Galway's revival shows a creative culture now pays a dividend in Gaelic football

Galway's revival shows a creative culture now pays a dividend in Gaelic football
Paul Conroy of Galway in action against Liam Rafferty of Tyrone. The Tribe always impress when they stick to their traditional kick-passing style. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

IF IT’S too early to talk about Galway football’s ambitions or chances for Sam, it’s not too early to talk about Galway.

There are a few interesting elements to what’s going on up there, something slightly apart from the normal new manager bounce, where an entire style of play has been more or less turned around completely with performances/results/fun to watch levels all increasing very quickly and you get to see what is possible with a change in emphasis and coaching.

There’s a theory that Galway have reverted to a way of playing that’s more natural to them and whatever the thinking on Kevin Walsh’s tactical set-ups (it’d be wrong to dismiss what he achieved as one-dimensional), it’s not hard to watch Galway now and spot a team that’s been let off the shackles and that’s playing a game with more fluency and freedom.

A few points on this.

We might all tend towards the myth-making on management control over the details of games at times, looking for evidence of extreme tactical plays where there might be only vague instruction, but players can certainly be heavily influenced by the tone of the message coming in training and games. As a follow-on, is there something in the idea that the type of player the manager was and what position he played that might give clues as to the type of football he would encourage?

Is it that big a stretch to think that Pádraic Joyce, one of the more stylish attacking players in Galway over the last 25 years, might like to play the game in a certain way that’d bring in ideas of how to attack and that’d rely on kicking the ball a lot, simply because that’s how he liked playing himself?

By the way, this is separate from the argument of ex-players being expected to be good at coaching a particular skill or aspect of the game just because they were good at it themselves; Joyce still has to be good at implementing these ideas on the field and coaching them, but it’s a fair bet that this shift in mentality has come about through constant delivery of the way they’re meant to be playing.

We read an interview from when he was U21 coach and the majority of time was spent with the forwards and on the attacking side of things. A few weeks ago we heard Conor Counihan talking about the David Clifford/Tyrone incident and there was a noticeable reluctance from him to completely go against the dark arts of grappling and looking for any advantage you could get when marking star (fancy) forwards — it was a little reminder that a defender is always a defender and it alters the way people from a similar background or place can look at an incident or game and what their area of focus might be.

I remember getting into a conversation with a group of ex-players a few years ago at half-time in a game Cork were struggling in. One mentioned they’d have to fix the openness at the back. Another said they weren’t committing enough players up the pitch for attacks. No prizes for guessing which positions their history was in and it’s hardly a massive shock that a player who has spent maybe 10-15 years looking at a game with a very specific job in mind might carry those ideas into how his team might set up and what becomes priority on the field.

Take someone like Pep Guardiola, whose entire philosophy of playing the game evolved around awareness of spaces and movement and control of the ball in midfield and who has brought that exact same influence to his coaching. This sort of detail might seem small but it might skew how two very clever people who’ve played the same game might see an incident or passage of play in two completely different ways — a defender or midfielder who views possession as control of a game say against a forward who might take on a pass/shot and perceive the risk/reward outcome in an entirely different way.

Or a team that’s given targets of conceding less than a certain amount of scores against a team that’s given a target or scoring more than a certain amount — these sort of decisions set a marker right away.

On Sky Sports this week Neville/Carragher spoke about Trent Alexander-Arnold for Liverpool as a right-back, the freedom in some ways to make decisions on the pitch with a view to being in position to create goal chances and how that risk-taking comes from a manager who encourages risk and an environment where you won’t get bawled out for trying something in a game. Again this isn’t so much tactical as mentality that can change how a team and players move with and without the ball. It can seep into all communications.

A team where possession stats are valued might be inclined to take safer options in possession. Match analysis that calls out lost possessions or riskier plays probably creates an unwillingness/ inability to play off the cuff (Hello Irish rugby 2019). On the other hand, a team where players are consistently encouraged to make runs into spaces that lure kick-passes and where that message is constantly being reinforced about moving the ball quickly into those areas will respond.

Clare's Cillian Rouine and Cork's Daniel O'Connell in the Munster U20 semi-final. Keith Ricken's side play an attractive brand of football. Picture: Eamon Ward
Clare's Cillian Rouine and Cork's Daniel O'Connell in the Munster U20 semi-final. Keith Ricken's side play an attractive brand of football. Picture: Eamon Ward

Look there’s an enjoyment factor here too. Galway folk are energised again and going to games with a bit of a skip. Genuinely they love a kick-pass, I remember being at a league game up in Salthill where Luke Connolly skimmed a crossfield kick that drew claps from the locals.

They’re averaging four points a game more than last year, even before last weekend’s savaging of Tyrone (2-25). It was interesting to hear Ronan McCarthy talk after the Tipp game about being braver on the ball at certain times of games but there’s more zip in Cork now too compared to this time last spring — in their first four games in 2019 they scored 1-5, 0-10, 1-10, 1-9 and this year it’s 0-20, 1-15, 0-16, 3-13.

Yes, it’s a lower division but last year’s 1-12 in Thurles was very different in creation and verve to last weekend’s 3-13. If Cork sometimes lack the system or obvious patterns of attack in their combined movements (and this is something that comes with repetition), there can still be an overall sense of positivity in having the will to attack.

Sometimes the first step can be creating that feeling where attacking and creativity is valued higher than safety on the ball. We’ve seen how it can alter the flow of a team and the summer will tell how many teams follow.

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