Sport GAA

Sunday 18 November 2018

Joe Brolly: Scientific gobbledegook is filling the gap where practising skills used to be

Mark McCabe of Meath reacts after converting his free kick in the shoot-out during the Bord na Mona O’Byrne Cup semi-final in Páirc Táilteann last Sunday. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Mark McCabe of Meath reacts after converting his free kick in the shoot-out during the Bord na Mona O’Byrne Cup semi-final in Páirc Táilteann last Sunday. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

One of my earliest sporting memories is of my father getting his nose broken with the Dungiven hurlers. The match was in the early 1970s against Kilrea. I went to every game with him in our bright green Lada, bought from Brendan Campbell in Coalisland. Brendan only sold two types of Lada: A green one, or an orange one. Russian made, it had black plastic seats that burned when it was sunny and windows that only a plasterer could wind open.

That Dungiven team was the nearest thing to a WMD the game has ever seen. Billy Taylor was the goalie and he had to be approached with extreme caution, in the manner of David Attenborough nearing a silverback gorilla. Sudden movements tended to panic him, which manifested itself in hard, high pulling towards the threat until it was subdued. The rule was that anything that came into the general area of the square was Billy's. In fairness, not that much came in, given the reputation of those Dungiven defenders.

Freshford came to a tournament in the town and having watched the first match involving Dungiven and Coleraine University, legendary Kilkenny and Freshford hard man Pa Dillon commented that "a ball would do those boys a good long time". This was interpreted as a great compliment by the players and remains a source of pride to this day.

My father was the only cultured member of that defence. He played centre half-back and was simply too handsome to wear a helmet. Not long into the game, he turned to chase a high ball back towards his own square. As he bent to pick up the sliotar, Billy pulled lustily on it, as was his wont, and made a real mess of his face, breaking his nose badly. I still clearly remember the blood pouring down over his white and black jersey. As he went down on his hunkers holding his face, he said, "For Christ sake Billy." Billy said, "Jesus Francie, what the hell were you doing in here?" This was about as close to an apology as he ever came.

Billy, who died tragically last week, was a great fellow. He hurled for us until he was well into his 40s, and loved every minute of it. He was an independent spirit, on and off the field. His party piece was that he could sing Sean South to the tune of the Sash, and vice versa, with my father accompanying him on the guitar.

In this regard, Billy must be recognised as one of the earliest public advocates of peace between the loyalist and the republican.

His funeral at Pennyburn Chapel in Derry city was a kind of last orders. Liam Hinphey senior, corner back on that team, was there in his customary position, standing at the back of the chapel. Liam reminds me of D'Unbelievables' great joke that if you didn't get down to Mass early you had to sit. The great Fergus Kennedy was there too, another member of that tight group. There was a sea of green and black Na Magha hurling club tracksuits in the chapel. Billy was their lifetime president and they honoured him accordingly.

Afterwards, we stood outside in the cold for a long time, meeting old friends and chatting about the great days. Pearse Mellon said, "Hinphey, I cannot believe you outlived Billy." Hinphey smiled and said, "Pearse, did no one ever tell you that I am a monument to clean living?" which provoked a great snort of laughter from the gathering. Billy's son Ciaran recalled the day his father broke my father's nose. "Entirely his own fault," said Hinphey.

Those boys revered the game. Just as I did. We talked about the way football in particular has moved from an art form to a pseudo-science and how the basic skills of the game have suffered. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the paid coaches have spread through the country, focusing on systems and athleticism. Secondly, with training regimes having become all consuming in most counties, there is no space to work on the skills. Maurice Fitzgerald still goes to the St Mary's pitch three or four times a week just to kick ball for an hour. In the Micko documentary last week, we saw Micko doing exactly the same, beautiful footage of him at the field on his own, taking free kicks, swerving them perfectly over the bar from the 45. Or Bernie Flynn stopping during his working day as he passed a pitch somewhere in the country, taking the bag of balls out of the boot and spending an hour kicking points and goals with either foot.

I used to do the same. Even on Christmas Day, I would drag our Proinsias' sorry ass down to O'Cahan park to stand behind the nets, kicking the balls back out to me. He could stick it for the first half hour, half-heartedly jogging to the balls and toe poking them back out as he puffed on a fag. Then, the complaining started. "When we're getting ready for the throw in on the All-Ireland final, and you're sitting in the middle of the Hogan watching history unfolding, it will be all worthwhile our boy," I'd say. "Some chance," he would say, "I'm freezing our boy can we go home?" Five or six years later he got his golden ticket. Sitting in the house in Dungiven a few weeks later with the holy grail lying casually in the corner of the living room, those bitterly cold mornings were forgotten.

The lack of imagination shown by most teams is due to the fact that there is no free space for them to experiment. When you are training five or six times a week, it is something to get over and done with. If you have a rest day, spending it kicking a ball is the last thing on your mind. It is surprising that in this headlong pursuit towards filling every hour God sends with pseudo-science (the great NZ rugby coach Steve Hansen calls this "the infestation of sports scientists"), none of these coaches look at the Dublin model. They start their training in mid-April. Until then, they cycle, swim, do pilates etc in their own time. Training involves only two collective pitch sessions a week. On top of that they do pilates and yoga etc and have S&C programs. As a result, they are fresh, enjoy their football and critically, have the time to work on their skills. This is apparent from the way they play.

Bryan Cullen came in as their fitness coach and they haven't looked back. He makes the analogy with boxing, where a championship fighter downs tools between fights, doing only a little basic fitness work, then goes into camp for say nine weeks, which brings him to his peak. Mayo take a similar approach. They never do the six-day stuff (which is counter-productive), work on skill based football, and crucially, the players have free space to work on their own game.

Watching Tyrone and Fermanagh labouring to a dire 0-8 to 0-4 result last week, with Fermanagh not scoring in the final 55 minutes, was a snapshot of the infestation: the elevation of system, and strength and conditioning over skill. Or what about Meath v Longford, where the game was decided by a free-taking contest when they were still level after extra time. My friend John Greene was at it and rang me afterwards. "The basic skill levels were shocking, Joe. So many players on both teams had an opportunity to shoot for points and didn't, preferring to turn and lay the ball off to someone else." The free-taking shoot-out saw both teams selecting five players to take a free each. After the ten frees had been taken, the score was 2-1. Both teams are training five days a week more or less all year. Yet their five chosen sharpshooters couldn't kick a ball over the bar, unopposed, dead straight in front of the goal.

A few years ago, when Donegal pipped Derry in Clones in a very tight Ulster semi-final, twice my club mate Kevin Johnston had the ball 30 yards out in a great position in front of the goal. Twice, he stopped, waited, then hand-passed the ball sideways to a man in a worse position. Not long after, I was speaking to Kevin and asked him why he had done that. "I've been instructed not to shoot Joe."

The problem was neatly summed up in a tweet last week from Steven Poacher, who has built quite a reputation for himself on the coaching circuit since he coached Carlow to a 0-19 to 0-7 defeat against Dublin in last year's Leinster championship by deploying the rarely seen 1-14-0 formation. Stevie presented it as a triumph, in the manner of Arlene Foster the morning after Theresa May went ahead and did the soft border deal without consulting her. In the modern GAA, a 12-point defeat seems to be fine so long as you deploy a system that sounds scientific and uses plenty of buzz words/business gobbledegook that no one really understands. So without further ado, here is Steven's tweet, word for word:

"Looking forward to delivering a pitch session based on 'Developing Offensive Transition Play' this Saturday at 11.30am in the Skerries Harps club. Here are the list of games I will be presenting:

- Triple Transition Scoring Game

- Multiple Re-Start Transition Game

- Drop Down and Drive Transition Game

- Kick and Transition Game

- Run it or Kick it Transition Game

- Blast off Transition Game."

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

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