Saturday 18 November 2017

Joe Brolly: The penny has to drop. We need to get back to playing the game. Really playing

Dublin players, left to right, Con O'Callaghan, Bernard Brogan, Eoghan O'Gara, and Tomás Brady, celebrate after beating Kerry
Dublin players, left to right, Con O'Callaghan, Bernard Brogan, Eoghan O'Gara, and Tomás Brady, celebrate after beating Kerry
Barry John Keane is tackled by Diarmuid Connolly during last week's clash between Dublin and Kerry. Photo: Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

In Jonathan Wilson's fascinating book on the development of tactics in soccer, Inverting The Pyramid, he quotes Jorge Valdano, the great Argentine international and football philosopher: "Coaches have come to view games as a succession of threats and thus fear has contaminated their ideas. Every imaginary threat they try to nullify leads to a repressive decision which corrodes vital aspects of football such as happiness, freedom and creativity." Valdano could be describing modern Gaelic football. Except for the Dubs.

If it hadn't been for that freak six-minute spell before half-time, Kerry would have been slaughtered. Ciaran Whelan on RTE, and later in the week Jim McGuinness in an interview with Keith Duggan of The Irish Times, attributed what happened in that six minutes to shrewd managerial tactics. If that is so, what happened to those tactics in the second 35 minutes, when Dublin outscored Kerry 0-13 to 0-6? Tactics me arse.

It was a suicidal kick-out by Stephen Cluxton in the 30th minute that gave Kerry a sniff. Up until that point, the game had settled into a pattern that was going to see a big win for the Dubs. Kerry had 0-6 and were employing a full-time sweeper. Dublin had 0-9 and had missed a superb goal chance to kill the game. But with the freak kick-out, the serenity emptied from the mind of the Buddha of goalkeepers. Two more bad kick-outs in a row resulted in 1-1, the goal another freak from an under-hit point attempt. Eamonn Fitzmaurice mustn't have believed his luck. It was a suicidal kick-out after all that handed his team their All-Ireland in 2014.

Unfortunately for Eamonn, his team weren't facing Donegal this time. No, last Sunday they were up against a team that is totally committed to the game. Like Kilkenny. Or the All Blacks. So, the Donegal of the South, with their full-time sweeper and their defensive half-forwards, were prisoners in their system as the Dubs played them off the park.

Come the last quarter, Kerry went to two sweepers. This would have worked against anyone else. Tyrone would have left their lone full-forward to tire himself out making futile runs, as they handpassed and soloed up the field before taking hopeful pot-shots from the 50. Mayo probably wouldn't even have tried the pot-shots. After all, between the 63rd and 75th minute against Tyrone in the quarter-final, a point and a man up, they didn't take a single shot. Donegal would have done the same.

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Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Jim Gavin at the end of last year’s final Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

But not the Dubs. Because the Dubs come to play. In the 1920s, German philosopher Eugen Herrigel visited Japan to study Zen philosophy. He started with archery. What he discovered surprised him. The point of archery was not to hit the target or defeat the opponent. The point was to become deeply absorbed in the activity itself. Their philosophy was that winning or losing was merely a by-product. The fascinating thing he discovered was that those who were able to absorb themselves fully in the contest were also the ones most likely to win. Jim Gavin's Dublin. Or Brian Cody's Kilkenny.

Science is destroying Gaelic football. It has been tampering with hurling over the last few years. It has ruined rugby, turning it into a statistical bore, save for the All Blacks. Australia met New Zealand's total rugby with science a fortnight ago. On the field, the All Blacks, who understand that the game is an art, played brilliant expansive, instinctive rugby, and exploded the Aussies and their negative systems to the tune of 42-8.

This Dublin group have always absorbed themselves fully in the game. They make mistakes. They use their initiative. They express themselves. They do something rarely seen nowadays: they makes decisions. A good illustration of this is the way they defend.

I watched tapes of their last six big games against the top teams in the country. When a ball is kicked to their square, it looks suddenly as though they have a blanket defence. But rewind slowly and what you see is that the primary defenders have left their men if they are not a threat, and have swarmed the receiver.

If Bernard Brogan stands at the corner flag, Donegal or Kerry or Tyrone will mark him tightly. If Gooch stands at the corner flag against the Dubs, he'll be standing there alone. Like Kilkenny's, the Dublin defenders are trusted by the manager to make decisions. So, they have learned to trust themselves.

On seven occasions last Sunday, Jonny Cooper left his man and gambled that he could intercept the ball. Each time, the gamble paid off. It is fearless stuff that no other management team in Gaelic football permits. As an aside, is there a more brilliant footballing defender in the game than Cooper?

Eoghan O'Gara kicks the point that put Dublin into the lead in injury time. Photo: Sportsfile

The Dubs also play with a full complement of forwards. In fact, watching the tapes, they often play with seven forwards, as James McCarthy regularly takes up a position as a third midfielder and drives on from there. Witness Eoghan O'Gara's point to put them one up with a minute to go. Dublin players were sprinting through the Kerry defence at a variety of angles to create the winning score. When they went one up, they didn't do a Kerry, Tyrone, Mayo, or Donegal. No, the Dubs have no intention of boring themselves and us rigid.

No handpassing about the middle third for them, hoping they can hang on. Balls to that. A point up with the game on the blow, they kept attacking in waves, searching for another score. Diarmuid Connolly had missed his two previous shots and when he appeared off the shoulder with 60 seconds to go, he was at a bad angle on the left side. He took the pass in his stride and without a bounce or toe tap or even a steadying shimmy, he trusted himself to drive it over the bar off his left. If it had gone wide? It's better to go for it and lose than not to go for it at all.

The Dubs show us what sport is. They remind us of the value of true sport. Something to inspire us. Something that makes the world a better place.

In the RTE documentary Jimmy's Winning Matches, Jack O'Connor, then Kerry manager, said of Donegal's style, "If I tried to play football like that in Kerry, I'd get bata agus bothar." It didn't take Eamonn Fitzmaurice long to prove him wrong.

The high watermark for his Kerry team was 2013. Fitzmaurice initially set out to play in accordance with the highest traditions of Kerry football. In that semi-final against Dublin they duly played some of the most brilliant, imaginative football I have ever seen. Fitzmaurice trusted them then. So, in turn, they trusted themselves.

Kevin McManamon of Dublin in action against Killian Young of Kerry

They absorbed themselves in the game, and playing with courage and instinct, they were awesome. In the first half they knocked off three goals, playing football of the sheerest artistry. In the last minute of normal time, with the game level, and the spectators' hearts bursting out of their chests, Dublin kicked long and with the excitement almost unbearable, Michael Darragh Macauley somehow got his hand to the ball, flicked it back over his shoulder and Kevin McManamon was onto it in a flash.

He soloed through as we stood on our seats, hair raised on the back of the neck, eyes wide. But he didn't settle for a tap-over point. It's not the Dublin way. As the Kerry defenders collapsed on him, he went for glory. Top corner. When the ball hit the net the stadium seemed to shake.

It was one of the greatest games ever played. It inspired anyone who watched it and will never be forgotten. As I left the pitch that day I thought to myself that over the next five years we were in for the greatest rivalry the game has ever seen.

Sadly, it didn't come to pass. Instead, Fitzmaurice did what Jack O'Connor had said just a few years earlier was unthinkable. He went all Donegal on it. Kerry won the 2014 final with five sweepers, courtesy of a freak kick-out. James O'Donoghue didn't even take a shot in the game. Come the final whistle that day, we were bored and angry.

That 2014 final convinced Fitzmaurice that the solution to every problem was defensive. The traditional principles of Kerry football were abandoned. In the 2015 final, they managed 0-9. Only the weather spared them humiliation. In the 2016 league final 0-13. If it hadn't been for that freak six minutes last Sunday, it would have been the same again. They lost the second half 0-13 to 0-6, sitting in a defensive shell, laboriously moving the ball forward without a half-forward line to kick it to.

A statistic: in that epic 2013 semi-final, Colm Cooper had 17 touches in the Kerry offensive half, and only one in the defensive half. Wind forward to last year's final. Cooper had six touches in his attacking half. Ten in Kerry's defensive half. Another statistic: in the final 12 minutes of last Sunday's game, Kerry took a single shot. Dublin, meanwhile, took eight shots, scoring seven points.

Sooner or later the penny will surely start to drop. We need to get back to playing the game. Really playing it. Managers must trust players. Players must be allowed to make mistakes, which is the only way to learn. Rather than following rigid defensive systems with strict rules about who can do what, like a series of set-plays, players must be allowed to make decisions for themselves.

This can only happen if that is the culture. Brian Cody put it this way last week: "What we did against Waterford in the drawn game had nothing to do with any input from the sideline. Our players show composure. A never say die spirit, that determination to keep going and to have, more than anything else, that composure to create the opportunity to score the goal that was required. That goal was very difficult to do. It was something done only by the players. Trusting the players is the greatest thing for me."

Kerry were very lucky on Sunday. That surreal six minutes before half-time kept them in it. But because they were trapped in a rigid structure, their players were afraid to express themselves. So, Colm Cooper kicked a simple 25-yard point chance tamely into the keeper's hands, and Kerry took one shot in the last 12 minutes. Glory doesn't come with a safety net.

Afterwards, the Kerry supporters threw missiles at the referee, but in truth they should be thanking their lucky stars. They would have been murdered in the replay.

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