Saturday 19 October 2019

Joe Brolly: 'Slowly but surely teams are waking up to the fact that Gaelic football has been subjected to an enormous con trick'

Mattie Donnelly scores Tyrone’s second goal against Galway last Sunday. Photo: David Fitzgerald
Mattie Donnelly scores Tyrone’s second goal against Galway last Sunday. Photo: David Fitzgerald
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

I have been arguing for several years that Tyrone's method of play was the problem, not the players. As their heavy zonal defensive system advanced into its third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh year, a culture of solo-running, hand-passing, forwards dropping back and taking up positions inside their defensive 45 became established. When this happens, creativity is stifled and it becomes impossible to know whether the footballers are good enough.

Everyone looks much of a muchness. The forwards never get the ball early in advanced attacking positions where they can strut their stuff. Instead, they are coming forward slowly out of the zonal defence, hand-passing, soloing and holding possession, hoping to win a free or kick a long-range score.

When I argued with Tyrone folk that their system of play was self-defeating, that they should play with inside forwards, a half-forward presence and kick the ball forward early, the answer usually was, 'we don't have the forwards'. How can you know that, when the forwards are not getting an opportunity to demonstrate their ability?

Tyrone abandoned their zonal defensive system for the All-Ireland semi-final last year. They looked all over the place against Monaghan but that was to be expected. Again, the final came too soon for them. The conversion from anti-football to football cannot happen overnight.

It was halfway through the league when we started to see the results of their new game plan. They beat Dublin easily a fortnight ago, with 1-10 of their 1-14 coming from long, early kicked ball. The ball was going in so quickly that the Dublin defenders were in the unusual position of turning and running towards their own goal with their backs to the play. If Tyrone had scored the goal that was crying out to be scored halfway through that first half - the final hand-pass was overcooked - it would have been a stuffing match.

Last Sunday, they walloped Galway, with Cathal McShane, Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte playing close to goal for most of the game, Niall Sludden holding his position in the half-forward line and the superb Michael Cassidy continually attacking from wing back in a way we haven't seen since the departure of Philly Jordan.

Suddenly, Tyrone are exciting again. We see that they have some tremendous forwards, with Donnelly and McShane in particular playing football of the highest order. It is clear to see that the team is energised and motivated. This is because they are enjoying themselves for the first time in many years. This is what happens when a team plays football.

Carlow, meanwhile, are relegated back to Division 4, #carlowsinking. The 1-13-1 formation gave them a temporary bounce but the players and supporters are now thoroughly fed up with it and no one else cares. From dust it came and unto dust it has returned. The triple blast-off transition and all the rest of it is just a scientific sounding cloak for heavy, unimaginative zonal defending and nothing else. And to all the eejits of the day running to these coaching clinics to learn how to create "defensive crowd control" and how not to play football: catch yourselves on.

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Meanwhile, in eight minutes at half-time in Croke Park on St Patrick's Day, the Corofin under 12s scored more goals than Fermanagh senior footballers managed in 546 minutes of Division 2 football. Across all 32 teams in the four divisions, Fermanagh scored the least number of goals: two. Furthermore, they scored both in a dire draw with Tipperary (2-5 to 2-5). That left six games without a single goal.

To put that in perspective, taking a random sample across the divisions, Waterford scored 11 goals, Antrim eight, Meath eight, Clare nine, Louth 10, Tipperary nine, Mayo eight and Laois eight.

Fermanagh's accolades don't end there. They also scored the least number of points across all four divisions, a mind-numbingly boring 69. Again, let's put that into perspective. Leitrim scored almost twice that, with 119. Laois posted 117. Antrim managed 100. Clare 107. Fermanagh's nearest rivals in Division 2 scored 111 (Meath) and 112 (Donegal).

They are suffering from the defensive-based, risk-free, football-free culture enforced by their manager. People in Fermanagh will tell you: 'We don't have the footballers.' Sound familiar? Funny, I watched St Michael's Enniskillen winning the McRory Cup a fortnight ago in swashbuckling style, playing highly-inventive, skill-based, attacking football to beat an excellent Omagh CBS team. Their 16-point tally that day was seven points more than Fermanagh's average.

I also watched a superb Enniskillen Gaels team beating the best minor teams in Ulster in 2018 to win the most prestigious, and also the toughest, minor football competition in the province. They played with ambition and confidence and dealt with every challenge thrown at them. When the culture is football, the team can adapt. The players learn to be resourceful and self-confident. They learn to trust themselves. Fermanagh have plenty of good footballers. But with the current regime, footballers are surplus to requirements.

We see the effect of anti-football v football very clearly when we watch Corofin on the one hand and Galway seniors on the other.

With Galway, it is mechanical, dull, formulaic stuff. Boring, predictable up and downs with nothing to catch the imagination save the odd solo flash of brilliance from Shane Walsh. In the second half against Tyrone last Sunday, they looked awful, hand-passing, soloing and managing 0-3 in 39 minutes.

With Corofin, the culture is proper football. Indeed, their under 12s played exactly as their seniors on St Patrick's Day. Heads up, quick kick-passing, excellent movement off the ball, excellent communication, full on adventure, focusing on goal scoring, kicking with both feet. Brilliant for the players and brilliant for the spectators.

Slowly but surely teams are waking up to the fact that Gaelic football has been subjected to an enormous con trick. Declan Bonner abandoned it with Donegal and now they are a most enjoyable team to watch, with an exhilarating Ulster championship triumph last year and gaining promotion back to Division 1 last weekend with a grand total of 3-112.

Meath abandoned it and are now flying, posting 8-111 in Division 2 and gaining promotion in top spot. Tyrone are playing superb football and for me, they have only started. Tyrone football is alive and well again, and boy are their supporters enjoying it.

'We don't have the footballers,' is an excuse for unimaginative, usually ultra-confident managers. It is an entirely self-defeating philosophy, as vividly seen in Carlow, Galway and Fermanagh. Forget the triple blast-off transition. Play football instead. As Corofin under 12s showed us all in Croke Park a fortnight ago, it really is a beautiful game.

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