Tomás Ó Sé: 'Slow death of man-markers causing panic in new systems'
Modern taste for mass defence has robbed players of their self-sufficiency. So, when man-on-man pressure comes on, they simply don't know what to do
It's over 20 years now since I got a brutal, one-week tutorial on the art of man-marking, the scars still with me to this day.
Two games in Fitzgerald Stadium, seven days apart, delivered a rasping education. First, my senior championship debut for Kerry ended with a half-time substitution against Cork. Then the bright idea of tossing me into full-back blew up in West Kerry's faces when a rampant Johnny Crowley went to town for the East in a county championship game.
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That single week in '98 wiped out any illusions anybody might have entertained about me having a future in the full-back line with club or county.
Actually, that Munster semi-final against Cork proved the one and only time I was ever picked at corner-back for Kerry, the following morning's Irish Independent noting how I'd been "brushed aside" by Aidan Dorgan. If I'm honest, Páidí performed a humanitarian act that day, removing me from harm.
Because I was no man-marker. Don't get me wrong, I was able to defend. As a wing-back, I always understood that my first job was to stop my marker scoring. But, out there, at least I felt I had a half chance of recovery if he ever got inside me.
In the full-back line? No. In there, it was do or die.
It strikes me that you need a specific computer chip inside your head to be a man-marker; the willingness to sacrifice your own game really. That was never me. The man-marker has one job, one job only. How he does it, is up to him.
Like Kerry had three outstanding masters of the art during my time playing, Mike McCarthy, Tom O'Sullivan and my brother Marc. Those three always gave us confidence that they could survive in space.
But it was a job that took a huge mental toll too and, when Mike came back in 2009, he made clear that he wouldn't return if it meant being played inside in the corner. He just had enough of it. The role carries such an element of self-sacrifice, it's actually hard to see how it can be enjoyed.
Like we played Cork one year in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Colin Corkery was absolutely tarring Tom Sullivan in the first half. Darragh and I were the first two behind Tom into the dressing-room at half-time. He sits down and lets out a groan. "The f**king space inside is cruel" he says.
What could the two of us do but start laughing? It was basically man-on-man combat out there. Tom was quicker than Corkery, but Corkery knew how to use space. And a forward like that is trouble.
But Tyrone and Donegal then brought in this idea of defending in numbers to, essentially, decommission that kind of combat. They worked on the philosophy that forwards didn't like being denied even the possibility of space.
They were right too, but what has the new game spawned? Has it been the death of individual self-sufficiency?
Put it this way, when Kerry pressed up on Cork last Saturday, nobody seemed programmed to drop back instinctively. So there was the opportunity of overlap all the time, which the likes of Ruairi Deane duly exploited.
It strikes me that there are two areas where Kerry are in trouble right now - (1) teams running at them and creating that overlap, and (2) teams kicking behind them into space.
Both problems are exacerbated if you don't have high work-rate out the field, in other words if your midfield and half-forwards aren't setting up defensive road-blocks. But also if you're not forcing turnovers on the opposition kick-outs.
We've seen Mayo run through Kerry a number of times of late; they did it in the championship two years ago and twice in this year's league. Donegal did it brilliantly to Tyrone a few weeks ago with the best counter-attacking performance I've seen this year.
And, given Donegal will be in Kerry's group in the 'Super 8s' now, that's an obvious worry.
Cork, by the way, were excellent last Saturday. In the second half especially, they caused Kerry serious problems, the likes of Deane and Kieran O'Hanlon just running down their throats. But I was surprised Kerry didn't stop Deane being the free man given the trouble he'd caused Limerick in the semi-final. It just seemed to me as if they weren't prepared for a real battle.
On Saturday, Kerry dropped Jack Sherwood back as a sweeper (which then gave Cork an extra man to target with their own kick-outs), yet the game-plan looked to be working perfectly for the first ten minutes. My suspicion is that this gave Kerry a false sense of security.
When that happens, work rate is an inevitable casualty. Fellas relax into training-match mode. They get careless. But what really worries me is that I can't honestly identify Kerry's best man-marker now. Like I roll the names around my head....Foley, Morley, Sullivan, White, Sherwood, Murphy... where is the natural man-marker there? I can't see one.
Defensively, Morley was probably the pick of the bunch last weekend. Sullivan and White attacked well. Everyone else was caught, especially given there just wasn't enough ball won out the field by fellas like David Moran and Jack Barry.
Football has changed. And one of the most far-reaching recent changes has been the high press on kick-outs. An obvious risk with this press is you can leave yourself too open at the back.
Some old-school skills of the game are needed to counter this, but it's amazing how many teams can't seem to master them. By that I mean high-fielding around the middle of the field and, yes, the ability to man-mark.
Pushing up on the opposition doesn't require huge bravery if you know you have those qualities. In other words, the ability to hold up the counter. To buy those vital seconds while the cavalry gets back into position.
In terms of strategic mass defence, Tyrone were the originators. Donegal then took it to another level. And that style filtered down into the club game, everybody buying into this absolute belief that space was the enemy. So the fashion now is to fill that space. Fair enough.
But the dependency on systems means that players are inclined to panic if the system breaks down. Because they can't swim on their own basically. I know I couldn't. Fear came into my game the moment I felt exposed inside.
I remember doing grand for a while on Oisín McConville in the 2002 All-Ireland final, but he started pulling me in towards the full-back line in the second half and I didn't like it. Because I felt I was now marking too much space.
You see, I knew I was in trouble straight away if quick ball came in. I just wasn't programmed to be a man-marker and, sure enough, McConville ended the day with a man of the match award.
I panicked a bit and I see other players doing it now too. Why? Because the only man-on-man coaching most of them are getting is within an eight by 15-yard square. They become really adept within those confines, but a match can then introduce them to a space maybe ten times that size. And, in that situation, the nightmare scenario is a forward willing and able to take you on.
Ten or 15 years ago, nearly every county had a specialist man-marker - Anthony Lynch (Cork), Karl Lacey (Donegal), Seán Marty Lockhart (Derry), Kenneth Mortimer (Mayo), Mark Reilly (Meath), Cathal Daly (Offaly), Joe Higgins (Laois), Andrew McLoughlin (Kildare), Conor Gormley and Ryan McMenamin (Tyrone).
Who has them now? Cooper and Fitzsimons do it for Dublin; Murray for Roscommon, McMenamin for Donegal. Maybe a couple of Mayo players can do it too.
But Galway? No. Kerry? No. Tyrone? You're scratching your head.
I mean I used laugh at Donegal defenders getting All-Stars during Jim McGuinness's time. What were they actually for? Donegal defended as a unit of 12 or 13 bodies, meaning nobody was ever left man-on-man.
Compare that to Mike McCarthy who won his All-Stars because he went toe-to-toe with the best forwards in the game. Now Lacey, to be fair, did get two of his four awards at a time Donegal weren't competitive. But, by and large, the modern defender today is just a cog in a machine.
You have to train your brain to be a man-marker and it strikes me that modern defensive systems seem to have over-ridden that taste for self-sufficiency. So, when those systems break down, players flounder.
All man-markers live or die, essentially, on their instinct. And that was the killer for me, I didn't have that speed of thought. By that I mean the ability to anticipate and counter a dummy or the quick hands to whip the ball from an opponent's arms.
And Kerry, palpably, lack someone of that ilk right now.
I know they're a young, developing team, but these issues aren't new. They were flagged fairly publicly a year ago.
For all that, I still have faith in this management team. Certainly, I believe that Donie Buckley is the absolute best at what he does but, if you look at the players he got to work with in Mayo, he was dealing with really smart, mature figures.
But on top of that, Mayo's tackling was phenomenal from midfield and half-back in. Something Kerry probably yearn for now.
Kerry will get better, mark my words. But it'll happen quicker if the players develop a little more self-sufficiency.