“Possession is golden” was Ballinderry Shamrock’s mantra when Brian McIver took over the fabled Derry club team at the start of the 2001 season. Before every game, he stood amongst them, held up the ball and repeated the words, “Possession is golden”. By October that year, they were Ulster champions. Come 5.00pm on March 17th 2002, they were champions of all Ireland, putting Nemo Rangers to the sword with the mixture of war and elegance that has always been their fashion. “Possession is golden Brolly” quipped their MVP Enda Muldoon as I congratulated him afterwards. “It is, if you’ve got Enda Muldoon on your team.” I suggested.
That Ballinderry team was peppered with superb footballers. I remember Niall McCusker, their 19-year old full back, arriving for his first training session with Derry, skin-headed and scowling, like a US marine emerging from a Vietnamese jungle. With arms like girders (he laid cement floors with his father) and terrific skills, he was a nightmare for any forward. In that St Patrick’s Day final, he faced off against the veteran Cork star Colin Corkery and proceeded to wipe the floor with him. McCusker’s county career was destroyed by a severe back injury, a harsh penalty for lugging cement around for a living. Before that, he had marked Tyrone’s Owen Mulligan twice in big championship games and hadn’t given him a kick. The Ballinderry boys duly nicknamed the blonde Tyrone man “Scoreless.”
Muldoon spent that All-Ireland year giving master-classes in the finer points of the game. McCusker dominated in defence. Add to that four or five county players, a deeply embedded tradition, a clever manager and the ingredients for success were in place. Yet, the media continues to focus on possession as the key statistic, when in the modern game, it often means little or nothing.
Just ask Barcelona, who have been receiving very painful lessons in this reality. They had a staggering 84% possession against Celtic when they played them at Parkhead in the Champions League, which basically means that Barcelona took the ball, stuck it inside their shirts and kept it there for more or less the whole 90 minutes. Yet they lost two goals to one, their goal a consolation at the death. Celtic defended better and crucially, took their chances expertly. This pattern was repeated in last year’s Champions League semi-final against Chelsea when Barcelona won a gold star for possession (82.3%) but nothing else.
A review of the European soccer teams with the highest possession rates underlines the point. Arsenal are the highest placed English team with 58.45%. Liverpool are a whisker behind them on 58.1%, leaving the once mighty reds fifth in the European possession table. They keep the ball well, weaving pretty patterns, but they hadn’t beaten a team in the top half of the premiership all season until 10 days ago, when they defeated a fatally weakened Swansea. Arsenal meanwhile cannot defeat any of the good teams at home or abroad. Their pretty passing is simply propelling their manager towards the exit doors.
Manchester Utd meanwhile are not even in the top 10, nor are their Tuesday night conquerors Real Madrid. Which didn’t stop Jose’s men spanking Barcelona in the last week in the Copa del Rey and the league. The Catalans can console themselves with the thought that they top the European possession league on a whopping 69.76%.
The Irish rugby team are another recent victim of the possession con. In their last six nations game at Murrayfield, they had 71% possession and spent 77% of the game in the Scottish half. So who won? The Scots of course. The key statistics from the game had nothing to do with possession. Scotland’s goal kicking success came in at 80%. Ireland’s meanwhile was a miserable 25%, young Paddy Jackson place-kicking as though it were a medicine ball. On the same weekend, Italy bossed the possession stakes against Wales, winning by 56%-44%. Interestingly, their goal kicks percentage was virtually identical to the Welsh, yet they lost. Statistics never lie?
Gaelic football has been transformed in the last 10 years. We saw it first in 2003, when Tyrone turned the game on its head. Darragh O’Se dominated midfield possession against them in that infamous semi-final, but this was irrelevant. Tyrone’s small midfielders and half forwards simply waited for O’Se to come down and then sacked him. Who can forget the image of O’Se vainly lifting the ball above his head and away from their grasping arms, like a mother with ice lollies at a child’s birthday party? Two years later, when Tyrone met Armagh in the semi-final, the stats confirmed that the old game was gone forever. Armagh dominated midfield possession that day, winning almost 76% of all kickouts. In the past, this would have virtually guaranteed success. Against Tyrone’s new way, it didn’t particularly matter.
Turnovers are the new possession. In 2012, Jim McGuinness’ men elevated this aspect of the game to an art form, scoring from over 50% of forced turnovers. Donegal are the clear leaders in the turnover league, closely followed by the Dubs. It is no coincidence that these are the teams that have won the last two All-Irelands. In the 2011 final, Kerry lorded possession with 58% share. Yet it was Dublin’s expertise at turnovers that won the day, demonstrated to devastating effect in the final quarter.
Possession is no longer nine tenths of the law. It isn’t even five tenths. And it is only golden if you know what to do with it, as Jimmy, Jose or Brian will tell you.