Monday 17 December 2018

Joe Brolly: Let's stop players dying of boredom

Con O’Callaghan plays with freedom
Con O’Callaghan plays with freedom
Paraic Duffy. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Páraic Duffy's final report sets out all the many things the new director-general needs to do to save the GAA, somewhat overlooking the fact that he had 10 years to do them himself.

Eugene Reavey's brother Seamus has been an underage referee in Armagh for 25 years. Famously, he has never given a card. Eugene told me: "There wasn't a match he couldn't get finished, even in Crossmaglen." Once, he had no paper, and wrote the match result on a piece of skirting board in his van. If a match ever deteriorated into mass brawling, and an investigation was launched by the county board, the referee's report would go missing, with Seamus certain he had sent it in.

He told me when I was at Whitecross's dinner dance last year that when the referee's information pack and cards arrive in the post at the start of each season, he takes the package unopened to the range and drops it into the flames.

The DG's last report is equally pointless. It is all rhetoric and avoidance, as depressing as Donald Trump's tweets.

With the start of the league, it is hoped that Dublin v Tyrone last year represents the beginning of the end for the 1-13-1, 1-14-0, and related self-defeating formations.

Danny Blanchflower, one of the great sporting philosophers, said once that "the great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom."

These words should be posted on every dressing-room wall. Even in Garvaghey.

Players hate these robotic systems, where self-expression and trust is replaced by the tyranny of the blackboard. Ticking-boxes football, endlessly rehearsed, makes footballers play safe. It discourages and eventually removes risk-taking. We have seen, on countless occasions over the last seven or eight years, teams who are five or six points behind still refusing to commit men forward, labouring to inevitable defeat in the prison created by their coach.

My piece last week focused on coaches, their gobbledegook, and the damage they are doing to the game and the players they coach. One of those coaches said this recently: "What a player needs is a mind map of what the map creator thinks about when they break down the potential inputs for a pass."

It gives an idea of how many people are taken in by this stuff, that he had the confidence to say it publicly. Last week's piece included an advertisement by a prominent GAA coach for a training session he was holding where every single one of the conditioned games being taught was based on "transition". These included the "Triple transition scoring game", the "Multiple re-start transition game" (this doesn't appear to include the concept of scoring), the "Drop down and drive transition game", and the "Blast off Transition game".

A number of these coaches were unhappy about the piece and complained that I was living in the dark ages.

On the other hand . . .

The day after it was written I got the following text: "I enjoyed your scientific gobbledegook piece today Joe. I cannot believe a fella is getting paid to coach defensive transition. F*** me (I will not include the colour he added). This is what's wrong with the game. You don't need to transition unless you've brought everyone back. Pathetic."

The text just happened to come from one of the best players in the country and a key member of the four-time All-Ireland-winning Dublin senior team.

Shortly afterwards, I got another text, from another member of that same team. It reads as follows: "Pissing myself here. Blast off transition? WTF? We push up and make teams kick long, so we don't need to transition. Fellas are 1 v 1. When we win the ball back, we move the ball to the attackers at speed. If Philly or Jonny win the ball they move it to the half-backs and they move it on. Transition is bollox."

What would those two boys know? They only have eight All-Irelands between them. Living in the bloody dark ages.

A striking example of the contrast between real football and the consequences of this pseudo-football was that semi-final last year. Tyrone dropped back into their 1-13-1 formation.

Dublin pressed up as they do, so Tyrone didn't have the luxury of walking the ball out easily using their unmarked sweepers. Quickly, Dublin hemmed them in. After an early goal and several points, Tyrone caved in and the game was over by the 15th minute.

Dublin don't transition because they keep a half-forward presence and their inside forwards stay put, save when they are pursuing their defender. Because of their formation, they are always ready to attack, always ready to commit the defenders and sweepers.

The point of the game, correctly identified by Blanchflower (think Guardiola's Barcelona or Man City, Ferguson's United, etc) is to play with adventure. When the coach insists that the team plays that way, this automatically encourages self-expression. So Mannion, Brogan, O'Callaghan - in fact every member of the Dublin team - has the licence to go for it.

Think Mannion's great solo goal to kill off Donegal in the quarter-final a few years ago, or the novice O'Callaghan's rampaging solo efforts against Tyrone and Mayo last year. They have the confidence to take the risks necessary to win big, because the coach gives them the licence to fail. What is not permitted is conservative, risk-free football.

Mayo play the same way. They push up on the kick-outs, keep their primary forwards in position and move the ball in, usually with accurate 30- to 40-metre kick-passes. Their players go for it, for better or worse. Think Lee Keegan. Or Doherty. Or Andy Moran, who made hay last season. He was getting the ball in the danger zone. He was in space, created by quick movement of the ball forward and good man-to-man pressure. But he had the trust of the coach. He ended up Footballer of the Year.

Contrast this with Mark Bradley from Tyrone, who was left stranded, 90 metres away from the nearest Tyrone man, getting the ball at the last minute in poor positions, expecting him to work miracles. Or Michael Murphy, the country's greatest forward, whose great talent has been systematically squandered, trapped in a system, terrified at the concept of risk. In transition football, attack is an afterthought. The key requirements of this bastardised sport are group-defending inside the danger zone and not making a mistake.

People say this Dublin team may be the greatest ever to play the game, but as the players themselves will tell you, they owe a debt of gratitude to transition football. It means they are able to push up, hem the opposition in and keep them stuck in their own half for most of the game. Eventually, they cave in.

In the same way, Slaughtneil have won three out of the last four Ulster club titles. As others have concentrated on the pseudo-science of blanket-defending and transitioning, they have stuck resolutely to man-to-man football. They push up on sweepers, tackle ferociously as the opposition tries to run the ball out, and their full-backs play in front, leaving the inside forward (in the 1-13-1) or forwards (in the 1-12-2) stranded, 80 or 90 metres away from their team-mates.

I had this conversation with Chrissy McKaigue in Belfast before Christmas and he was smiling as we talked. Again, he is bewildered that most teams do not see this.

The point about this style of football, or football, is that not only does it work, it automatically rewards the skills of the game (kicking, tackling, shooting). Crucially, it creates a sense of ambition and adventure. Which means in turn that the boys love it. It's why they started playing the game in the first place and it's a journey they want to be part of.

Our players are dying of boredom. Time to go out and do things in style and with a flourish. Time to go out and beat the other lot. To have a go. Alternatively, they can work on the blast off transition game with the input path providers visualising mind maps that create the potential sideways pass.

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