What’s happened to the Beautiful Game?

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Fifteen minutes into Derry’s last home game against Monaghan at Celtic Park, as Derry soloed along their half back line hand-passing the ball quickly to and fro like a pinball, a Derry supporter behind the Deputy First Minister could take no more and bellowed “For J**** sake would you kick the f****ing ball in” earning him the biggest cheer of the game.

I ran into the glorious leader at half-time, who suggested it was hard to watch. I didn’t disagree, though as a rule I tend not to with Martin. Interestingly, although Derry won handsomely, the mood amongst the home spectators was glum. They are not alone. Football followers all over the country have become increasingly despondent about the way football is being bastardised.

In accordance with the new way, Monaghan played their half forward line deep in their defence, horribly outnumbering Derry’s star forward Paddy Bradley. Derry meanwhile kept their defence in position so Monaghan’s star forward Paul Finlay was likewise horribly outnumbered. Both teams won possession in their defence and began the laborious process of criss-crossing the field, solo-running and hand-passing. Mark Lynch was in the full-forward line with Bradley and as this was going on, the two boys were sprinting free one side, then turning and sprinting back, in the forlorn hope that sooner or later some of their solo-running comrades might look up. Mark’s father Mickey was sitting right behind me and his contributions were frankly unprintable. On countless occasions, both teams moved the ball backwards into their empty defences, which was the cue for further hand-passing practice.

Another common feature of the new game of ‘Keep Ball, Hand-Pass, Solo-Run and Treble Mark’ was on view. At least ten times, a player took possession around the middle and found himself in acres of space due to the fact the opposition had retreated en masse. With no one to kick to, he toe-tapped a few times then hand-passed it to the next solo-runner. Meanwhile, the spectators groaned.

The deterioration in the quality of the game has accelerated rapidly in the last few years. Coaches with big reputations and strong personalities have come in from other disciplines, particularly rugby and athletics, creating serious problems. The emphasis is on power, tackling and keeping possession. Armagh, under Joe Kernan, had a terrific kicking game, moving the ball quickly and long into Clarke and McDonnell. The last 20 minutes of their All-Ireland Final triumph in 2002, or their last gasp victory over Tyrone in the 2005 Ulster final sums this up. Their two inside men used to man either side of the square with Oisin mooching just outside them. When an Armagh man took possession around the halfback/midfield area, a diagonal ball was kicked long and accurately into them, causing terror in the opposing defence. If Ronan or Stephen didn’t catch it, they knocked it down to each other or Oisin. The opposing goals were always under siege. Every time the long ball was kicked, the crowd were on their feet in anticipation.

Mike McGurn, the renowned rugby and athletics coach. was brought in after Big Joe had gone. Soon, Stephen and Ronan were having to run to the sidelines on the 50’ to get a touch. It was the onset of SRS, the formal medical term for solo-running sickness. This imported virus has quickly taken root. Now, it is an epidemic.

The vast majority of drills in what is described as ‘Modern Gaelic football’ have been incorporated from soccer, basketball and rugby, where players play in much smaller more congested areas. In training nowadays, Gaelic footballers are conditioned by drills carried out in cramped spaces. Tackling and hand-passing routines in a 5m x 5m area, lasting 30 seconds, are the norm. One of the most popular GAA coaching DVDs is called “30 small-sided games.” The blurb tells you the source of the drills is US basketball and Brazilian football. The DVD sells like hotcakes. Is it any wonder players no longer look up?

Small sided games and blanket defensive tactics have been bought in by almost everyone. Dublin won an All-Ireland doing it. After Donegal and Antrim poisoned our TV screens last June, Antrim manager ‘Baker’ Bradley said without a trace of irony: “That was a terrible game for spectators. Both teams had our defences packed, scores were at a premium, and the only difference is Donegal got more frees than us, so they won. I don’t approve of this defensive style at all. If I had to pay to watch that I wouldn’t” (which tended to undermine somewhat Donegal’s angry response to the nation’s criticism). One year on and Antrim are becoming successful automatons under the expert coaching of retired rugby international Andy Ward. If you thought they were hard to watch last summer, just wait to you see them this summer.

Managers and supporters hate the new style since it strangles creativity, but feel they have no choice. They are wrong. Isn’t it striking that in an era of boring, formulaic blanket defences, the pre-eminent club team in Ireland plays entirely traditional Gaelic football? Crossmaglen score freely, play man-to-man and their every match is entertainment of the highest order. Half the crowd at their games are made up of neutrals, wondering why their county teams don’t play like this. Their secret is simple. From Under 14 onwards, solo-running and hand-passing is effectively outlawed. They concentrate on the skills. They insist on long kicking. The result is that they are all expert at catching and kicking. Which might explain why they have won five All-Irelands over the last 15 years with so many different players. They devour blanket defences, because they kick long before the opposition can retreat. In October, St. Gall’s flooded their half-back line against them. ‘Cross murdered them by kicking over it. In the stands, we smiled at each other and nodded “Thats the way the game should be played.”

We thought the low point for Gaelic football came in Croke Park last August when Donegal and Dublin bored each other and the nation to death. If we don’t start following Crossmaglen’s template, things are going to get a whole lot worse.