Sunday 25 February 2018

Joe Brolly: Mind-numbing fare and Donegal's 1-13-1 formation on Ulster final day

‘In the modern game, the team that makes fewer mistakes wins and Donegal just made more mistakes’
‘In the modern game, the team that makes fewer mistakes wins and Donegal just made more mistakes’

Joe Brolly

Football is reminding me of cricket, let's trial new rule to end the boredom.

We arrived in Clones last Sunday at 11.30. It was a beautiful day, we were in high spirits and like Ratty and Mole in The Wind in the Willows, we had a bulging picnic hamper. First up, Derry v Cavan in the minors. Our high spirits didn't last long. The ball was thrown in, the two teams retreated into their defensive formations and aside from the odd cheer when a decent point was scored, there wasn't very much to get excited about.

Derry shuffled forward into Cavan's 11-man defence, holding possession at all costs, then moved the ball around and waited for an opening to shoot, or raced through it at speed hoping to be fouled. When Cavan won possession, they shuffled forward until they reached our zonal defence, then did the same. By the 15th minute, there was a buzz of conversation around the ground. The first time I came across this phenomenon in Gaelic football was during last year's All-Ireland final, as Kerry and Donegal shuffled up and down the field in the most boring final on record.

It reminded me of a day I spent once at Lord's in the company of Colm O'Rourke and a hyperactive Orangeman from East Belfast, watching Australia and England in the Ashes. The crowd spent most of the time chatting and gently anaesthetising themselves on pints of bitter. Every now and again, there was a cheer when a six was scored or a wicket skittled. But mostly it was a social occasion. O'Rourke, who can't hold his drink, snoozed as the day wore on. It was all a bit too pacifistic for a Meath man of his generation.

By half-time in the minor match, Derry had a good lead. Whatever enterprise we had shown in the first half disappeared in the second, as the boys expertly formed an impenetrable zone, double and treble teaming, turning over the ball without fouling, then holding possession endlessly. Unfortunately for us, pints of bitter are not on sale at Clones. We had to watch it sober. "At least we won," said my father at the final whistle, as we stood clapping the team. It wasn't the boys' fault. They had played the game expertly, precisely according to their endlessly rehearsed script.

The senior match was also entirely formulaic, just more intense. Donegal played their traditional 1-13-1 formation, Patrick McBrearty alone and palely loitering inside Monaghan's fearsome blanket defence. At the other end, Conor McManus knew how McBrearty was feeling. From the throw-in, it was the customary trench warfare. Monaghan shuffled upfield towards the Donegal trenches, only to be overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers. Then it was Donegal's turn to advance through no man's land until they hit the Monaghan trenches, only to be overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers. There was more chance of an own-goal than a goal. Even a point was an event. The crowd mainly cheered the turnovers.

In the end, Monaghan's victory was fashioned by their manager, whose team followed his heavily defensive script to the letter. In the modern game, the team that makes fewer mistakes wins and Donegal just made more mistakes. They were just a little slacker than under the old tyrant, and that was all it took. There was joy for Monaghan supporters, but none for neutrals.

It is said by some that this new defensive game is a fad and that in due course, imaginative strategies will overtake it. Sadly, the laws of physics are permanent. As Kevin Cassidy said to me recently, if there are 13 defenders in the scoring area and seven or eight attacking players, there isn't much room to score. It works and works brilliantly, which is why it is sweeping club and underage football. Even a basic defensive system will glue up a good team at club level. At underage, level it is devastating.

I have argued in this column that one simple rule change could reinvent the game. To refresh the minds, the rule would only apply only to the kick-out. The goalkeeper must kick the ball out beyond the 45-metre line. For the kick-out, only the four midfielders can be in the zone between the 45s. The rest of the players must line up as per the throw in, with six versus six inside each 45. They do not have to be in their starting positions, so long as there are six from each team inside each 45. From the kick-out, the ball is not in play until it is touched by one of the midfielders. Until then, the rest must stay inside their 45.

Coaches would be forced to develop their strategies from the starting point of a midfielder in possession in the middle of the pitch on an average of 35 to 55 occasions per game. The rule will provide space and time for long kicking from the midfield area into the forwards, or for half-backs to surge upfield without being swallowed up. It will also give the art of midfield high catching its proper place, avoiding the artificial solution of a mark. Vitally, forming a blanket defence will be impossible from the kick-outs. As will short kick-outs, one of the pillars of boring football. It would also be a potent antidote to the mind-numbing practice of "killing a game" to protect a lead. Instead of keeping 12 men inside the 45 and retaining possession with short kick-outs, a team a few points up will be forced to have only six defenders inside their own half, kick long into the midfield zone, and let the dice fall where they may. Another crucial point is that there is nothing artificial about the solution. We know it can work, since it is what we did until less than a decade ago. Nor will there be any delay in kicking out because of this. The current average time between a ball going dead and a long kick-out is 20 to 25 seconds, which gives adequate time to form up. The referee will signal to the goalie when to kick out. This could be clocked at say 25 seconds maximum, with infringements being penalised by a 30-metre free in.

On the eve of the Ulster final, the Truagh club in Monaghan hosted the first public exhibition match played in accordance with the proposed rule change. It was an All-Star game, with most of the players being recently retired county stars. The game was videoed and the link is available through the Truagh club website.

A number of things are clear. Firstly, there are real aerial contests at midfield. Secondly, when a midfielder wins possession, he is not swarmed and robbed. Thirdly, there is a quick transfer of possession to the forwards. Crucially, there is no time to create a blanket defence. The players enjoyed it, with the caveat that the midfielders had a lot of work to do. The spectators did, too.

The day after spectators chatted through the Derry-Dublin league game, Jarlath Burns, the powerful chair of the Playing Rules committee, bemoaned the death of football. He has a chance now to do something about it. He ought to start with a series of proper trials. Chatting through a football match just isn't cricket.

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