Defensive blankets so bad even Pat’s in the right!

8/3/11Mandatory Credit Darren Kidd/  Crossmaglen Rangers 2011 All Ireland Club Finalists press conference at St Oliver Plunkett Park, Crossmaglen.  Crossmaglen Rangers - Jamie Clarke.
8/3/11Mandatory Credit Darren Kidd/ Crossmaglen Rangers 2011 All Ireland Club Finalists press conference at St Oliver Plunkett Park, Crossmaglen. Crossmaglen Rangers - Jamie Clarke.

To kick or not to kick. That is the question..... Pat Spillane wants to bring the foot back into football and the fact that Pat wants it is enough to put a lot of people off.

In the studio last Sunday, he reminded us again of the Kerry Golden Years, before turning to his favourite subject... himself. It surprises me that a man who has written four books on that noble subject would have to consult Wikipedia to check any fact about his very great greatness. Things you never thought you’d hear: “I went on Wikipedia to find out what I scored in championship football.” (Then, my favourite bit, when he pretended to be a little hazy on his scoring tally): “I think I scored (furrowed brow), I’m not too sure, 13 goals and 150 points. The point I’m trying to make, the bottom line...” at which point he promptly forgot his bottom line. I half expected him to tell us that he was one of the world’s great lovers in his youth, that he could still lift a modest sized family car over his head and that as a young man he had taught Elvis Presley karate. As has been the case throughout this vital debate, Pat’s point – which is an excellent one – was lost in the prison of his egocentricity. Is it any wonder he has Mickey Harte tearing his hair out?

The momentum against boring football is growing. Mikey Sheehy, in his column last week in the ‘Kerryman’, entered the debate. “One of the most worrying aspects of the Tipperary game for me was the style of football we have adopted. I do realise that some of our longer range passes went astray at times, but that should not have meant a total ban on fast ball. Quicker ball into forwards like the Gooch, Darran O’Sullivan and Declan O’Sullivan means there is more pressure poured on defences. Modern day football has changed so much from my day and I’m not looking for a total football approach from Kerry, what I do expect is a utilisation of the natural talent we have and that is not going to be achieved through five yard hand passing.”

An undeniable fact. The following day, Darragh O’Se followed suit in his very entertaining ‘Irish Times’ column, pointing out the fact seemingly overlooked by Jack O’Connor, that Kerry are a team naturally suited to playing fast, kick-based football. As it is, Colm Cooper, the most gifted all-round forward of his generation, is increasingly consigned to toiling fruitlessly inside the blanket defence, running for a kick pass that’s never going to come. Last year’s All-Ireland final was the perfect example. On a single occasion from open play, he was presented with a scoring chance in the danger area, which he swiftly dispatched to the net. The chance came from an electrifying 50-yard solo run from Darren O’Sullivan, reminiscent of a running-back in American football careering through the squadrons of defenders. Since Kerry weren’t kicking the ball, it was the only way to prise open the Dubs’ defence and get the ball into the maestro’s hands. Against Tipperary he scored a solitary point from play.

The problem from the point of view of the players and spectators is that the blanket defence works. Put another way, in the absence of an imaginative strategy to counter it, the blanket defence works. Donegal’s astonishing success last year amply testifies to that. Or take Longford this year. Glen Ryan has copied the template, deploying his half forward line deep in the defence, then counter-attacking through the middle via solo-running and handpassing, only kick-passing into the inside forwards in the event that the opposing half-backs haven’t dropped back to cover them. As a result, they have been unbeaten for six months, winning every league game in Division Three, winning the Divisional final, defeating Laois in the first round of the Championship and forging a draw last Sunday against a fancied Wexford team.

Afterwards in the tunnel, I bumped into Brian Kavanagh, their brilliant full forward. In the first half he kicked four magnificent long range points. In the second, because Wexford had made the simple adjustment of dropping one of their unoccupied half-backs back in front of him, he touched the ball just once and was quickly dispossessed.

“Its difficult for me because the lads aren’t kicking the ball in. It’s a hand-passing game, what can you do?”

“The half forwards are too far away from you” I suggested.

“That’s right, Joe, but we’re very reluctant to kick the ball anyway.”

I suggested to him that he didn’t have this problem with Kilmacud Crokes, where he is the free scoring fulcrum of the attack. “That’s different” he replied, grinning. “The Kilmacud lads play without fear.”

Like most great county forwards, Brian’s attitude is to grin and bear it, hoping that a better way will soon come along. We will have a perfect example of this paradox at the weekend, when Armagh meet Tyrone.

Jamie Clarke is undoubtedly one of the chosen few. He is an entirely individual talent, boasting every conceivable skill and attribute. His debut in county football was only 30 seconds old when he effortlessly collected a long ball in the square and slipped it to the net, knocking Derry out of the Ulster Championship at a stunned Celtic Park. Tyrone’s systematic method makes them strong favourites to overcome a disorganised Armagh. The fly in the ointment is Clarke. Because of him, no one is ruling out an upset: “If Jamie pilfers a few goals, Tyrone are gone.” The problem is that the chances of the ball finding him in the danger area, one-on-one against Conor Gormley, are very slight. Armagh haven’t set themselves up to move the ball at speed. Indeed their method is that they don’t have a method. Therefore, the chances of Jamie posting a goal or two are entirely random. His club management on the other hand, have designed their plan around him. The question “How do we create one-on-one chances for Jamie in the scoring zone?” is the rationale behind their method. Hence, his team mates fearlessly kick the ball 50m, otherwise Tony McEntee will fearlessly kick them up the arse. Their strategy may look simple, but it is deceptively complicated, requiring countless hours of coaching on the training pitch.

Instead of buying into the prevailing negative coaching orthodoxy that has been imported into the game from other sports, Tony and Gareth have made their own plan, basing it on the principles of rewarding individual skill, playing attractive, manly football and above all playing without fear. If Conor Gormley played at corner-back for Carrickmore against Cross, can you imagine the mauling he would get from the quiffed one?

County football has become stuck in a rut of medicine balls, handpassing, short-sided training games, handpassing, blanket defending and more hand-passing. The reason I espouse the values of Crossmaglen is because it seems to me that they are values worth espousing.

I never thought I’d say this, but Pat Spillane is right. And you won’t find that on Wikipedia.....