Joe Brolly: Jim McGuinness' answer to football's problems leaves more questions than answers
In this week's column, Joe dissects Jim McGuinness' answer to cure football.
“I watched Galway and Roscommon on Sunday afternoon in complete dismay. It was a vision of the game in the near future when it may be in ruins. The match hadn’t even finished when I felt certain that the GAA needs to introduce a rule by which at least three players from both teams must remain in the offensive end of the pitch at all times. Otherwise, we are going to have stalemate after stalemate and the game itself will go nowhere.”
You’ll never guess who actually said this. Go on. I’ll give you a thousand goes. I suspect that like Father Ted trying to guess the thieving priest’s name, you’ll be at it all night. You’ll think I’m pulling your leg when I tell you. It was, wait for it . . . Jimmy McGuinness. Yes. That Jimmy. The “Jimmy’s winning matches with 13 men behind the 45” Jimmy. Irony is not a sufficient word. No. A new word will have to be invented to cover this example of industrial scale irony. It is like the creator of the myxomatosis plague lamenting the fact that rabbits are dying.
It was okay when he was doing it. Remember him confiscating his players’ mobile phones on the morning of the 2011 semi-final so they wouldn’t reveal the fact that they were going to move from their normal 1-12-2 formation to the never before seen 1-13-1? Or what about the 2014 final? The ugliest, dullest final in living memory. Jimmy is nothing if not audacious. And in truth, his interview with Keith Duggan this week is accurate. Save for his solution to the problem, which looks like it might be unworkable.
We all know the game has turned to shit, with 95 per cent of clubs and counties using his DIY, off-the-shelf defensive plan. Flood the offensive area with bodies, double up on the danger men, solo, hand-pass, keep possession and squeeze enough frees and counter attacks here and there to hopefully nick it in the end.
But while the system worked brilliantly when it was a novelty that bewildered the opposition, once it became widespread, stalemates, and woeful spectacles were inevitable.
Jimmy bemoans the fact that Galway football used to mean “sweeping, majestic, expansive football.” Does he suggest that would work against his Donegal strategy? If so, how? Crucially, he cannot think of any tactical or strategic solution to the problem. Instead, he says the only way to stop the rot is a rule change. So, what is his myxomatosis vaccine? He advocates a rule where three players and their markers must remain in the offensive half of the pitch at all times.
Let us look at that for a moment. Presumably, the three offensive players and their markers would have to be identified pre-match and would wear, for example, a coloured armband to denote that. So far so good.
But say one of the designated attackers runs for a ball that is kicked long from the defence and as he sprints towards it he finds that he is reaching the halfway line before the ball. Does he stop in his tracks and stand with his man until it arrives, willing the ball towards himself like the sprinter in the relay team waiting for the baton? Or if his momentum carries him over the halfway line after winning possession, is it a free out?
Take another example: One of the designated defenders races out to support one of his team mates, the hand-pass is put ahead of him to run onto and he realises he’s not going to make it before crossing the halfway line. If he does make it, the opposition defence is spread-eagled and a goal may be on. Does he simply stop and turn away? If his sprint carries him over the line is it a free in? And why would three men up be a solution at all? Three up wouldn’t and doesn’t trouble defensive systems like Donegal’s, Tyrone’s, Monaghan’s, Galway’s, Kerry’s etc etc.
The rule that I have advocated for the last two years seems to me to be the least artificial and the most consistent with the ethos and aesthetics of the game.
For the kick-outs, only the four midfielders are permitted to be between the 45s. For the kick-outs, there must be six on six inside each 45, just like for the throw in. The kick-out must go beyond the 45 and no other player can break the 45m line until one of the midfielders has touched the ball. This would abolish short kick-outs, which are a massive part of the problem.
It would mean that around 35-50 times per game, the ball would be in the possession of a midfielder, with time and space in the central area, who would have a full complement of forwards ahead of him and every option at his disposal.
Crucially, it would make it impossible to set up a blanket defence, since the other outfield players can only break the 45 once it has been touched by a midfielder between the 45s. If the kick-out doesn’t travel beyond the 45, it’s a 30-metre free in front of the goals. I believe firmly this is the only rule change that is a)required and b)workable.
It solves the problem without in any way damaging the flow of the game. It enforces skill-based, attacking, man-to-man football. We know it will work, because it is more or less what used to happen in the days before myxomatosis.
And it is dead easy to police. The linesmen take up their position on each 45 for the kick-out and if any of the other outfield players break the line before a midfielder touches it, it’s a 30m free in front of the goals. And if the kick-out travels over the heads of the midfielders and runs over the other 45, then it’s game on as normal.
Galway and Roscommon was a different game this week
In the meantime, there are a few obvious things that teams can do to win games and achieve a better defensive/attacking balance. Unlike Galway or Roscommon last Sunday, who are merely mimicking the vast majority of teams, they can push up on the kick-outs and force the opposition keeper to either kick long or chance a highly risky short kick-out. Like the Dubs.
They can keep at least two half forwards in position as a bridge between defence and attack, permitting long relieving kicks from the defence. They can space their forwards so that they are always around 40 metres apart, so that sweeping is difficult and the ball can either be kicked long or run through at pace. How often nowadays are we treated to the ridiculous sight of a lone full forward loitering on the square hoping for a miracle (“maybe I’ll get a perfect 100-metre kick pass to the chest.”)
In the first half last week, playing with a gale force wind, Roscommon allowed Galway to take their kick-outs short to a corner back. Galway couldn’t believe their luck. So they held possession, wasted Roscommon’s precious time with the wind, wasted the spectators’ precious time with their lives, and by half time they were poised to win the game.
I say poised. Of course that didn’t materialise because it would have meant Galway taking the odd risk here and there. Instead, when they went a point up in the 55th minute, they retreated into their defensive shell, and so the dismal merry go round went on and on. And when Roscommon had possession with 30 seconds to go and a possibility of getting the winning score, they refused to do that because it just felt too damned risky. So they used up the 30 seconds by exchanging eight hand-passes. “Jesus Christ,” said Pat Spillane. “Thank Christ,” said Michael Lyster.
Watching his bastard creation on Sunday forced Jimmy to finally realise what he has done. The least he can do now is find the antidote.