Monday 20 May 2019

Joe Brolly: We must act before excitement ruins monotonous game we love

Sean Quigley of Fermanagh in action against Drew Wylie of Monaghan
Sean Quigley of Fermanagh in action against Drew Wylie of Monaghan
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Last Sunday's Ulster semi-final was a very poor reflection on Rory Gallagher and Malachy O'Rourke's ability. From the 71st minute, when Fermanagh scored their lucky goal from what Rory described as a miscued shot, until the final whistle, there were more than three minutes of excitement. In Ulster inter-county football, this simply should not be happening. As angry Fermanagh supporters have been pointing out to me all week on social media, the fact the match was woeful is irrelevant.

The whole point of Ulster coaching is to make Gaelic football boring. At the moment, the senior county coaches have managed to reduce excitement to a couple of minutes per game, which just isn't good enough. These lads are training six times a week, ten months of the year and this is the best a coach can offer?

In fairness to Rory Gallagher, that ball wasn't supposed to be kicked in long. Fermanagh's players are supposed to hand-pass and solo the ball slowly upfield, sideways and backwards, until they reach the other team's 45, so I suppose Rory can rightly blame player error. But the excitement that broke out during that final three minutes and 46 seconds would be enough to send Steven Poacher to his bed for a fortnight, and it is an issue that Rory is going to have to address before the Ulster final. Excitement is the enemy of ‘the system' and cannot be tolerated, even when it is accidental, like Fermanagh's goal.

I have listened carefully to the criticisms of my footballing philosophy, and I have come to the conclusion that these Ulster coaches are correct. It is irrelevant how the game is played. It is irrelevant that forwards have become irrelevant. It is irrelevant that there is no longer a spectacle. The crucial thing is to make the game as boring as possible for everyone. And the bottom line is that, as of June 2018, it is not boring enough.

So, in the wider interests of the game, I have a number of suggestions to create 100 per cent excitement-free football. This week, I feature the first of these, which I am calling ‘the Sit Down Protest'.

The Sit Down Protest can only be used against a fellow blanket defensive team. When the team in possession is ahead with less than 15 minutes remaining, the ball is kicked out short to the unmarked corner-back, who should drop it on to the ground and sit down beside it.

Malachy O'Rourke is a long-term devotee of keeping-the-scores-down football. Yet with their last few kick-outs, when Monaghan were ahead, they took the enormous, unnecessary risk of bringing the ball upfield. This was — in the circumstances — suicidal. Had they adopted the sit-down-beside-the-ball-and-wait gambit, they would have won the game.

Think about it: Rory Beggan kicks the ball short to the unmarked Monaghan corner-back. He drops it to the ground and sits down beside it. This has a number of obvious benefits:

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Firstly, it is consistent with the philosophy of ‘the system', ie it drives the spectators and TV audience mad. Since, however, they are irrelevant and most of them are living in the dark ages anyway (dreamers who make ridiculous statements like, “Football used to be a great spectacle”) this is in fact a positive, and like Sky analysts, we must emphasise the positives. Or believe in better.

Secondly, sitting down beside the ball means that the player's team-mates can take a rest, particularly on a hot day like last Sunday. This has the welcome side-effect of the spectators getting a break from watching endless hand-passing, soloing backwards, and players marking empty spaces. 

Thirdly, it would be a spectator sport in itself to see if any of the blanket defenders, standing in their position inside their own 45, would eventually crack. I can see very few flaws in this tactic. Beggan kicks to Drew Wylie, who immediately sits down beside the ball on his own 21, as Malachy O'Rourke gives him the thumbs up. Monaghan are two points up after all, and there are only four minutes left. Fermanagh's 14 outfielders, meanwhile, are waiting obediently inside their 45. After a few minutes have gone by with nothing happening, Big Jones finally loses his patience and in frustration charges out of his spot and sprints upfield. Rory Gallagher roars repeatedly at him, “Get back to your position!”, but it is too late. Jones runs towards Wylie. Wylie gets calmly to his feet, wipes the grass off the arse of his shorts, picks up the ball and waits. As Jones reaches him, he hand-passes it back to Beggan. Jones runs to Beggan. Beggan teasing him, waits until he is a few yards from him, then kick-passes it to the far corner where Conor McManus gets his third touch of the game. Jones, exhausted, stops and stands with his hands on his knees, breathing heavily. McManus, meanwhile, has now reached his quota of touches from play and sits down beside the ball.

As this unfolds, Rory Gallagher is speaking calmly into his mic. His selectors gather beside him on the line. They bow their heads towards each other. One of them suggests that they push up on Monaghan. As he points out, there are now only 90 seconds left and they are two behind. But wise heads prevail. Rory, who has been coaching the system for four years now and knows everything there is to know about it, insists they stick to it. One cannot, after all, have players expressing themselves on the field.

Monaghan duly win, but as Rory points out afterwards, “Monaghan are a great team and Malachy is a great coach. Coming within two points of them gives us enormous self-belief. The game was far too open out there today and we are disappointed we allowed that to happen. If we had been two points up, we would have done exactly the same as Malachy. I have spoke to Big Jonesie. He has let me down, his team-mates down and himself down. He was the first person to hold his hands up in the dressing room. Obviously, he is dropped for the next game, but he fully accepts that, and we can now all move on in the best interests of Fermanagh . . .”

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