," he explained.

"We squeeze up, even against the breeze. I suppose people need to put it in perspective and people see the Fermanagh U-16 and U-17 results (they have been on the receiving end of heavy defeats) but look at the underage results of the last 15 years?

"We believe we are working on a way of playing. We would like to play like Dublin, there's no doubt about that, it's a great way to play: keep the ball, move it forward, create one-on-ones and we try to play like that.

"We don't maybe mark people the way they mark people but again if we were holding back Philly McMahon and Jonny Cooper as man-markers we would do it differently."

The issue is that Dublin's hurlers and Fermanagh's footballers had relatively successful campaigns.

Gallagher pointed out that finishing 11th overall in the league for a county like Fermanagh was progress.

Mattie Kenny can stand over a campaign that brought wins over high-flying Waterford and a first success on Tipperary soil since 1946.

Tipperary football boss Liam Kearns stated recently that managers have a duty of care to the game.

It's a noble idea but reality often takes hold instead. Even Dublin, with all their brilliant talent, changed their way of playing football in the wake of their 2014 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Donegal.

They became less swashbuckling and more considered. It helped them build a team for the ages.

If the biggest and the best sometimes opt for a more pragmatic approach, how can anyone else be blamed for doing the same?

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