Tuesday 20 March 2018

Tomas Ó Sé: Joe Brolly's mythical idea that teams should play to entertain is pie in the sky

Tomas O Se

I've been thinking lately about that line from a Meath supporter when asked if he had recorded the 2001 All-Ireland final. "I did" he said "but I'm going to tape the Angelus over it!"

There must have been more than a few people inclined to do the same with last Saturday's Dublin-Derry game. For crimes against fashion, it seems it was a bit of a beauty, serving a purpose for those who depict Gaelic football as staggering towards death's door. The miracle of the GAA, I often think, is how it works its way through so many of these kind of crises.

What was the vibe about Gaelic football last August? The All-Ireland semi-finals were as good as anything seen in years and, if the final was a little too tactical for some tastes, it wasn't exactly a grim eye-sore.

So I don't know what Jarlath Burns was thinking last Saturday night when he tweeted that he was "seeing the death of Gaelic football". Now don't get me wrong. I was following the game myself on Twitter and, on seeing the half-time score (0-3 to 0-2), I tweeted "That's not football".

The difference is I'm not the Standing Rules Committee chairman.

But maybe we're all a little guilty in this regard of making sweeping statements about a game that, like every other, has its good days and its bad.

Let's get something straight here. The game is largely fine. It needs tweaking, not reconstructive surgery. Make it too open and, trust me, given more space, the likes of Kerry, Dublin and Mayo would stretch well clear of the rest.

The history of the game is a history of changing the terms of engagement. Good teams adjust. I was on the Kerry team that played Donegal in the 2012 Championship. We set up to play in an orthodox way and got beaten. So how would it have made sense for Eamonn Fitzmaurice to set up Kerry the same way two years later?

Joe Brolly
Joe Brolly

That said, I would be completely against the defence-orientated game, with its over-emphasis on hand-passing and the retention of possession, being coached at club and under-age level. I don't blame senior inter-county managers for setting up defensively, but I worry that a lot of the drills our young players are being exposed to now are almost anti-football.

So if the game generally needs adjustment, maybe there should be some restriction on the number of consecutive handpasses allowed - and what about looking into awarding double points for any score kicked from outside a designated area?

If Burns' group looked into those two areas, I would welcome it. Just do something to encourage teams to take more risks.

I have often argued that, whatever people thought of the style Jim McGuinness brought to Donegal football, no-one should be under any illusions that it took really good footballers to make it work. And it strikes me that a lot of the people waxing lyrical about that achievement back then are the same ones now belly-aching over teams trying to follow the McGuinness model.

I hear all these sweeping statements about who is playing defensive football, and most of it is horse manure.

In my experience, Dublin always had the likes of Michael Darragh Macauley or Cian O'Sullivan drifting back all the time. I marked Bryan Cullen a fair bit and he spent a lot of the time down the far end of the field. So I don't buy into this pigeon-holing of different teams.

True, you will always get a copycat syndrome. Teams see an All-Ireland won one way and try to set themselves up with that format, thinking they can do what, say, Donegal did in 2012. The reality is that they won't be able.

That said, Dublin were naive last year to think that the same style of play would work, no matter the opposition. Even now, I'd still be slightly worried about them defensively.

What Kerry did last September was they just kept their six defenders back. Yes, when they lost possession, their two midfielders came back helping out, and maybe a forward as well. That's a big change from my time in the Kerry jersey when you'd very rarely see a wing-forward back, or even a midfielder. The only time in the very early stages of my career that you'd have seen my brother Darragh back would have been to catch a '45'.

But we were lucky in that we had four of the best defenders I've ever seen, in Mike McCarthy, Tom Sullivan, Seamus Moynihan and, later, my other brother Marc.

In my time, I'd say Galway were the first team whose forwards really tackled back. Then we had the emergence of Tyrone, who defended even deeper than anyone had done before. Yet could you describe a team that won All-Irelands in '03, '05 and '08 as 'parking the bus'? Not a chance.

Tyrone were a swarming team and the important thing is they had great, great footballers to do it. Their counter-attacking was done at pace and that, I believe, is the difference between good teams and bad teams playing to this format. Pace.

Look, if you parachuted Kerry, Dublin, Mayo and Cork into the semi-finals this year, you'd get two cracking games. So this idea that our game is in crisis, I just don't get.


If one thing has crept into the game I think it's a collective lack of confidence. Teams are afraid to play a 40-yard raking pass in case it leads to them coughing up possession. So we have a lot of handpassing and this kind of rugby-style running with the ball.

Joe Brolly argues that it goes against the ethos of the game to play that way. But if you're a team that's being pummelled all the time, what choice have you got?

Even Dublin, if they could play last year's semi-final again, would they do it differently? Of course they would. Yet Kerry were abused for playing the way they did in the All-Ireland final. You can't win.

The Kerry team I played in was never a defensive team. We didn't know how to do it. You have to spend time on it and that's why I would give Fitzmaurice great kudos. In 2012, we emptied our half-back line forward and, when Donegal broke at pace, we were out of position.

Last year, Donegal had six players to deal with because the Kerry half-backs held their line. That meant they slowed up Donegal for that crucial few seconds to get support back. I'd call that intelligent, not negative.

I've good time for Brolly, but this mythical idea that teams should play to entertain is pie in the sky. And football is nowhere near as bad as is being made out.

With a plan, the reality is that the best team will still win. But it's worth remembering too that a bit of humility goes a long way.

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