Sean Marty Lockhart is one of the greatest defenders of all time, an All-Star and Ireland’s most capped International Rules player. Michael McMullan went to meet him to pick his brains on the art of defending
WHEN you spend 22 hours away from collective team training in preparation for marking Peter Canavan, you tick the ‘serious individual’ box.
To give it proper context, it’s the turn of the millennium, before a dedicated team analyst dissected clips and forwarded them to players’ phones. Back then, players had a VHS tape and there was the constant pressing of pause and rewind buttons until every footprint of an opponent’s attacking prowess was dissected.
It worked for Sean Marty Lockhart in the 2001 Ulster Championship clash with Tyrone. The footwork drills on Banagher pitch and the visualisation of Canavan’s body swerves armed him with enough tools to execute the perfect tackle for the Red Hand great.
Worth it? Yes, well, it was until Mickey Harte sent Stephen O’Neill into Lockhart’s patch when Canavan was getting no change. It was the curveball Lockhart knew nothing about and O’Neill made hay in a Tyrone win.
Lockhart licked his wounds. It was win or learn at its best. When Derry drew Tyrone in the back door, Lockhart had the remote control back in his hand.
It was mission Stephen O’Neill. The pause, play and rewind cycle highlighted how O’Neill backpedalled behind an opponent, varied the direction of his run before taking off again.
His footing was laid on the solid foundation of a boxer’s stance mixed with footwork first honed with quickfire step-ups on the kerbs around Feeny.
Lockhart wasn’t going to be caught out again. Canavan or O’Neill, he was ready for either. It was the preparation that saw him help Derry all the way to the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final. Three years earlier, he was the rock in Derry’s Ulster-winning defence, a campaign that saw him pick up an All-Star.
It’s a summer Thursday at the Ponderosa at the top of the Glenshane Pass. Lockhart still walks with the small steps that made him an inside forward’s nightmare.
He comments on those across the mountain, working the turf are proof that an appetite of a work ethic never leaves you. It always left him grounded. Inside, he sips over his tea and shoots the breeze on all things defending with a tinge of regret to how close Derry came to being in Sunday’s All-Ireland final.
Lockhart was from the ‘Before Blanket Defences’ school of football, but he believes that teams looking to win the big prizes need both types of defending.
The tuned in collective shuffle left and right to block channels is important. Whether we like it or not, the game has changed.
The difference, for Lockhart, will be what the top teams have under the hood when the game opens up. Any team wanting to go for the jugular needs men who can mark one on one. The more they have, the shorter the odds of glory.
He throws in the example of sitting in Croke Park and watching Limerick’s Sean Finn going toe to toe with whoever Brian Cody sent in direction in last year’s All-Ireland final. Likewise, Keith Higgins and James O’Donoghue meeting head on in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final epic.
“If a defender makes a mistake, there is somebody there to cover for them,” Lockhart said of life in an inter-county defence now.
But, the latter stages of the championship means Croke Park and green grass with nowhere to hide. Lockhart speaks of Kerry still being able to get David Clifford one on one and Chrissy McKaigue making him kick under pressure for his scores.
“You get away with it earlier on in the championship,” Lockhart adds, before rolling out a nugget from Kieran McGeeney.
“He said having two good man markers was like gold dust, it would be premium. All through the years, Derry had that quality of leaving two men on their own and pressing the game.
“If you look at Chrissy…he is one of the best defenders in Ireland, he definitely is, but if you give quality ball into a quality forward in Croke Park, there is very little he (a defender) can do to win the ball. All he can do is tackle him.”
He feels had Derry not been hit with the “massive loss” of an injury to Paudi McGrogan – who Lockhart considers the full package – would have had enough pieces to push closer to toppling Kerry.
Much talk is reeled out about the need to increase attacking options to mix with Dublin and Kerry. On the flip side, many teams fall short if they need more sets of stabilisers for a defence that can’t do its own job.
So, what do teams need if they are going to press the game when the 55-minute mark arrives and the jugular is there to be grabbed?
“My argument is this,” Lockhart begins. “If you look at the modern-day corner back, Conor McCluskey for example. He is lethal at attacking and he has got everything.
“If you contrast that to Conor in the league final when he had to pick up Con O’Callaghan and had to do out and out defending, he struggled.”
Defenders have to be able to play and defend and Lockhart casts his mind back to the all-conquering Dublin team. Jim Gavin had warriors who could play and defend.
“I remember watching (Michael) Fitzsimons a few years ago when he got the better of Clifford, he is an experienced man marker…it was fascinating to watch,” said Lockhart, with the pride of someone who appreciates top quality defending.
“When teams lose the ball, they’ve everybody back and it is getting harder for forwards. But the game always opens up when teams get tired.
“It’s not that if you have two man markers, you are going to win the All-Ireland. It is just a small piece of the puzzle.”
Lockhart’s chat jumps from sport to sport and he tunes in on a visit to Chicago Bears’ bootcamp back in 2000.
The trial process in front of his eyes was geared towards whittling down hopefuls. It had usual speed and body tests. It left a lasting impression, especially when the defenders’ footwork was under scrutiny of a wide receiver coming at him.
“If you watch American football and the defenders, their footwork is unbelievable,” he said, linking it in with Gaelic football, adding in the communication needed to combine collective and individual defending.
“For example take when I tackled someone like Oisin McConville down into the corner,” he recalls of his playing days. “If (Kieran) McKeever was coming back, he’d shout and tell me he had him on the inside, so I was covering Oisin’s outside…if he cut in again, McKeever had him.”
Lockhart speaks of the input Paddy Tally has made to Kerry’s defence. It’s a mix of improving the tackling technique and deploying Tadhg Morley where the dangerous open spaces present themselves.
“Take Shaun Edwards, the defensive coach going from Wales to France, now the French defence is phenomenal,” Lockhart added, highlighting a similar scenario.
“It’s the same in La Rochelle and Ronan O’Gara, he talks about defence the whole time. It does count when you come to the latter stages of any game.
“If you look at last year’s All-Ireland semi-final and the amount of turnovers Kerry took off Dublin when they were attacking, there were maybe six in a row at a stage.
“You have to have your man makers, but you need everybody else at a high defensive level.”
Lockhart also uses the example of the All-Ireland winning Derry minor team and their concession rate of close to 0-5 across the season.
“I know they had Fionn (McEldowney) and Finbar Murray in there, excellent man markers, but the boys around that…there was a serious press going on around midfield,” Lockhart said.
“It is not just about your good man markers; it starts with everybody. Gone are the days when a corner forward stands up and says he’s not tackling.”
He uses the example of David Clifford getting back to shoulder Shane McGuigan in the Kerry defence and McGuigan’s own instinct to cover back at the other end.
For Lockhart, shaving a point or two off the key forwards is time worth investing for those crunch games when winning craves a greater flood of energy to the attack.
A defensive coach would be a welcome addition, but not in how the term is often perceived.
As in, let’s get everybody behind the ball.
What should a defensive coach’s role entail away from the team’s tactic of funnelling back or plonked a sweeper in the opponent’s key attacking channel?
“The key thing is technique and the key thing in technique is your footwork,” Lockhart said.
“You have to have your knees bent and, as big Adrian (McGuckin – MacRory Cup manager) talked about, making yourself as big as possible.
“If you go back to me marking Tony Boyle, (in the 1998 Ulster final) I was like an eagle with my arms out. It is knowing not to commit, knowing not to dive in and knowing when to tackle.”
“Too many players now, if a man goes past him the first reaction is to grab the boy by the arm.
“That’s wrong, we have to work on recovery where you run alongside, putting the hand in and out. If you keep the hand in, it’s a free, especially if he falls.”
Lockhart uses the example of Derry minor star Johnny McGuckian and how he attacked a defender, leaning in and creating panic.
“The defender puts the hand in, Johnny falls and he gets the free,” Lockhart said. “Ryan McHugh did it for years until the Monaghan boys caught on to it.
“Then, they ran alongside and McHugh was blown up for overcarrying.
“Good tackling is all about technique, your footwork and your arm action. There is anticipation and then recovery if the man goes past you.
“I always loved watching Keith Higgins because he attacked the ball with pace. When he didn’t get it, he had the recovery to get back to get a hand in and knock the ball or get a block.
“The key thing is that you should be between the forward and the nets at all times. Too many boys don’t have the footwork and they don’t work on it.
“When we played with the county, we did a lot of work on footwork and changing direction. We’d be running backwards and diagonal, getting the hand in and out. I don’t think that is done now to the same level.”
As the conversion comes to a close. Lockhart reiterates the need for two distinct angles of focus for defending – collective and individual. And how they dovetail in a team challenging for silver.
On the one-on-one preparations, it strips it back to a stubbornness of sorts.
“If I saw it written somewhere that something ‘can’t be done’ I would relish that challenge.
“Adrian would’ve said a good forward will score, but don’t let him past you,” Lockhart summed up.
Ask any forward who had Sean Marty Lockhart for company.
Getting the ball was sometimes the easy bit.
Taking it past him, well, that’s another story entirely. Lockhart’s pause, play and rewind buttons helped decommission many an attacking ace.