Sunday 22 September 2019

Joe Brolly: I'd prefer a plague of midges to Fermanagh's blanket

‘If Rory Gallagher was managing the Chicago Bulls he would have asked Michael Jordan not to shoot.’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘If Rory Gallagher was managing the Chicago Bulls he would have asked Michael Jordan not to shoot.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

In Russia the other night, a plague of midges descended on the Volgograd Stadium, irritating the players, and driving the spectators mad. A bit like Fermanagh. I'm looking forward to watching them play today as much as Arlene Foster.

Rory Gallagher took over from Jim McGuinness and made Donegal unwatchable, eventually boring the players and supporters to death. In the end, the county's senior footballers lost all enthusiasm for the game and were humiliated by Tyrone first, then Galway, with Michael Murphy labouring forlornly in the heart of the blanket defence, taking frees and chasing back, hand-passing the ball sideways and the like. The sort of thing that every young footballer dreams of when he's in the back garden with the size three in his hands.

If Rory Gallagher was managing the Chicago Bulls he would have asked Michael Jordan not to shoot. He must have a very high boredom threshold. How anyone could coach and watch this stuff night after night is beyond me. Not that there is much coaching in it. As the great Stevie McDonnell said recently, "anyone can put 14 men behind the ball and hope for the best". Stevie would have been the second sweeper on the square if Rory had taken that Armagh team.

Rory went to Kilcar (Rory has been in more places than Bus Éireann) and as always, imposed his 1-13-1 formation, without any thought given to the players at his disposal and their various abilities. It is not about the team after all, or the good of the game, it is about the manager. So, Rory asked Kilcar to play like Carlow and surprisingly, they hated it. One of his rules was that the ball was not to be kicked into the attacking area, a logical corollary of the rule that there was only one forward.

Before one of his earliest games in charge, against Ardara, he reinforced the point by warning them in the changing room beforehand that if any outfield player kicked the ball into the attacking area they would be taken off. The rule was hand-passing only, especially since Paddy McBrearty was inside all alone. After 10 minutes, big Kilcar midfielder David McShane took possession and delivered a long kick-pass, which McBrearty put over the bar. McShane was taken off.

Just like Donegal, Rory's tenure with Kilcar ended badly, the boys playing like a team that hated football. Maybe because under Rory, they had in fact come to hate football.

With Rory gone (on the excellent Bus Éireann service to Fermanagh), Kilcar breathed a sigh of relief, and under their new manager they went back to playing Gaelic football. Boy how they played. After winning the county title last year, breaking the mould of blanket defending in Donegal, their Ulster semi-final with Slaughtneil was the second best game of the year, trumped only by that epic Sam Maguire finale. Kilcar missed three great goal chances that day, losing despite an electrifying display. But it was glorious and it did what great sport always does: it uplifted us all. Unlike the 1-13-1 system which is sending the game down the toilet and causing football lovers all over the country to ask what's the point.

I have previously described the real problem as footballing myxomatosis. The typical pattern is that when a county senior team adopts this system, it is then copied by that county's clubs. This happened in Donegal after Jimmy McGuinness. Their club football became unwatchable. St Michael's played Glenswilly in the championship, two of the county's big boys serving up a 1-4 to 1-2 classic. Or what about St Eunan's 0-2, Glenswilly 0-3? This was the mind-numbing pattern until a fantastic, attack-minded Kilcar team came along last year and changed the template. If Fermanagh's clubs follow this example, the football people of the county are in for several dire years. This has happened in Down, in Derry, in Tyrone, etc. Funny thing is that it is the teams who have continued to play football, namely Kerry, Dublin and Mayo, who have monopolised the championship.

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It never ceases to amaze me that instead of using these teams as the model, coaches all over the country are adopting a failed strategy. If evidence were needed, look no further than Dublin's annihilation of Tyrone's lauded defensive system last summer. A fortnight ago against Longford, the Dubs showed us once again how it ought to be done. From the throw-in, their man-to-man pressure on Longford's sweepers put them under impossible strain. It goes without saying that you do not have to have outstanding players to push up and mark.

I watched the raw footage of the Longford game from RTÉ's overhead cameras, and it should be shown to all coaches. The Longford 'keeper starts each kick-out by looking for a short one, something that is normally straightforward. But the Dubs don't allow this to happen. So the 'keeper then has to look long. But there are no clear targets since the Dubs are swarming them. In the end, he kicks long. The outcome is that the Dubs caused multiple turnovers in the danger zone, and Longford were hemmed in. The Dubs dismantled the kick-outs simply by pushing up man to man, thereby establishing a pattern of constant attack. Why teams don't do this is beyond me. This encourages the right psychology, creates an attacking platform and allows the good forwards to show their stuff.

In the 23rd minute, the Longford 'keeper decided to try a short one. He found the corner-back who, under huge pressure, hand-passed it to a team-mate. The Dublin forwards, hunting for the interception, trapped him, dispossessed him and Paul Mannion crashed it to the net. This was their second goal in a few minutes coming from a turned over kick-out, and the game was over: 2-9 to 0-4.

Donegal need to follow Dublin's example today, not Monaghan's. A blanket defensive team like Fermanagh can only stay in the game against a superior opponent if the opponent adopts the same formation. Dick Clerkin wrote a furious column after that defeat, saying that Malachy O'Rourke should have instructed his men to push up on Fermanagh, play with a full complement of forwards and prevent them from executing their very limited game plan. Basically, stating the obvious.

Instead, as Clerkin pointed out, Monaghan squandered their advantage in that semi-final, Malachy O'Rourke trapped in the prison of fear that comes with extended use of the system. One of the country's top five forwards, Conor McManus, hardly touched the ball, and Monaghan allowed Fermanagh to kick the ball out to the free defenders as they retreated back into their own half, for no apparent reason other than this is how the system works.

Donegal need to play today like Kilcar post-Gallagher. Push up on the kick-outs from the start (look at the difference last Sunday in Hyde Park when Galway pushed up on Roscommon), keep Murphy, McBrearty and young Jamie Brennan close to each other inside the attacking zone as they did against Down, and dismantle Fermanagh from the off. The blanket is an illusion, only made possible by the opponent believing it. It is a tired device used by coaches with no imagination.

In the circumstances, I must respectfully disagree with the condescending twaddle doing the rounds about plucky Fermanagh, Fermanagh rising, and how it would be great for the county if they win. A day out in Clones is too high a price to pay for bringing the game into such disrepute.

Give me a plague of midges any day.

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