Tuesday 17 September 2019

Pat Spillane: 'Donal Og's cheap jibe at me was one aspect of his ridiculous rant that got me really angry'

Donal Óg Cusack has come in for criticism following his latest appearance on The Sunday Game. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Donal Óg Cusack has come in for criticism following his latest appearance on The Sunday Game. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Pat Spillane

I KNOW it’s not my game and I haven’t a clue about the intricacies of hurling, but even I recognised the sheer magnificence of the two All-Ireland semi-finals served up by Kilkenny, Limerick, Tipperary and Wexford last weekend.

I couldn’t wait to watch the highlights on the Sunday Game and listen to the experts explain how the two games were won and lost, the key moments and the controversial decisions.

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And, boy, there was no shortage of them. However, two of the panelists – Derek McGrath and, in particular, Donal Óg Cusack – instead went off on a long rant that had virtually nothing to do with the games they were supposed to be analysing.

What got me really angry, though, was the indirect reference to me in the guise of a cheap jibe about 'puke football'. Seeing as I appear to have a patent on that particular phrase, I can only surmise that Donal Óg was getting a dig in at yours truly. So what’s his beef?

The central plank of his rant was that innovation is the life blood of any game and those who refuse to innovate are disrespecting the game. Frankly, I don’t quite follow his logic. Bad enough to be indirectly accused of disrespecting the game, but then I got thrown in along with the "last remnants of British culture in Ireland", John Bull and Jack Charlton. Now I have been accused of many things in my life, but being compared to failed British culture is definitely a new one.

So I suppose Donal Óg deserves credit for being so innovative. Here’s my response to his overall argument. Of course, innovation is important but I have always argued that innovation should be for the betterment of the game. Any new system should be tailored to utilise the strengths of the players at the coach’s disposal and at the highest level deliver All-Ireland titles. In terms of delivering titles the record of the so-called innovative sweeper system in hurling is underwhelming to say the least.

Furthermore, I will argue until the day I die that the so-called innovative strategies favoured by many football coaches in the last 15 years almost destroyed Gaelic football. Innovative my eye! What these gentlemen did was imitation, not innovation. It was based on the ‘paralysis-by-analysis’ approach pioneered by Clive Woodward when he coached England to win the Rugby World Cup in 2003. These so-called innovative coaches realised that Woodward’s blueprint could be easily transposed to Gaelic football. It revolved around a negative system of play, which concentrated on stopping the opposition and their key players from performing.

This was achieved by using a safety-first, conservative approach – keeping possession via endless bouts of lateral hand-passing was the key. Isn’t it interesting that all the innovative changes in hurling and football have revolved around defensive play.

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Why? It doesn’t require skilful players to implement it. Proper analysis of a game – whether on the Sunday Game, in the print media or on radio – must be evidence-based. Sadly, we didn’t get this from Derek or Donal Óg on the Sunday Game. Their analysis was more about expounding their preferred philosophies, having a pop at their detractors and trying to justify a system that failed for Cusack in Clare and for McGrath in Waterford.

Of course, evolution is important and healthy, but innovation for innovation’s sake is a joke. It is also counter-productive and certainly not for the betterment of the games. Anyway, just because some of us express a particular point of view doesn’t make us dinosaurs. Of course, modern-day football and hurling has changed – and for the better. Tactics have certainly played a role, but in my opinion the main reason for better standards has been the improvement in the players’ fitness and conditioning.

The modern-day inter-county player is now an all-round athlete. He is not pigeonholed into one position. Instead, he is comfortable all over the field. Gaelic football and hurling is governed by a very simple philosophy, which is as relevant today as it was when I played: Without the ball everybody becomes a defender; with the ball everybody attacks and is capable of scoring.

Finally, let us dwell for a moment on how Brian Cody has delivered 11 All-Ireland titles since 1999. There are no ear-pieces, iPads, modern jargon or groundbreaking tactics. Everything revolves around skill and, more importantly, he demands honesty and work-rate from his players. Sure, it doesn’t sound very modern, but it delivers. Of course, the simplicity of his approach is far too straightforward for some analysts, who seem to think they have invented a better way of doing things.

PS. I would love to have been a fly on the wall last Sunday night in Cody’s sitting room if he was watching the Sunday Game.

Read Pat Spillane every week in The Sunday World.

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