Tuesday 20 February 2018

Joe Brolly: Playing not to lose guarantees defeat in the GAA

Dublin always play with six forwards
Dublin always play with six forwards

Joe Brolly

In November 1989, Martin O’Neill applied to become manager of Barnsley FC. It being Martin, he wrote his application by hand. The first paragraph reads as follows: “Dear sir, I wish to make a formal application for the post as manager of Barnsley Football Club. If you are looking for an ‘experienced’ man who has repeatedly failed at other clubs but who is still on the managerial ‘merry-go-round’ please disregard this letter. However, if you are looking for someone who has fresh ideas, who can motivate players, deal comfortably with the media and make the club successful again then I promise you I’m the best bet of all the applications lying on your desk.”

Needless to say, Barnsley rejected him.

Instead, O’Neill went to non-league Wycombe Wanderers, where he led them to a series of astonishing successes, bringing them the whole way to the old English Second Division.

Watching Roy Hodgson last week as England fell to Iceland, I thought of O’Neill’s words. Overwhelmed by panic on the sideline, Roy suddenly realised he was on the big screen in the stadium. At which point, he furrowed his brow, stroked his chin and tried to look like Columbo. What a spoofer! I thought this was the high point of the panto until I saw the clip of Steve McClaren, another veteran spoofer, explaining to the TV viewers when it was 1-1 why Hodgson’s tactics were spot-on and how it was only a matter of time before England went 2-1 up. 

The experienced men who have repeatedly failed at other clubs and the managerial merry-go-round have become one of the most depressing facets of modern Gaelic games. Watching the games over the last few months, I thought of what must go on at county board interviews.

Failed manager: Well, I have a lot of experience with modern defensive structures. I intend to play the 1-13-1 formation (Shows the formation on PowerPoint, using slides). As you can see, this is very difficult for the opposition to break down and will give us the best possible chance of not losing. My coach has similar experience. I’ve written my fee on a note in this brown envelope (passes it over), based on five sessions a week.

Chairman: I see you have failed at three other counties and seven clubs.

Failed manager: I have indeed.

Chairman: Most impressive. What is the most important lesson you have learned?

Failed manager: That you learn far more from defeats.

Chairman: I agree, and you certainly seem to be an expert in that regard.

Failed manager: Thank you very much.

Chairman: One last question . . . When can you start?

The blanket defensive template is now operated by 90 per cent of counties and most clubs. It has spread like myxomatosis. The problem is that, unlike Jim McGuinness’ original, which was ingeniously balanced between defence and attack, the off-the-shelf version is all about defence — which systematically demotivates and demoralises the players and supporters. As Jim himself put it in an interview with The Irish Times on Tuesday, while discussing this very problem: “What is the point of all that training?”

Jimmy lamented the absence of passion in the vast majority of games nowadays, the overwhelming concentration on defence, and the going-through-the-motions that passes for modern football. 

You could have taken any weekend since the championship began and used the games to illustrate this. Let us start with last weekend (with the honourable exception of Donegal and Monaghan, who gave everything they had in the cause of winning, not to be confused with the cause of not losing).

Down played with a permanent double sweeper and lost to Longford, conceding 2-24. Meath played with a double sweeper and were duffed by a Dublin team that barely raised a sweat. Kildare and Westmeath was a modern cliché. You don’t have to have even watched the game to know exactly how it panned out, both teams boring themselves and their ever-dwindling numbers of spectators to death.

Here is the template for a highly successful failed managerial career:

  1.  Play with at least one permanent sweeper.
  2.  Withdraw your half-forwards and one full-forward into the defence when possession is lost.
  3.  Play without half-forwards.
  4.  Without half-forwards, there is no option of kicking the ball long out of the defence.
  5. Therefore, the only option is to hand-pass and solo the ball out of defence.
  6. Leave the full-forward, or two full-forwards isolated in the full-forward line, without any clear purpose.
  7. Hand-passing and soloing out of the defence is dangerous so DO NOT LOSE POSSESSION. No risky passes. No long kicking under any circumstances.
  8. 90 per cent of the opposition will play the same system, so the goalkeeper will take all kick-outs short to the free corner-back.
  9. When the corner-back takes possession from the kick-out he will handpass and/or solo run.

With rehearsal of this system five or six times per week over a year, players lose their sense of adventure. Expressing yourself becomes impossible. The structure does not permit this. If you attempt to express yourself it won’t work anyway, because of the system. There is no point in a corner-back looking to kick long because there is no one to kick it to. Nor is there any point in a half-back looking to kick long, for the same reason. By the time it has been hand-passed out of the defence, the opposing team has already got its half-forwards, one full-forward and sweepers in position, so kicking becomes futile.

The amazing thing is that although none of this works, it has become the established method of play. It has a number of effects. It destroys skill. It demotivates the players because they are trapped in something that is the opposite of sport. It makes them reluctant to try anything. So, we do not see any spark. The sole attack strategy becomes holding possession. Players feel safe delivering a short pass to a man a few metres away. They feel relieved. The result is that they play without passion or adventure.

A simple example from the Euros is Wales, who push on, attack at speed, try things and generally play with adventure. This fearlessness creates a chemistry that is very hard to combat. It excites the supporters and emboldens the players, thereby creating the circumstances for a shock. Put another way, their system and philosophy creates the potential for victory. In the obsession to create the ultimate zonal defence, this has been almost entirely lost in our game.

We need to find a new way of playing football. It is not as if we don’t have excellent role models — just look at the Dubs last Sunday. Pressing up on the kick-out, looking for turnovers. Six forwards at all times when they attack. All spaced roughly 40 metres apart. Outfield players willing to risk a long kick-pass into the space towards goal. The result of their structure and philosophy is players expressing their skills, playing with passion and adventure. Like Crossmaglen at club level.

The point is that what they do not only makes sense, but it looks great, the players love it and, crucially, the spectators love it. Put another way, it is something worth putting effort into — and it is something worth watching.

We need managers with fresh ideas, who are not part of the failed managerial merry-go-round. And we need some people power. A fortnight ago the Derry supporters groaned and roared their disapproval at the nothingness that was on offer against Louth at Owenbeg. The chairman and the manager heard all of this. Like most counties, our county team has been reduced to muck. Meath people know the feeling. As do the good folk of Down, Armagh, Kildare, Sligo, Cork, Westmeath, etc.

The problem is that, in the end, a game without passion and adventure is not a game at all. The great irony is that playing not to lose guarantees defeat.

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