WHEN Donegal’s Michael Murphy travelled to France in 2017 to film an episode for the TV programme ‘The Toughest Trade’, Murphy’s experience was largely framed around the build-up to a training game with the AS Clermont Auvergne Academy players.
It was the most logical way of testing Murphy in a professional sport in which he had no background. Despite his physical strength, the huge hits still left their mark on Murphy.
“They were full on,” he said. “They’re something you never really would’ve experienced before, not on a Gaelic field anyway.”
Murphy wouldn’t have had the required technical expertise, or power, of a professional rugby player to fully absorb those powerful tackles. Yet, there is no doubting the force Gaelic footballers are now generating and the impact some of those collisions are having on players.
Players need to be stronger than ever now to cope with the physicality of football. Sports science and education has enabled players to protect themselves better but the game continues to develop at a swift pace, especially in terms of tactics, analysis, strength and conditioning and speed. Yet skill development has to be the next step forward for football, for a number of reasons.
The top teams have an advantage in strength and conditioning (S&C), primarily because (apart from this year) their season is always longer. But how much further can S&C really go in Gaelic football?
Inter-county players now have so much to cram into their schedule and too much of that time can be spent in the gym, which is often to the detriment of coaching skill, and developing more rounded players. There is also a fear of that culture taking hold in inter-county development squads.
When Ashley Jones, the renowned S&C coach who has worked with the New Zealand All Blacks, the Australian Wallabies, Scotland, Samoa and a host of different rugby league and rugby union clubs spoke at the GAA’s coaching conference in January 2018, he talked about how skill is too often subjugated for strength and power.
“As a professional S&C coach, who basically earns his entire living through strength and conditioning with professional teams, I think we place far too much emphasis on strength and conditioning, and nowhere near enough on skill development,” Jones said.
“You’re never going to lose the game because you’re not strong enough; you will lose the game because you’re not skilful enough.” Towards the end of Jones’ presentation, one of his slides asked a basic question: “Are your preferential biases for a certain type of training getting in the way of making your players better GAA players?”
Coaches need to ask themselves some of those hard questions. Similar to rugby now, GAA players tackle and swarm harder and quicker than ever now so even technical elements like a player freeing himself from a tackle, or swarm defence, getting shots off quicker, and more intelligent movement should frame the next level of skill, and coaching, development.
It definitely has to be a major focus for defenders. Setting up with defensive systems has been highly effective and, while there is a skill element to carrying it out, those systems have too often hidden defensive deficiencies and stalled the development of skilled man-markers.
The modern game now, especially from a defensive perspective, is all about having man-markers with pace and athleticism and having even more of those players on the bench to come in when the need arises.
Few teams have the scoring power to take on Dublin in a shootout but having athletic defenders, and good man-markers, was one of the main reasons Mayo were able to push Dublin as hard as they did during the last decade.
And yet, despite everything that has been thrown at Dublin, one of the key reasons they’ve continued to find a way is their immense skill levels.
“In my opinion in the modern era, I don't think we've seen a team with the skill-set that this group has,” said Mick Bohan, the current Dublin ladies football manager, back in 2017. “What's phenomenal about them is that they're able to execute those skills in incredibly pressurised situations.”
Bohan was well qualified to pass judgement. He was Dublin’s ‘Skills Coach’ in 2013 and 2014 and he played a big role in establishing Dublin’s culture of excellence and high-performance standards.
Bohan also saw the impact of placing an emphasis on honing the skills when he coached the Clare footballers in 2016 - Bohan completely raised their skill-levels in just one season.
Working with Dublin footballer Eoghan O’Gara in 2013 opened Bohan’s eyes to just how much a player could improve his skill-set if he made it a priority, regardless of his age.
When he first joined the panel O’Gara was totally one-footed, but he was a totally different player by the end of the 2013 season.
Dublin's training sessions at the time involved a ‘36-shot challenge’ devised by Bohan that required players to kick at goal from a variety of angles and distances off both feet.
The Friday before the 2013 All-Ireland Final, O’Gara scored 33 of his 36 shots.
It is getting harder and harder to compete with Dublin, especially with their playing numbers, greater financial resources and the professionalism of their set-up.
Opposition managers, coaches and players will have to try even harder to take them down but developing more skilful players has to be the way forward.
Because any amount of increased S&C levels, tactics and strategies will be irrelevant without the main key — skill — to unlock the Dublin door.