Saturday 25 January 2020

Fear is killing Gaelic football - Kerry are the new Donegal

Football and hurling both stand at a crossroads and the games' future relies on the path we choose

Galway’s Séan Kelly and Kerry’s Jack Morgan in what was a fantastic spectacle last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile
Galway’s Séan Kelly and Kerry’s Jack Morgan in what was a fantastic spectacle last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Before Crossmaglen took the field, Oisin McConville was wont to say (first as a player, later as manager): "If we're going to die out here boys, let's die with our boots on." The culture of the club has always been skills, fearlessness, self-expression, and adventure.

Playing like this, they have won 19 out of the last 20 Armagh championships, 11 out of the last 20 Ulster club championships, and six of the last 20 All-Ireland club championships with a number of different teams. Their weakest team ever still won the Ulster club final this season and missed reaching the All-Ireland final by a point after a breathtaking, event-filled match against Castlebar. They died that night in Breffni, but with their boots on.

As defensive systems have swept the land, Crossmaglen have stood against the trend, playing man-to-man skill-based football. Like the tiny Gallic village that thwarts the might of the Roman Empire in Asterix, they refuse to submit.

Their rebellion is not, however, based on the idea that they must at all costs continue to play pure football. Sure, they decry the robotic systems that are spoiling the sport. But theirs is as much a pragmatic decision. As John McEntee said to me recently: "We cannot understand why every team plays sweepers against us. It is an invitation to beat them. Their mindset is defensive and fearful. We keep our half-forward line in position, stick with our long-kicking game, push up on their sweepers, and hem them in. Positive football is winning football."

He is right. But is the penny dropping? For lovers of the game, the crucial moment of last weekend came with a few minutes to go in the match between Dublin and Donegal. Dublin were down to 13 men. Donegal were three points behind but even with a two-man advantage were locked into their 1-13-1 formation. Dublin had possession from the kick-out and as the clock ticked by, Donegal's 13 defenders stayed inside their own half. It was what happened next that teaches us the two ways that Gaelic football can go. Donegal, forced to come out of their shell and tackle for possession, pushed three or four men up into the Dublin half. At this moment, Dublin had the option of kicking it back to Cluxton and playing keep ball. After all, that is what Tyrone, Cavan, Donegal, Derry, Galway, Meath, Monaghan et al would have done automatically. Back, back, back, hold possession, kill the clock. Instead, the Dubs did what their philosophy teaches them to do. They attacked at speed. They expressed themselves.

In doing so, the Dubs showed us those two starkly contrasting paths. One leading nowhere: dwindling attendances; boring contests like soccer where we have 65 minutes of stalemate, then a long-range point to win it; football so scripted the players could be following a teleprompter; a game where spontaneity and judgment are rehearsed out of highly skilled players; boredom for the players; disenchantment for Gaels.

The other path leading us to real sport. A great game where players express themselves, are alert to the possibilities of the game and with the backing of the manager, back themselves to take risks. A game of excitement and emotion. In short, real football.

Dublin, with the choice of keeping ball or driving on, did something that would send Mickey Harte or Eamonn Fitz to a darkened room for a fortnight. They went forward, and moved the ball at speed through the Donegal ranks. It came to Paul Mannion who took it on the move towards goal, facing six defenders. It is obvious watching the footage that the Donegal defenders felt safety in numbers. Their mindset was one that has become engrained by the repetition of a negative, rules-based game plan. Mannion noticed a gap and sped through it. The Donegal defenders gave chase, but not at full speed, as they clearly expected him to do what any Donegal forward would do in that situation, hold the ball up, turn and wait for a colleague to come in support. You will notice them running after him, looking over their shoulders to watch for the support players. That hesitation was all Mannion needed. While they were following deeply engrained rules, he was playing football. Another sidestep and he was away. The keeper, looking to his last protection, frantically tried to close down the space. Mannion, head up, sped towards him and slotted it beautifully to the net. It was a great moment. I was sitting amongst supporters from various teams, mostly Donegal, and couldn't help myself. I jumped up in my seat and punched the air.

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"Sorry about that, lads," I said to the Donegal ones.

"Ah you're right Joe," said one of them, "we don't deserve to win playing like that."

The Dubs were the only thing worth watching last Saturday. Tyrone lost for the same reason as Donegal. With a minute to go and Tyrone a point behind, they had everyone bar none behind the half-way line.

@brendanbelfast tweeted a photograph that tells you all you need to know, with the caption, 'The state of play with Tyrone a point down and a minute to go. Baffling.' The only people inside the Mayo half are two Mayo outfielders and the goalie. Every single Tyrone player is inside his own half. Let us imagine for a moment that it was Dublin chasing the game. In fact we don't have to imagine. In the epic 2013 semi-final against Kerry, the Dubs were one down with five minutes to go. From the 67th minute, they attacked in waves, gambling everything to get the win. In four minutes, they scored 2-2. It was electrifying. Breathtaking. Heroes were made and remembered that day. We left the stadium euphoric.

Last year against Mayo, they did precisely the same. In the drawn game they were six points up with seven minutes to go, having played brilliant football throughout. But they take risks. They play the game. To win big, you must gamble big. Like Kilkenny hurlers. So, when Mayo finally threw caution to the wind and went for them in that last seven minutes, they reeled off 1-3 and the game finished in a draw. It was another vastly exciting contest for everyone in the country.

In the replay, by the 56th minute Mayo were four up and looking great. Imagine Tyrone or Donegal four down in that situation? But the Dubs are programmed to play the game. Really play it. So, they gambled big again and drove at Mayo from everywhere. The crowd went into hysterics. The stadium seemed to sway. The Dubs got a goal. Now, the noise levels were off the charts. They got another goal, this time from their full-back Philly McMahon who had sprinted upfield hopefully, leaving Aidan O'Shea chasing after him. In 12 minutes, Dublin scored three goals and the final score, incredibly, was 3-15 to 1-14. We left the stadium walking on air. What a game!

Mayo and Tyrone played not to lose. Mayo almost lost. From the 64th minute onwards, a point and a man up, they sat back and kept ball. Their fear was palpable. They didn't take a shot for the remaining 10 minutes. Tyrone were also playing not to lose. They tackled furiously inside their own half, but as soon as they were in Mayo's half, slowed to a snail's pace. Throughout 74 minutes, they scored only six points from play, three of those from midfielder Mattie Donnelly. Not one of their full-forwards scored from play. The ball was never kicked in, even at the death, because that is too risky. No one was taking any chances. So in the last 10 minutes, with an All-Ireland semi-final place at stake, they attacked as though it was a training game. Half-back Tiernan McCann took a potshot from 50 metres. Corner back Cathal McCarron took a pot shot from 40 metres. Niall Morgan missed a 55-metre free. Long-range, negative, take-no-chances stuff. From the 69th to the 71st minute, Mayo kept the ball under no pressure, as Tyrone had retreated into their genetically entrenched shell. Both played not to lose, just like the Ulster final. Mayo were lucky Tyrone were so negative. Mayo didn't win it. They just didn't lose it.

I mentioned Kilkenny. On Sunday, a day after Tyrone had wasted their talents and precious time in the course of a boring, formulaic, and ultimately pointless hour (contrast with the vibrancy and adventure of the 2003-2008 crew), Waterford stepped up to take on hurling's answer to the Dubs. For the last two years, Waterford have been trapped in a soulless, rigid blanket-defensive system that has turned great hurlers into automatons and made the hurling fraternity fearful for the future of the world's second-greatest field game. After all, they say, look what has happened to football.

When a vibrant, adventurous Tipperary did a Dublin on them in the Munster final, crushing them by 21 points, and they had no choice but to renounce the formula and revive the hurling. Against Kilkenny, they were transformed. For 65 minutes they played with courage and adventure. They took individual responsibility. They contested the ball savagely ("We were like animals out there today," said Austin Gleeson, and he wasn't joking.") and they went for broke. With five minutes to go, they were three up and it was clear to everyone in the stadium that Kilkenny were going to be beaten. Then, instead of finishing the job, they suddenly withdrew into their blanket defensive formation. Kilkenny, for the first time all day were left with space in the middle third to deliver a decent ball, did precisely that. Walsh-Fennelly-Walsh and the ball was in the Waterford net. "Kilkenny, more resilient than the ebola virus," someone said that night. But, in truth, as Eddie Brennan said afterwards: "They had us and they let us off the hook. I can't understand why they didn't drive on."

In that moment, when Waterford went back to what they have been taught over endless dull sessions, fear replaced courage. Clare should take note. In fact, everybody should take note.

A similar malaise has descended on Kerry's senior footballers. The huge optimism and excitement generated by their brilliant football under Fitzmaurice in 2013 has all but evaporated. Their adventurous, ingenious forward play in the semi-final that day was some of the best I have ever seen. Cooper the quarterback. The forwards rotating around the periphery of the scoring zone, probing the Dubs with inch-perfect kick passes and perfectly timed runs off the shoulder. They lost but their performance will always live in the memory.

But since then, fear has replaced courage and I am struggling to remember anything they have done since. It is the first Kerry team in living memory that plays not to lose. By the time of the 2014 final against Donegal, the adventure was gone and they had developed all the symptoms of the northern disease. James O'Donoghue didn't even take a shot that day. In the end, it was won via a terrible goalkeeping error. Kerry didn't lose, but it was a waste of time and talent. The same goes for last year's final when they tried not to lose to the Dubs. Terrible match, with only one team going for it.

Kerry are the new Donegal. Half-forwards are defenders now. Midfielders are defenders. The obsession with defending has left them without a forward plan, just a hope that Geaney and O'Donoghue can work their magic. That 2013 semi-final was probably the greatest game of football I have ever seen. As I sit here, the 2014 and 2015 finals are impossible to remember, save for that Paul Durcan kickout. I watched their minors against Derry a fortnight ago and marveled at their skill and courage. Hopefully, Fitz will be gone before they come through, otherwise they will be toiling in the blanket defence, hand passing and soloing.

Two paths diverging. The future of the games at stake. Which one will we take?

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