DECLAN McCOY: The imitation game

GAELIC football is gradually moving towards a reset in the fundamental make up of teams.

We have two points to consider in this regard. Firstly, the standard programme lays out the 15 players in the traditional structure. They consist of a ‘keeper, six defenders, two midfielders and six forwards. I can’t for the life of me remember the last time I saw a team set up like this, it was definitely when I still had my hair. Between this and the constant changes in personnel, match programmes have become obsolete.

Secondly, every team in the land has adopted or attempted to imitate the ‘drop everyone behind the ball when out of possession’ model.

This strategy has not only drastically changed the game but it has changed the experience for those attending the games. If we think back to games in the nineties and noughties, although tactically less refined, the atmosphere at championship matches was helter-skelter to the point you couldn’t hear yourself think.

Big games now have a brilliant atmosphere during the parade and at the end of the national anthem. This then descends to a flatness of 100 behind the ball and the opposition playing lateral keep ball across the 45-metre line. At the next game you attend, pay attention to the level of conversation you can hear amongst the crowd.

We’ve gone from constant noise to long periods of chatter amongst the crowd, occasionally interrupted by a score after a three minute passage of possession. If my sons need the toilet, I now tell them to wait until the match starts so we don’t miss anything.

The prevalent culture within the game is, ‘win at all costs’. Donegal were often derided in the Jim McGuinness era for adopting this approach, as were Armagh and Tyrone in the noughties. The fact is the game is far more defensive now than any team in that era.

This is not going to change anytime soon; the game has evolved to an ultra-tactical level which, although effective and initially innovative, is now becoming the default strategy across the board.

Colm O’Rourke has stated he wants to return to the catch and kick principles that he believes in. This is noble, however despite their Tailteann success this will not work at the top level.. Will supporters laud this attempt to play attractive football? The answer is no.

Supporters, committees and players want success at all costs. Derry, Armagh and Louth have perhaps been the most prevalent in this recently. Interestingly, Louth and Derry have been rightly praised as they have proven to be successful. Armagh have been criticised as they haven’t been.

Even the great aristocrats Kerry needed to bring Paddy Tally in to employ the defensive wizardry needed in the modern game. Compliments and criticism come with the job, but let’s call a spade a spade. Supporters are fine with 15 behind the ball if it’s working. They will say, ‘we’re a brilliant counter-attacking team that absorbs the pressure and hit on the break’. I guarantee you that come the summer if the exact same tactics yield an early exit, those same supporters will say, ‘we’re stifling our talents with this defensive crap.’

Therein rests the crux of this column. It’s a new world now where everyone is adopting this approach and that’s not changing. Those that employ it most effectively or imitate it best, will be acknowledged as tactical geniuses, those that don’t get the same success with the exact same tactics will be hammered as tactically inept dinosaurs.

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