Saturday 25 January 2020

Peter Canavan: Football isn't dead - or even dying - it's just evolving

Critics should take off their rose-tinted glasses and realise our game is as compelling as ever

Colm Cavanagh was typically dominant in the air during Tyrone’s victory over Donegal in Clones last weekend. Photo: OLIVER McVEIGH/SPORTSFILE
Colm Cavanagh was typically dominant in the air during Tyrone’s victory over Donegal in Clones last weekend. Photo: OLIVER McVEIGH/SPORTSFILE

Peter Canavan

Thank God for those TV shows that broadcast reruns of old football matches. They serve not only as a nice walk down memory lane, but also as a reality check for today.

How many times do you hear the 'football's not the same as it was in my day' argument as a starting point for criticism of today's game? As if somehow the days gone by captured the game in the way the men in Hayes' Hotel envisioned. That the innocent days of long kicking and attacking football were lost forever, found only on dusty film reels.

There has been no shortage of prophets of doom over the last few years, confidently predicting the inevitable end of our great game as we know it.

It has always made me smile, that rose-tinted-glasses stuff. The football of 1970s, '80s and '90s held its own charms, but so too does this era of football. And through every generation run the fundamental skills of the game.

There was great fielding back in the old days, but don't tell me that it was any better than Colm Cavanagh's catch against Donegal or the display of fielding put on by Kildare's Kevin Feely. There was long kicking too but could anyone boot a dead ball further than Mark Donnellan or Niall Morgan or with the same accuracy as Rory Beggan?

There were teak-tough defenders too, but now you have men like Philly McMahon, Paudie Hampsey and Keith Higgins. Forwards must find them nightmares to play against, as they can wander upfield and lob over stylish points from distance at will. There's no shortage of physicality these days either. Have you ever seen a better shoulder than the one Damien Comer delivered against Mayo?

The point is the game is as compelling as it ever was, albeit it in different ways. And the basics remain the same.

What has changed is that tactically players are being asked to do more. Managers, too, are being forced to come up with new and innovative ways of winning matches.

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For example, the short kick-out was in vogue for years. Possession was king and that emboldened naysayers to come out in force.

Over the recent months we have seen a shift in thinking when it comes to restarts. With teams pushing up to prevent the short kick-out, goalkeepers are now going long and direct, recognising that a 60-metre delivery can take maybe 20 players or more out of the game. Win possession there and you might have a run on an exposed defence. That's the game evolving before our eyes. There's nothing to be scared of in change.

We saw that evolution in Tyrone's game. Tyrone get bodies behind the ball yes. But last Sunday they showed they can really play at the other end too. I didn't get to read the Sunday papers until Monday this week. It's actually an interesting experiment and, as a Tyrone man, one that I found deeply satisfying.

So many scribes questioned and belittled Tyrone's chances. They pointed to an intransigent manager with his boring game-plan and how it was taking Tyrone nowhere. And that in showing blind loyalty to their manager, the Tyrone players were effectively getting in their own way, hampering their own chances of success.

A few hours later, with the same manager in place, with the same players and the same tactics, Tyrone had dismantled Donegal. And lo and behold, they are now considered All-Ireland contenders. To quote Chris Kamara, 'unbelievable Jeff.'

No doubt it will have made the rest of the big players sit up and take notice. If you're Dublin or Kerry, you'll have to look at Tyrone in a slightly different way now.

There was never any question about whether they could defend, but the feeling was they'd need a low-scoring game to take out one of the big teams. And even if Tyrone enjoyed the sort of day in front of goal they are unlikely to have again, that has changed.

They hit 1-21 and converted around 60pc of their chances which is a good return considering how many attacks they had.

The spread of scores (12 different players) means they have more threats now than ever before. You can be sure the other main contenders will have noticed that. And if they are to clash later in the year they'll have concocted something to try and nullify what Tyrone are doing.

And that's modern football. That's how it has changed, with teams looking to learn an adapt on the hoof. And while it's not to everyone's taste, too many are stuck in the past.

All of the skills are still there and there are plenty of scores too. Tyrone's high-scoring display was reflected across last weekend's games. Of the eight winning teams, each of them tallied 20 points or more in the course of their victories.

So football definitely isn't dead. It isn't even dying. It has just moved to a different place - there's nothing wrong with that.

Even with a flawed championship system there is something special there. The fundamentals remain strong. There'll be no hugging in the tunnel before matches, no swapping of jerseys at half-time. You won't see Michael Murphy beating his chest in the Donegal jersey this summer and then lining out for Galway next year. The raw honesty of championship football remains. You could see that in the winners and the losers last weekend and we'll see that for the rest of the summer. 

Sit back and enjoy it.

Irish Independent

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