Tuesday 14 August 2018

Joe Brolly: Game is not about winning, it's about living

Dejected Derry defender Christopher McKaigue after last Sunday’s defeat to Donegal in Celtic Park. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Dejected Derry defender Christopher McKaigue after last Sunday’s defeat to Donegal in Celtic Park. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

Anto Finnegan came to Celtic Park for the match last Sunday. We went for drink beforehand on the sound basis that it is no longer possible to watch a Derry match sober. As far as Anto is concerned, his motor neurones are a mere hindrance. His legs and arms no longer work and his son Conal has to tilt his head back when it falls forward, but like The Black Knight in Monty Python, these are trifles. For two hours we laughed and reminisced on the street outside Mary Bs, Anto sucking down bottles of lager out of a straw as Conal held the bottle. Life is for living.

Somebody needs to tell the Derry squad that. In a dismal pattern that stretches back five years, from our first possession, we soloed sideways for a bit, then handpassed the ball backwards. The buzz in the crowd immediately disappeared. 'Keeping the score down' tends to have that effect.

You don't need me to describe it. We dropped back into a zonal defence when we didn't have the ball, no one marking anyone in particular, establishing the dreary pattern we have come to know and despise. Zonal defending has been outed long ago, by the Dubs, Corofin and many others, but not in Derry, nor in the majority of counties. So, the two Donegal goals were not caused by excellent play, but by confusion caused by no one knowing who was marking who and that feeling fostered by zonal defending that someone else will cover the danger. Just like Vinny Corey's goal against Tyrone a fortnight ago, or Galway's against Mayo in the first round.

So, a limited Donegal team (whose zonal defence is equally porous - Derry scored 16 points and missed 1-12) were able to win the game within the first ten minutes, which was a pity since our players are every bit as good as theirs, if we get team selection and strategy right.

Without a half-forward presence, Derry were forced to carry the ball upfield, leaving our dangerous forwards to come up with something on the hoof. Hoping for the best is not a reputable strategy.

What is the core of the game? What is its essence? The game is about passion and excitement. The psychology of the player, of the team, must be that sense of passion, of courage. In turn, this passion and excitement is transmitted to the supporters. When I played Gaelic football, a championship game made the hair stand on your head. The games ebbed and flowed in Ulster and anything was possible because everyone was going for it. The method of play was consistent with the psychology of the game. As Eamonn Coleman used to roar at us beforehand, "LET'S SEE WHAT THEY'RE MADE OF BOYS!" This remains the essence of hurling. The antidote to the dullness of Celtic Park was to come home and watch an absolutely thrilling match between Cork and Tipp.

I have also been glued to the NBA finals, a dream for any serious insomniac. The western and eastern conference finals were seven-game nail-biters. The first game in the overall finals on Thursday night was off the scale for excitement. This does not happen by accident. The rules of basketball are designed to ensure excitement and passion. They have been honed to eliminate negative, 'keep the score down' strategies. There is a 24-second shot clock. So the team in possession has 24 seconds to get a shot off, otherwise the hooter sounds and possession goes to the other team. Secondly, zonal defending is banned, so players must go man to man, which means that they have the chance to show their skills. Thirdly, once over the half-way line, the team in possession cannot pass it back across that line. The result is that players must go for it. Fear or safety first, plays no role in the game. Which means that the players' mentality is perfectly in tune with what sport is supposed to be. They play on the edge. They take risks. As Oisin McConville is wont to say, they die with their boots on. All of which sends the crowds into a frenzy of excitement.

Each player has to take responsibility. His character is on the line. The first game in the finals between Cleveland and Golden State was heart stopping. On countless occasions, the commentators roared in amazement as some audacious shot or dunk came off. With 4.7 seconds to go, the Cavaliers had two free throws to win by a point. They scored the first to level it. Then missed the second, but the rebound was won by the Cavs' JR Smith. In the frenzied atmosphere, he thought they were one up, so to the horror of his team-mates, he turned and dribbled back towards the half-way line. The buzzer went. In overtime, Golden State won it. This is the epitome of sport.

The problem with the game plan operated by many Gaelic football teams (Tyrone, Galway, Derry, Antrim, Down, Donegal, Carlow etc etc) is that it is inconsistent with the point of the game. It sends the players out to contain, and keep the score down, and not take risks. The overwhelming consideration has become not to look bad. The ironic thing is that trying not to look bad ensures that the team and its players couldn't look any worse. This is because it imposes a psychology that is the opposite of what is required. A team can sometimes get a short-term bounce from this system, but it is only short term. Soon, it disenchants the players and disaffects the supporters. And it doesn't work anyway. Why ruin a great game for no reason?

Mickey Harte and Sean Cavanagh are at war. In an interview in The Irish News last week, Mickey's sidekick Gavin Devlin said that if Tyrone had a captain of the calibre of their 2003/05/08 captains, they would have gotten over the line in the last three years. But when Sean says that the careers of a generation of Tyrone forwards have been ruined by their system of play, he is speaking the truth. If Frank McGuigan and Peter Canavan were playing for Tyrone now, Frank would be dropping out around the midfield a la Michael Murphy (think Sean Cavanagh's last five years with Tyrone, or Murphy's with Donegal), and Peter would be sweeping in the half-back area then breaking forward, kicking frees and getting the odd spectacular point a la Conor McManus. The steady drain of forward talent is not because less talented forwards are being born, but because the system isolates, then alienates them. As Ronan O'Neill (destroyer of Crossmaglen) said to Mickey when he was brought on, then taken off a fortnight ago, "The ball never came near me."

In Derry, as in many counties, the same thing has happened, with at least seven highly talented Derry forwards becoming disenchanted, and drifting away from the county game.

James Kielt is one of the most talented forwards in Ireland, and has been since he burst onto the scene, leading his club Kilrea (unbelievably) to an Ulster club minor title. If he had been around in the 1991-1998 era, he would have been a multi-decorated All-Star. In one of his first games for Derry, against Kerry in Bellaghy, within ten minutes he had scored a sideline kick from the left wing and the right wing.

The prototype centre forward, standing at 6'3", 15 stone, with an enormous, accurate kick, he has had a terrible experience with a succession of Derry teams, spending most of his time running around in a ridiculous blanket defence. When he wins the ball, should he kick it 50 metres to himself? Again, last Sunday, he was on the bench. You could not make this up. When he was eventually brought on in the last quarter, he kicked a huge point (as good as McManus' against Tyrone) from the right sideline with his first touch, and one from the left with his second.

Derry manager Damian McErlain has come into a team where the culture (established under Paddy Tally . . . Galway beware) has been zonal defending, fear, no half-forward presence and trying not to lose. Which is precisely why we are in Division 4. These are not Damian's instincts. I have seen and admired his underage club and county teams for several years. His first job is to get the psychology right. This passion and excitement is created by an atmosphere of trust and adventure. Think Jim Gavin and his players.

Derry, for example, have four superb forwards, even if that has been well hidden. Start with the half-forward line. Kielt, all 6'3" of him at right half-forward, coming in on that booming left foot. Emmet Bradley (the best young forward in Ulster, with three Ulster minor club titles to his credit), all 6'3" of him, at number 11. Like Kielt, he can pop the ball over the bar from 55 metres. At No. 12, Mark Lynch, another 6'2" brute, who could have seriously damaged Donegal on Sunday but spent most of his time in the half-back line. This is a trio of powerful ball winners and natural forwards who can terrorise any defence, IF THEY ARE INSTRUCTED TO PLAY IN THE HALF FORWARD LINE.

Shane McGuigan from Slaughtneil is another big powerful, natural forward who can finish expertly, and has fearsome statistics with his club. Last Sunday he was left alone at full-forward and like a succession of Derry full-forwards in the last five years, was eventually taken off on the basis that he was unable to work miracles. Unlike Tyrone's Ronan O'Neill, he didn't throw his gloves down at the manager's feet and give him a mouthful, but maybe that day is coming.

Niall Toner can play in the corner beside him, since he is another natural forward who can finish. This will immediately create excitement, since when they attack they will be close enough to each other to assist each other. Sean Cavanagh says Tyrone have no attacking structure. This is shared by the vast majority of county teams. Carlow, for example, kicked only five points from play against a truly dire Kildare last weekend. Lets see how that works out as the summer advances.

What Sean means when he says there is no attacking structure with this type of system is that a) it precludes a half-forward presence, therefore the ball must be carried forward when it is won and, b) the inside forward or forwards are isolated and there is no way to get the ball to them in an advantageous position since it is too late, and or the attacking team is not pushed up on the sweepers and making rehearsed runs on and off the ball. In a nutshell, this system is attempting to defy the laws of physics. This is impossible, so forwards, attacking play, quick ball, excitement and passion do not occur.

Teams should defend man to man on the primary forwards, with players dropping off when tired or as required. Corofin for example always drop a sweeper to the edge of the square when they lose possession, but everyone else tackles fiercely. This works superbly for them and when they win possession, because they have at least four or five forwards ahead of the ball, they are able to move the ball at speed. And how beautiful is it on the eye?

Finally, teams must push up on the kick outs. On Sunday, Derry dropped off and conceded Donegal's kick-outs. A few of their long kick-outs were very, very good, but I could have been in goals for Donegal on Sunday and spent the day kicking out short kicks to unmarked colleagues, which is precisely what they were allowed to do. This put them at their leisure, and destroyed all sense of passion and excitement. Both in the Derry players, and the crowd.

Sound familiar?

There are far too many senior county players and supporters suffering from chronic depression. The game is not about winning. It is about living life to the full for an hour. It is about getting f***ed into them. It is about seeing what they are made of. It is about passion and excitement. It is about sucking the beer out of the bottle with a straw.

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