JACK MADDEN: The terms of engagement

By Jack Madden

THE small goals are wheeled out. Forget about turnovers won, shooting efficiency, distance covered. Just make sure that the laces are tied.

Coaching is normally kept to a minimum. Parents aside, the disinterested crowd care for little other than an unsuccessful scramble for mobile phone coverage. Still, even for Wi-Fi whizzkids and hotspot connoisseurs, there are little moments of amusement, bemusement, from the pitch below.

The ball is the epicentre of chaos. The boundaries of the field are as flexible as an Olympic ice skater. The playing personnel swarm like locusts. For some, they may never set foot in a GAA ground of this magnitude again. For others it can be the beginning of a love affair.

It’s mad to think that sharing the same pitch are teachers of the future, and doctors. Bricklayers and neurologists and Catholics and scientologists. Pioneers and alcoholics.

It’s madder still that they all play the same way. 99 per cent are heedless to the calls. “Look for the space!”.

You couldn’t blame a young fella or cailín for being confused. The 35 minutes that just preceded saw 15 men behind the ball. In fact, it even saw 15 going forward, goalkeepers included, until the entirety of the playing personnel were gathered in a clustered mess inside the ‘45.

That’s what it looks like to the untrained eye. The rest of us have come to call it a system.

Le plat du jour of the GAA world is “the terms of engagement”. Who’s taking the game to who? With more games, teams are certainly attempting to be more tactically versatile. Perhaps that’s also why few are standing out.

In the early Jim Gavin Dublin era, they were swashbuckling, until a lightning Donegal counter-attack put a Ryan McHugh-shaped question mark all over the Jackeen’s blueprints. From there, it was conservative brilliance. Tease and probe, run angles off the ball, avoid contact on it, drag the first line of defence from five yards inside the ‘45 to five yards outside it.

Don’t take a chance. Take the chance.

It was always going to be Mayo that ended the run. The team that refused to give Dublin the respect they had earned on the journey to an unprecedented era of success. Don’t give them the time on the ball. Don’t let them dictate.

The full press is essentially in every team’s locker these days. Ironically it was the Dubs themselves that failed to use it in Croke Park two weeks ago. Roscommon’s now infamous six minutes of possession would surely have rendered even the ice-cool Gavin furious. Even more so because for that phase of play, they looked like his team at their pomp. Untouchable.

It seems what has changed in the intervening years is now the defensive team can dictate these terms of engagement. Mayo, Kerry, and Dublin, the traditional sexy counties, have failed to deal with defensive prowess, and a transitioning, purposeful blanket. For that very reason, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Louth knock an underwhelming Kerry out of the All-Ireland Championship in June. Unlikely, but possible on the evidence of what we have seen.

Louth make for an interesting case study. Against Dublin in the Leinster final, they kicked 0-15. Against Mayo they only managed 1-10. In the Leinster final, the match was played on Dublin’s terms. Against Mayo however, it was played on Louth’s, in spite of a David v Goliath encounter.

Their defensive nous has been coupled with a belief, which forms the basis for an attacking game plan to grow. They won’t win the All-Ireland, but they have learned the harsh lessons required to take a scalp.

Listening to wing-forward Bevan Duffy alone suggests the Kingdom won’t intimidate the Wee County. Speaking to RTÉ post-match, the confidence was contagious:

“We’ve got to stay here, we want to be here again. We’ve got to get to a Leinster final again. We’ve got to keep on stepping up those levels. It’s as simple as that.”

It’s not dropping back out of fear anymore. In fact, it seems that if anyone has true ambitions of winning this All-Ireland, then they must dictate, and dictating has become strangely straightforward. In dropping deep, you leave the opposition with little option other than mirroring.

Roscommon manager Davy Burke reaped the rewards against both Dublin and Mayo. Next up for the Rossies is a date with his native Kildare.

As the youngest manager on the inter-county scene, his words with the Irish Examiner are an insight into the modern game.

“When I am on the sideline here, I find it intriguing. I love it. If I was in the stand, it probably wouldn’t be brilliant, but when I am on the line I don’t care.”

If defensive teams are set to dictate, then it is little wonder why Galway are many people’s favourites for the All-Ireland. Yes, the Westmeath match swung after Ray Connellan’s red card, but Pádraic Joyce’s men still kicked the last six scores. And we saw during Tyrone-Armagh how red cards aren’t always the changing of a game.

If strength in depth cost the Tribesmen last year, it certainly won’t be their undoing in 2023. The return of Peter Cooke has been huge in more ways than one.

Throw in Paul Conroy, Matthew Tierney, Cillian McDaid, Damien Comer, and John Maher and Galway have the ability to win long kick-outs at will. That gives them the licence to press in Croke Park in a manner other teams simply cannot match.

Even if Louth can’t shock Kerry, the Kingdom still have a lot of ground to make up. Kerry, Dublin, and Mayo can always win the nice games. Right now, it doesn’t seem like they are flexible enough to win the nasty ones.

And with quarter-finals that are as good as seeded, there’ll be a few nasty games to navigate to win Sam. Davy Burke doesn’t care, and you can be certain that he’s not alone.

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