Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly: Attack is back

LAST weekend emphasised again the steady move away from the mass zonal defending, counter-attack model that has brought the game into disrepute.

Derry played the game the right way against Cavan but as we found, there is a difference between playing the right way and getting it right. It will take time but as I said to Fergal McCusker after the game, “aside from about 15 criticisms we are not doing too badly.”

In Dublin, they never believed in the blanket defence, so they have an eight or nine-year head start on the others. Jim Gavin was visiting his good friend Anto Finnegan in Belfast one weekend. He called me to say he would be happy to take our minors for a session while he was up.


He brought his coaching team with him. It was a disarmingly simple masterclass. He talked about getting your attackers into the right positions to score. He pointed out that Dean Rock spent most of his time hovering in the left corner-forward spot, trying to get into the right position to take a pass and shoot with his right foot from no more than 30 metres. He went on to explain that was not an accident. At training, they work a lot on releasing him in that area.

Similarly, Con O’Callaghan spends most of his time either roving in towards goal from the right corner-forward position or through the middle from inside the 45. As he was receiving his Man of the Match award for the Galway game last Sunday, he spoke in perfect Irish. This reminded me of the time we were all sitting in Regan’s Bar after we had won another National League and the word filtered through that Anthony Tohill had just achieved a first class honours in his degree from Queen’s. Damien ‘Kof’ McCoy, who was subsequently extradited to South Armagh and hasn’t been seen since, shook his head sadly and said “Are there no chinks in that b******d’s armour?”

Con, you may recall, kick-started his Dublin career with a superb goal through the middle in the 2017 semi-final against Tyrone. He gambled and stood his ground at the 45 when his man went forward. When the ball was intercepted, it was given to him. He soloed through. The two Dublin inside forwards made runs dragging their men away from him. He went clean through, blasted the goal and Tyrone were done.

In the final, he did the same against Mayo, picking up the ball about 25 yards out before jinking through as his team-mates confused the defenders with their runs. In the last two league games, he scored two goals against Kerry and on Sunday past, one against Galway, all starting with him getting the ball well inside the scoring zone with danger swirling in the air. This is not left to the Gods. It is planned. Con’s primary job is to score. His co-workers’ job is to make sure he can do his job.

When Crossmaglen were in their pomp under Tony McEntee, two Club All-Irelands in-a-row in the bag and into another Ulster final, Tony invited me down to a few sessions to watch their method. Their forwards had been running riot for three years. In every game, the scoreboard was ticking over. Often, they won the games inside 15 minutes, blitzing teams out of it with frightening opening barrages.

Basically, the training was a game. “Joe, we start with the idea that we create a game-plan that suits our scoring forwards. Everything works back from that.” He told me to watch Jamie Clarke’s positioning. Jamie roved with the other inside forwards, making short runs then cutting back, back pedalling towards goals and generally staying within distance of being able to go for goal when he got the ball.

Everything worked back from the simple concept of getting the ball to the best forwards in the right position. The movement of the half-forward line. The runs from the half-backs. The dummy runs dragging defenders away. Jamie was a scoring machine by design, not accident.

This is precisely what the Dubs have spent the last decade perfecting. Now, their dummy runs and movement have reached that mysterious place known as ‘chemistry.’ In the league a fortnight ago, Kerry were romping along at 0-5 to 0-1 up and starting to feel that a new era in football was beginning. Then, they looked in their wing mirror and saw that the Dubs were clinging to their bumper, grimly, like the Terminator. A few minutes later, the Dubs had regenerated, climbed into the truck, pushed Kerry out onto the road and taken the steering wheel themselves.

Con O’Callaghan scored a goal he has scored many times. He made a run towards the left corner position. His man sprinted with him. Con suddenly stopped, cut back inside and the hand-pass was put over the top to him to run on to. A bounce to disconcert the ’keeper and defender, then the net. Virtually identical to his two goals against Mayo in the 2019 semi-final. The first a cut back. The second, a kick-pass finding him inside the 21.

Soon after his first last Sunday, he got his second, starting from the same spot. Like Cross, Dublin start with the simple but devastating principle that the game is about getting the ball to your key forwards in positions that suit them. Kerry are working on this but it will take a while to get to Dublin’s level. Clifford scored 0-5 from play against Dublin but if they can get the ball to him in the right area more regularly he could score 5-5.

With the Dublin template, skilled forwards thrive and the team is motivated and energetic.

The crowd is energised. Children are inspired. The penny is finally dropping that a dull game-plan produces dull football and dull conversation.

If Rory Gallagher has seen the light, there is hope for everyone.


29 May 2021; Niall Loughlin of Derry shoots to score his side’s first goal past Cavan goalkeeper Raymond Galligan during the Allianz Football League Division 3 North Round 3 match between Cavan and Derry at Kingspan Breffni in Cavan. Photo by Harry MurphySportsfile

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