Joe Brolly

McGuin­ness ad­vo­cates a de­fen­sive strat­egy that would bore us to death, says Joe Brolly

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - COLM O’ROURKE & JOE BROLLY

Oisín McConville was joined by many ob­servers of the game when he de­scribed last year’s foot­ball fi­nal as the great­est ever played. It is hard to dis­agree.

ISTOPPED in En­nis­crone for a cof­fee the other day. Sit­ting out­side in the bright sun­shine, a beau­ti­ful old lady came over to say hello. She told me she was Mau­reen Lof­tus, née Ó Sé, orig­i­nally from Din­gle, and that her brother Tomás Ó Sé had played for the King­dom in the 1950s. “It’s very sad what has hap­pened to the foot­ball,” she said. “I pre­fer to watch the hurl­ing now.” Mau­reen is not alone.

With Mayo and Kerry gone be­fore the semi-fi­nals, the oth­ers bar Dublin were all es­tab­lished zonal de­fen­sive teams. It is there­fore no sur­prise that an av­er­age TV au­di­ence of only 449,000 tuned into the Dublin-Gal­way semi-fi­nal, while a mere 447,000 watched Ty­rone v Mon­aghan the fol­low­ing day. Last year by con­trast, Mayo v Kerry at­tracted 729,600 TV view­ers (al­most 300,000 more than this year) with Dublin v Ty­rone gar­ner­ing 663,400 (al­most 200,000 more than this year). As for that im­mor­tal 2017 fi­nal be­tween the Dubs and Mayo, it brought in a whop­ping 1,141,200 view­ers.

This huge year-on-year drop of 36 per cent is a statis­tic that doesn’t lie. Peo­ple are switch­ing off in huge num­bers from zonal de­fen­sive foot­ball, pre­fer­ring to walk the dog, or watch Columbo , or top­less darts. This doesn’t just ap­ply to the TV-watch­ing GAA pub­lic. Croke Park a fort­night ago felt more like league games than All-Ire­land semi-fi­nals, with the at­ten­dance fig­ures for our field of dreams down by al­most 25 per cent from last year.

The fal­lacy in­creas­ingly be­ing ped­alled by the zonal de­fen­sive coaches and apol­o­gists is that this is be­cause of Dublin’s dom­i­nance. It is, of course, noth­ing of the sort.

Last year, when Dublin were go­ing for their fifth Sam in seven years, RTÉ re­vealed that the fi­nal was the most watched sport­ing event of the year (and sec­ond only to the Toy Show in the over­all stand­ings) with al­most 1.2 mil­lion tun­ing into the na­tional broad­caster for the game. Th­ese mas­sive view­ing fig­ures were be­cause the GAA pub­lic and neu­trals knew they were go­ing to get fan­tas­tic, en­ter­tain­ing con­tests when they tuned in to see the Dubs ver­sus Mayo or Mayo ver­sus Kerry. It is a tru­ism to say we want to be en­ter­tained when we com­mit to an hour and a half of TV view­ing or a long trip to Croke Park. The en­tire point of the game, af­ter all, is en­ter­tain­ment. En­ter­tain­ment for the play­ers, the sup­port­ers and the larger GAA fam­ily.

In his weekly in­ter­view with Keith Dug­gan in The Ir­ish Times last Tues­day, Jim McGuin­ness blames Dublin (this is not a mis­print) for the fact that the game has be­come bor­ing. He tells Dug­gan (make sure you’re not sip­ping from a cup of hot cof­fee or tea while read­ing this) that “Dublin’s in­flu­ence is spread­ing in that we are see­ing Ty­rone and Mon­aghan and oth­ers go through long pas­sages of play where noth­ing much hap­pens”. He goes on to say: “Dublin don’t par­tic­u­larly care if they score; they just don’t want to cough the ball up and give the other side a plat­form.” Who needs laugh­ing gas when you can read Jimmy on a Tues­day? A fort­night ago against Gal­way, Dublin scored seven points from their first seven at­tacks, on their way to amass­ing a to­tal of 1-24 from 32 at­tacks. All this against one of Jimmy’s patented zonal de­fences.

But as the co­me­dian Jimmy Cricket was known to say, ‘there’s more’. Jimmy con­tin­ued by say­ing: “I think we are go­ing to see th­ese ex­tended pas­sages of play where noth­ing much hap­pens more and more next sea­son. I have no prob­lem with it as a pol­icy or tac­tic but there is no deny­ing that it is bor­ing for the spec­ta­tors, par­tic­u­larly in com­par­i­son to Dublin’s pre­vi­ous model or phi­los­o­phy.”

Jimmy might not have made it in China, but a ca­reer beck­ons in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. The bot­tom line is that Jimmy was sin­gle-hand­edly re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing Gaelic foot­ball to this sorry state, his zonal de­fen­sive sys­tem spread­ing like myx­o­mato­sis. Now, he is try­ing to di­vert the blame, to spread it around. He ped­dles the fal­lacy that Dublin now adopt an “ex­trem­ist game plan” that in­volves pa­tiently hold­ing the ball and try­ing to draw blan­ket de­fen­sive teams out. What else can they do faced with a 13- or 14-man de­fen­sive sys­tem? Should they dash them­selves into the rocks like they did in 2014? The real af­front is in Jimmy blam­ing the Dubs for craft­ing a high-scor­ing game plan to deal with the zonal de­fen­sive sys­tem he pi­o­neered.

It is worth re­peat­ing this line: “Dublin’s in­flu­ence is spread­ing in that we are see­ing Ty­rone and Mon­aghan and oth­ers go through long pas­sages of play where they don’t par­tic­u­larly care if they score.” Which was, as I re­call, a spe­cial­ity of his Done­gal team. I can still vividly re­mem­ber the way he dragged this great game into the mire in the 2011 semi-fi­nal, con­fis­cat­ing his play­ers’ mo­bile phones on the morn­ing of the game so they couldn’t tell their be­mused rel­a­tives that they were go­ing to play with 15 men in­side their 45. By the way, they man­aged a to­tal of 0-6 that day, which sounds like a team that didn’t par­tic­u­larly care if it scored.

Or what about his team’s ni­hilis­tic strat­egy in the 2014 fi­nal, by com­mon ac­claim the worst and most bor­ing fi­nal ever played? In­evitably, this zonal sys­tem cre­ated a tem­plate for copy-cat coaches all over the coun­try to spoil the ma­jor­ity of county and club foot­ball and de­ter peo­ple who loved the game from go­ing to watch. Jimmy, how­ever, merely washes his hands of re­spon­si­bil­ity. The good of the game and the wider GAA fam­ily are ir­rel­e­vant, sen­ti­men­tal con­sid­er­a­tions.

The schlock film di­rec­tor Ed Wood was told by an en­raged in­vestor in one of his early movies that it was the worst film he had ever seen. “You think that was bad?” said Wood, “Wait till you see my next one.”

So, I come to Jimmy’s rec­om­mended game plan for Ty­rone in next Sun­day’s fi­nal. Go on . . . can you guess what it is? You have it. In fair­ness, it wasn’t dif­fi­cult.

So, he duly ad­vo­cates that Ty­rone should “take 15 men and get them be­hind the ball on de­fence”. He goes on to say: “Imag­ine Ty­rone set up as fol­low­ing: three full-backs, three sweep­ers, three half-backs and then the rest of their out­field­ers along their de­fen­sive 45,” (I’m try­ing not to) “and Mickey Harte is­sues the fol­low­ing edict to his 15 play­ers; un­der no cir­cum­stances do you ad­vance be­yond that 45. Let Dublin have the ball for as long as they want. It could be­come very ugly and far­ci­cal . . . It might lead to a far­ci­cal and even no­to­ri­ous All-Ire­land fi­nal.”

And a game that no-one wants to watch. Oh how Jim would love to see Mickey Harte adopt­ing this plan. It would help spread the blame for the de­struc­tion of Gaelic foot­ball and its re­duc­tion to a farce. His zonal de­fen­sive sys­tem has been sys­tem­at­i­cally ru­in­ing the game. Jimmy’s so­lu­tion? To make the game even worse. What next? Maybe

It would help spread the blame for the de­struc­tion of Gaelic foot­ball

county man­agers should scour the county for three very tall men of around 6’ 6” or more and get them to stand per­ma­nently on the cross­bar to pre­vent points. This would re­duce the zonal de­fence to a mere 11 bod­ies, but they could group in a semi-cir­cle in­side the 45. This in turn would force the op­po­si­tion to kick for points from around 40-45 me­tres. The three tall men on the cross bar with their arms above their head would mean those kicks would have to go at least nine feet above the cross­bar for them to go over.

If the Dubs man­aged to go 0-1 to 0-0 up in the sort of pur­ga­to­rial fi­nal Jim rec­om­mends, they could spend the rest of the game pass­ing the ball about amongst each other in their de­fence. “Look at how bor­ing Dublin are,” he would say.

Oisín McConville was joined by many ob­servers of the game when he de­scribed last year’s foot­ball fi­nal as the great­est ever played. It is hard to dis­agree. It was a fab­u­lous, un­for­get­table, heart-stop­ping con­test where we saw how great the game can be. Af­ter­wards, the great David Hickey was moved to say the GAA should com­mis­sion one-off gold medals for all of the play­ers from those Mayo and Dublin teams in com­mem­o­ra­tion of their ser­vices to Gaelic foot­ball. Who could dis­agree? We came away from that match hope­ful that the ex­am­ple of those two great teams might be­gin the process of sav­ing Gaelic foot­ball.

The essence of the game is a shared jour­ney. For the play­ers, sup­port­ers and the wider GAA fam­ily. In­stead, be­cause of Jimmy and his legacy, the fab­ric of Gaelic foot­ball is be­ing sys­tem­at­i­cally ru­ined, and we are shed­ding spec­ta­tors by the hun­dreds of thou­sands. Jimmy said that “there is no deny­ing this will be bor­ing for spec­ta­tors”. He needn’t worry. If the game con­tin­ues to be played his way, soon there won’t be any.

‘We came away from last year’s All-Ire­land foot­ball fi­nal hope­ful that the ex­am­ple of those two great teams might be­gin the process of sav­ing Gaelic foot­ball’

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