AMID the many basketball stories in Kieran Donaghy’s book there’s an interesting section on his gaelic football breakthrough year which stood out for one main reason.
Just how uncomplicated it seemed for Kerry to turn that entire summer of 2006 – and the game itself for a few years - upside down in the space of a week or two of working on the simple but devastating idea of hitting the ball in high to a guy who had/ has an extremely decent pair of hands. Jack O’Connor rang Donaghy up with the notion after the Cork Munster final defeat, worked on it for 20 minutes in training and then obsessed on it for a week of practise of getting every Kerry player in the middle eight to hit the full-forward with good diagonal ball to attack.
The rest is history and we were reminded to some extent that it doesn’t necessarily take an entire year or two to get a system of play to suit if the players are talented enough and buy into it with the right energy, that it’s possible to take a group of players and make a serious improvement with just a subtle change of emphasis and momentum.
Think about the Munster rugby group that head to France this weekend compared to the one that went there only a few months ago, the same players with a completely different feeling around them.
It seems relevant as we head into 2017 and a glut of football teams in the top five or six who’ve spent the winter wondering just how to cope with this Dublin machine and gradually came to the realisation that the options generally boil down to two possibilities: 1/ find something new to throw at them or 2/ get better at what you’re doing.
Those teams from seven or so downwards who’ve little realistic chance of beating Dublin right now will focus on the same plans to make progress. And here’s the thing – option one is restricted enough. There’s a general feeling now that we’re at a sort of balancing point on the whole defensive structure/ systems tactical evolution and there may not be much more to gain from pushing in this direction.
If there’s a sense that teams and the game in general have become overly defensive, the scoring rates don’t back that up as being an effective strategy.
A defensive team in say soccer can grind out a scoreless draw or 1-0 win but the other team will score eventually in gaelic football and if the other team happens to be Dublin, they’ll eventually score quite a lot – scoring rates are generally going up. Kerry blocked off the goal route and limited Dublin to one shot for goal in last year’s semi-final and they still hit twenty-two points by the end.
In the drawn All-Ireland final the weather and pitch did for them as much as Mayo’s intense tackling but they still worked several goal chances. It’s hard to think now that Kerry are going to beat Dublin by an added defensive focus or playing an extra sweeper; teams are already at capacity of awareness of their jobs going back towards their own goal and savage workrate is more or less a given.
It seems more likely Eamonn Fitzmaurice might find that winning detail by figuring out how to get just that little bit more from say Paul Geaney and James O’Donoghue (and perhaps Colm Cooper) at the same time or find the mix and form in David Moran/Anthony Maher/AN Other to dominate Brian Fenton.
It’s hard to imagine Mayo can expect to get Dublin’s scoring rate any lower than the successive 15 and 18 points in two All-Ireland finals and it’s probably more beneficial for Stephen Rochford and Tony McEntee to work on the small details that could squeeze that extra footballer of the year display from Aidan O’Shea or improve the decision making on the ball in the last 10 minutes of a game against Jim Gavin’s side.
You’d imagine Donegal have reached the point of maximum return from any defensive systems and will have to look for new ways to make more from two of the most talented forwards in football, Murphy and McBrearty, and that Mickey Harte and Tyrone have to find a way of scoring more than 0-12 in an All-Ireland quarter-final rather than think about conceding less than 0-13.
It should filter down as well and already has in plenty ways. Any of the mid-tier teams who made a breakthrough last summer did so by explosive scoring rather than keeping the scores down. You’d have expected Tipp to lose to Cork if they conceded 2-16 but they managed 3-15 themselves and added a 1-21 and 3-13 to that before the year was over.
Clare hit a 2-17 and a 2-12. Longford scored 2-24. Galway won Connaught with a 3-16. Donegal were wide open for spells of the Cork game at Croke Park yet won because they had the ability to notch up twenty-one scores when it was there to be won.
Counties, certainly the ones at the top level, seem more likely to spend the spring working on adjusting technical deficiencies in individuals or lines on the field rather than undergoing a major overhaul of personnel or systems.
The emphasis might just focus on the idea of coaching players, on taking a guy onto the next level and improving him as a footballer rather than trying to restrict the impact of his flaws.
There are some serious minds out there in the football management world now and it’s got to be sinking in that if becoming more secure defensively might be a start and still completely necessary if a team is to win titles – Dublin’s use of Cian O’Sullivan to protect the scoring zone is an example of that - that finding a reliable scoring power is more important to make that next step and progress.
We may be entering a swing era where teams spend more time working on how to get the ball and bodies into the other team’s scoring zone, though we don’t expect to see an end to the bodies sprinting back to protect their own - that’s here to stay. It would seem to make sense though that any tactical innovations or movements in the game are likely to be in the attacking side of things.