EVEN in this grimmest of times, the search for inches is ongoing.
As everyone went into lockdown from training in the last few weeks, the online coaching resources went into overdrive and it was easy to imagine the cleverer coaches and managers in every sport taking the natural break to look into the possibilities out there.
In an interview last week Mark Keane — out in Australia with Collingwood from Mitchelstown — made some illuminating references to current developments in Australian rules and their transferability to GAA.
Basically, he spoke about the idea of how teams defend from the front, the virtues of the press and the tactical concept behind the team having a shape as a unit whose focus is on moving up the field without the ball as much as with it.
Keane explained how Australian rules teams don’t drop bodies deep to cover spaces in defence but if they see a free man, they will push up to cover, with the next man behind pushing up to cover him and so on — it makes more sense to leave a man free way back the pitch because the opposition can’t get the ball to him from the other end anyway.
Slide and cover, he called it, and it was only a repeat of what Tipp/Carlton player Colin O’Riordan said a few weeks before, again asking why the GAA mentality seemed to have naturally drifted towards sitting back when the most effective place to turn over a team is nearer their goal and pointing out his preference for going after kick-outs by pushing each line high up the pitch.
It was worth noting for a few reasons.
One, both players were very strong on the difference tactically/mentally between current Gaelic football coaching and current Australian Rules coaching.
Two, it’ll be interesting when players of this generation, who’ve been exposed to less traditional ideas and cultures and who are more aware tactically of every sport, become coaches themselves.
Three, is this the way football will go here? Four, there are plenty of places to find influence if the willingness is there.
The transferral of skills and ideas across games is nothing new obviously. A clip going around twitter last week showed a Dinny Allen dropkick crossfield pass into Paul McGrath who set up Mick McCarthy for a score in the 1988 All-Ireland final — Tony Davis commented on Allen’s soccer background which gave him a different appreciation for spaces and perhaps gave him an alternative vision and skillset to use.
Neal Horgan spoke in his recent book of going back to play for Cork City and combining that at the time with training and games for the Barrs. A few weeks back we read about Jack Grealish’s Gaelic football background growing up in Birmingham where he played underage, including some success at Feile tournaments.
The gist of the piece was firstly, he was really very good at football, where that same ability to find space and see options when he had the ball, to make things happen, could so easily be shifted from one game to the other.
Secondly, that the more aggressive tackling and bodily contact in Gaelic football toughened him up a bit for the soccer.
It doesn’t always work of course. I remember speaking to Michael McNamara years ago, who played League of Ireland for Sligo Rovers and football for Sligo, where he spoke of going from soccer games where the shepherding of forwards in certain areas of the field was effective but this just didn’t work in football where they can just kick points from distance.
But generally, you can see how the movements and combinations from other sports can be an advantage.
You wouldn’t have to know Kieran Donaghy was a serious basketballer, for example, to see the very obvious influence in how he plays football.
Tactical trends can often work in line with developments from other sports too. The defensive bodies behind the ball gameplan in Gaelic football that become especially prominent in the late 2000s weren’t too different from Jose Mourinho’s low block.
The sterile possession game in soccer — anyone remember the awfulness of Spain against Russia in the last World Cup? — can often resemble a bad period of a football game with all the sideways and backwards handpassing, the worst form of possession for the sake of possession.
The current trend in soccer though is this more dynamic high press idea, where teams are more positive in pushing bodies up the pitch and trying to win the ball back in areas of the field that offer more chance of counter-attacks.
We’ve already had aspects of this in football of course with the evolution of the kick-out in importance but it’s tended to be patchy in theory and practise — teams have pushed up on Dublin’s kick-outs for example but only usually at certain points of the game or in specific areas.
In soccer it’s seen as a sign of the more progressive coaches, rightly or wrongly, to play in this way, this coherent full-team press that has filtered into the top-level from Germany especially and allows teams to counterattack more dangerously.
Clearly it’s the thing to do in Australian rules, where it’s explained as kind of the only intelligent choice at the moment for a team to be aggressive when they don’t have the ball, a form of attacking set-up as much as a defensive one.
It’s been pointed out that Dublin took a lot from basketball coach Mark Ingle in recent years under Jim Gavin, just on the recycling of ball, movements into certain spaces, loop runs and how to get shooters on the ball.
In the league, this spring, Cork tended to use quite a zonal press, pushing bodies very high especially against the teams who were bringing bodies back anyway, leading to situations against Down especially where more or less every player bar the Cork goalkeeper was inside the opposition half.
In some ways, it’s one of the more important decisions every team makes as it sets the tone for the shape of the game, what areas of the pitch to flood bodies in and out of, where to create the collision zones and overloads. With all the time to plan, GAA coaches might move into new territory.