IT’S happened for every position of course.
We spent an awful long time in the past 10 or 15 years searching for the point of the midfielder as the game developed and most of this decade redefining the role of the goalkeeper in modern Gaelic football, yet at least now we have something to work with in both those areas of the field.
Midfielders still need to be able to fetch ball in the sky and maybe get around the field and score a bit more but it’s still possible to trace a line from Jack O’Shea to Brian Fenton and recognise the same essentials.
Goalkeepers are now kickout machines more than shotstoppers.
The playmaking, attacking half-back emerged a few years ago as a major figure in any team.
The inside-forward line still needs scorers and ballwinners and creative types.
You can sort of pick a current player in each of these areas of the field, hold them up as the ideal, think of a generous amount of alternatives around the country with similar traits and yet the full-back line has been a little lost in this evolution of the game.
It was interesting then to hear Luke Connolly discuss with Colm Parkinson this week the decision process of the corner-forward when faced with the attacking corner-back, the question basically of whether a forward wants to be dictated to as regards where to go on the pitch or is willing to take the gamble of letting his man wander with the possibility of either getting free ball on a turnover or being made look foolish if the corner-back pops a score.
A few things to note here. Paul Geaney made a similar observation in an interview last year about this new tactic of attacking corner-backs, yet there’s an element of this that isn’t all that new.
I recall Anthony Lynch talking on his retirement of his test for a corner-forward which involved bombing up the field on a few early runs to see if his man fancied the challenge (not many did).
There’s another factor here too, where it might just be overstated how much damage corner-backs tend to do if or when given a free pass.
Look at the games around the county last weekend in the senior football championship openers.
Sean Fitzgerald of Skibbereen and Sean Ryan of Newcestown were the only starting players we found from any full-back line that scored a point (Liam O’Donovan of Clon had moved out the field by the time of his score against Carbery Rangers).
In the two county finals last year, only one score over the two games was scored by a player in either full-back line.
The effect doesn’t really get any greater at elite level.
In the All-Ireland semi-finals and final year no one from any starting full-back line scored.
Someone like Philly McMahon might chip in with three or four scores over the course of a league or championship campaign but there isn’t a consistent source of scores across any team that you could say comes directly from the full-back line.
Players from the full-back line may be looking to attack more, they may be more proactive and positive with the ball, but there’s a limit to their influence on the scoreboard.
In one of the games we were at last weekend, one of the full-back line got a run in behind the opposition defensive line and was in possession maybe 30 yards out directly in front of the posts and with an ideal opportunity to take a point — he moved the ball to a heavily-marked corner-forward who got blocked down and the chance passed.
It strikes as an underdeveloped possibility, adding scores from a position that seems to have more freedom to attack now.
In ways, it’s the most undefined position left in Gaelic football, with the absence of a clear list of attributes you’d want from anyone wearing 2, 3 or 4 at either club or inter-county level, where there’s a lack of a consistent starting point to assess the performance of a player in the full-back line from game to game, like how many scores his direct opponent has ended up with.
A lot of recent All-Stars in the full-back line have been picked for what they’ve done with the ball in an attacking sense than what they’ve done defensively.
We’ve referenced previously how Cork haven’t been able to find a natural or a made manmarker since Anthony Lynch (Kerry have had their own difficulties with replacing Tom O’Sullivan to be fair) and recall a discussion with a club corner-back from the 1980s/90s who explained how he’d have been perfectly confident of his ability to defend any forward in a one-v-one situation in front of his own goal but it’s not entirely clear that this is a skill that’s been carried through generations here or really nurtured as a specialist sort of role.
Teams can’t afford to be torn apart by marquee forwards so they always need one pure stopper but there’s not exactly a huge amount of these players being developed now and with the skillset of the position up in the air it’s not always easy to identify the requirements.
More natural half-backs are being asked to fill in but there’s a difference then to playing as a number four in an open, free role against a team that brings their corner-forwards out roaming and being left inside one-v-one against Paul Geaney or Cillian O’Connor.
Teams that fill their defensive spaces with bodies have muddled the role as well, with some corner-backs very rarely having to experience the challenge of being left exposed on his own against a pacy, tricky corner-forward.
Teams are bringing players in to do particular jobs there as well, as we saw with Mayo last summer, where the Aidan O’Shea to full-back to mark Kieran Donaghy call was widely analysed and where comment ranged from a predictably complete disaster to the only possible proper decision.
We’ve seen clubs use midfielders and full-backs as interchangeable depending on the game and the circumstances.
It’s not entirely clear which way this is going to go for the full-back line, whether it veers back towards a more traditional defensive role or if teams try to add another element to it by demanding more and more from an attacking point of view.
Right now it’s stuck in a place where teams don’t seem to be getting the most from the positions in either sense.