Tuesday 16 July 2019

Future of football is at stake

The game can be saved if rules are tweaked and attitudes altered

'It wasn't just Dublin and Derry that stank - at half-time in last Satuday night's other games just one goal had been yielded from the toll of 10 teams'
'It wasn't just Dublin and Derry that stank - at half-time in last Satuday night's other games just one goal had been yielded from the toll of 10 teams'

Damian Lawlor

IN RECENT times John Morrison has released two coaching manuals on Gaelic football: one called Game Sense and the other Advanced Game Sense.

Not long after last weekend's turgid Allianz League encounter between Dublin and Derry, a dire mish-mash of dragging and lateral hand-passing, Morrison was inundated with calls, not just from his publisher, to release a third volume.

The former Armagh, Mayo, Donegal, Leitrim and Derry coach won't disappoint. He had the outline of a third book in his mind anyway but after watching the most recent round of football games he won't dally in publishing Creative Game Sense. It will be out by Christmas and there will be nine chapters. 'Beating the Blanket' will be the focal point.

"So many people are on about the horrible football we're seeing," Morrison says, "but no-one is coming up with solutions. For the blanket defence chapter I simply asked the publisher to include a photograph of a bed with a blanket on it. The caption will ask for ways to get to the bed without being wrapped up by the blanket.

"My theory is that you can walk down the two sides of the bed, approaching it from a different direction. You can go over or above the blanket, or try to smuggle in underneath. But you can get into that bed without a fuss. The aim of this book will be to make the blanket defence so beatable that we'll go back to playing attacking football."

That won't happen anytime soon, surely? "It has to and it will," he says. "Keep the faith."

But Eugene McGee's Football Review Committee didn't feel it necessary to get bogged down in ways of increasing use of the foot in football. Nor did delegates at Congress, who chickened out of enforcing strict limits on hand-passing. There's lots of moaning about the standard of games, but no rule changes.

"Teams will easily find ways around them," Morrison insists. "And we can be over-ruled too. No, what I'm looking for is to make a creative, cultural shift - to provide training and coaching that players actually enjoy. Our footballers will play in a mass defence for you, but they don't want to play that way. Which is why our football has become negative."

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Morrison would love coaches to adopt the Brazil mindset, where if the opposition score four goals, the Brazilians try to get five, but he knows that's fanciful.

In his coaching drills, he outlines an area seven yards from the opposition goal known as 'the Base'. His philosophy is that two forwards should always lie within 'the Base'. He concedes that, in the current climate, that's fanciful too.

Last Saturday night at Croke Park, for instance, Dublin started with Bernard Brogan and Kevin McManamon in that seven-yard zone, but once Derry deployed a double-sweeper and no ball was coming in, the prolific Dubs duo were both forced out the field, meaning that the home side had no target in the event of a turnover.

No-one disputes that there are skills needed to perfect a defensive system, but the successful Armagh and Tyrone teams of the early noughties showed that you can deploy a blanket defence and still have three men up front - lethal forwards in the case of those two counties.

There is also a difference between a tactically intriguing, low-scoring game showcasing excellent defending, and an all-out lockdown. What we had last Saturday was simply a lockdown.

Go back to the 1965-66 league 'home' final, however, when Longford defeated all-conquering Galway 0-9 to 0-8. Despite the paltry scoring rate, that game was an absolute cracker. Over 45,000 turned up and watched Bobby Burns carve through the Galway defence time and again, scoring eight of his team's nine-point tally. The point being you can have low-scoring games, they just don't have to be goddamn awful.

"Teams are now moving back in lines like a snow plough," Morrison says. "Sure, that's the easiest thing in the world to coach. It's a sin. In the early days of the Association, the first academic studies of Gaelic football undertaken at university level referred to our sport as an 'invasion' game. They meant it was attacking in nature and principle.

"If a similar paper was written now its hypothesis would centre on a fear culture within players and coaches. There's just no creativity."

Last season, Morrison coached the Monaghan ladies' footballers and in pre-season enquired how many hand-passes were needed to get up the field and score. Between 25 and 35, they reckoned. By the time they reached the Ulster final they went end to end and scored via three foot-passes. It can be done.

"Three passes and a score - I call that Crossmaglen football," Morrison smiles.

Unfortunately, teams are almost loath to put foot to ball or drive forward, and there is unease in Croke Park at the direction the game is taking.

In each of the past two years, football has been eclipsed by hurling, with the latter bringing in greater gate receipts. Even allowing for replays in both years, average championship attendances were also higher at hurling matches.

Don't forget too that Gaelic football recently went through that comprehensive consultation process conducted by the FRC, which highlighted increased fears about cynical play and the fact that key skills aren't rewarded. Yet there are already question-marks as to whether it can ever be played with any degree of spontaneity again.

You can acknowledge that defensive football requires an awful lot of patience, graft and preparation on behalf of the players, but it also needs a huge amount of trust from the spectators to ensure loyalty and longevity of support.

With that in mind, maybe the wheels of change have to turn now. Should the GAA revisit the restriction on hand-passes tried out in 1995? Why did such a move get no traction at the recent Congress? Or would the introduction of a 'mark' and a minimum required distance for kick-outs help the game?

First, like Morrison, former Young Footballer of the Year Aaron Kernan wants a complete change in coaching philosophy and believes that no amount of rule changes will improve the game unless the current culture is addressed.

Kernan grew up with Crossmaglen teams whose core philosophy was simply to move the ball to the furthest point as soon as possible. They won 13 consecutive Armagh crowns, seven Ulster championships and four All-Ireland titles playing that way.

In training their work was relentless; night after night was spent on foot-passing and movement. Coaches and managers warned players that the more they soloed, the more time they gave the opposition to get back.

"Our game-plan was so simple it confused everyone," Kernan says. "Our opponents were all looking for our 'angle'. But it was so basic, we just went man to man and tried to move ball as often and as quick as we could with the foot. We trusted our team-mates to win the ball.

"If we came under pressure, we might deploy a sweeper, maybe just to stem the tide, but it didn't mean we would be negative the next day. You must have a core belief in what football you play. You don't just change it after one game."

Referring to the Dublin and Derry horror-show, where the score was 0-4 apiece after 64 minutes, Kernan notes how congested the area between the 65 and 21-yard lines were and wonders how anyone could win a game like that.

"You score more than they do by getting the ball in front of goals as quickly as possible - you don't do it by taking on 15 men and soloing in Croke Park up the field," he argues.

"I think this negative blanket style is draining away the confidence in intercounty players. Many of them are seriously starting to doubt their ability. The confidence to foot-pass is not there. All they are doing is passing the buck, fisting the ball to the man beside to them and saying, 'at least I didn't give it away' - that's where we're at.

"The game is full of young coaches, some only in their 40s, and they're coaching a style of football that they never played themselves. They are trying to be cute but they are going away from the pure basics of Gaelic football. If things are not going their way they just pull everyone back.

"Instead of coaching a 50-metre kick we now coach a player to run 45 metres and then fist it the other five metres. Paul McGrane put it best - the worst ball is give a forward is no ball."

Former Leinster chairman Martin Skelly looked on in amazement as the recent GAA congress ignored a variety of motions to limit hand-passing. Skelly backed the Kildare motion whereby a goalkeeper who received a backward hand-pass would then have to kick the ball.

"I backed that because kicking in the game has been eroded by the ease at which players can hand-pass the ball backwards and forwards across the field," the Longford man says. "This is too easy. The style that some counties have perfected in their pursuit of success has very little to do with football. Managers have proven that their loyalty is not to the game of football.

"But Congress showed no appetite for changing and this is something I would seriously query. Did we deliver the right verdict on behalf of the people who pay good money at the turnstiles to be entertained by our game? I think not."

He says it's only time before the GAA experiences a drop in market share if teams do not start providing more entertainment.

"The FRC missed a great opportunity to review the hand-pass and concentrated their efforts on the black card," Skelly adds. "But last weekend's league games are an indication of what is to come, and as the stakes get higher it is unlikely that we will see any open football as the 'win at all costs' defensive style of football is addressed."

It wasn't just Dublin and Derry that stank - at half-time in last Saturday night's other games just one goal had been yielded from the toil of 10 teams.

One day later, in the Kerry and Monaghan clash, there were 58 frees awarded in Austin Stack Park. Up in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny and Clare were in a relegation shoot-out that saw just 12 frees awarded.

Little wonder the hurling attendances are shooting up.

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