DAVID Clifford is almost single-handedly keeping the game watchable. At the weekend, he did it again. In the intermediate championship semi-final against Austin Stacks, Fossa were a point behind with 30 seconds of injury time left in extra time. It was at this moment Clifford went looking for the ball. Like all the greats, what really interests him is performing at the vital time. This is what stimulates him. Like Larry Bird screaming for the ball with three seconds on the clock in game seven of the finals with the Celtics two points down. Or Maradona smiling to himself as he stands over a free on the edge of the box.
By the time they gave him the ball, David was 70 yards out, being pursued by two Stacks’ men. He handpassed it over his shoulder, took the return, then headed towards goal, weaving, soloing, taking another return, then surging to his left, creating just enough space to shoot off his left foot from 50 yards. As the ball went over the black spot, Stacks’ players fell to their knees, hands on heads. Fossa went on to win the penalty shoot out, Clifford hitting the net again. Awesome. But he cannot save the game single-handedly.
We cannot travel the length of the country every fortnight to watch him playing.
I go to matches all the time. Can’t help it. It is a triumph of optimism over reality. A vision of what the game could be, not what it has become. Junior matches. Senior matches. Underage. League, championship, neither here nor there tournaments. Depressing. But compulsive. Me standing at the wire, roaring “Move the ball” and “For Christ sake have you no plan for the sweeper.” Groaning as it goes back to the goalie and slowly out, then back to the goalie. Shaking my head at this disease that has blighted a once great game.
Last Saturday I was at the Breaffy versus Balla round-robin game and during a lengthy period of play when Breaffy were standing off and Balla were knocking the ball back and forth around the middle third for no particular reason, I shouted, “I paid into this. Is it too much to ask for some entertainment?” at which point the glamorous brunette rounded on me and angrily said if I opened my mouth again she was leaving. Without me. Everybody looked over. Then away.
We have lost sight of the fact that it is a game. An entertainment. A recreational pastime. I went to the Knockmore Ballyhaunis game the following day. I was standing leaning over the wire with Knockmore legend Seamus “Stay down I’m climbing” Durcan, with his five senior championship medals and as the Derry poet put it, “his shoulders globed like a full sail strung”. He said to me, “If I don’t see a bit of football in the first half, I’m going home at half time.” He never does. That is because the game is our purgatory. We go because we go. Because we must.
As I watched the game intently, I kept thinking about the solutions I have been proposing for several years now and how they would impact on the game.
The first two rules I have proposed are simple, easy to enforce at club level and will make a fundamental difference to how the game is played and coached.
Rule 1: The goalkeeper cannot take a pass from an outfield player on his own team. Penalty for infringement: Penalty kick.
This prevents a team holding possession endlessly and knocking it back to the goalie. It prevents a team playing donkey with their opponents. Crucially, it incentivises the opposition to push up and press, since if they do that, the defenders cannot knock the ball back to the keeper. It also incentivises the goalkeeper to kick long, since a short kick out suddenly becomes very high risk. Say the corner-back runs to the sideline. The keeper kicks it to him. The corner-forward is all over him. He no longer has the option of working it back to the goalie. If a defender is turned over in the danger zone, his team is in serious trouble.
An opposing team will now be incentivised to push up and hunt for turnovers. One of the trends that has grown up to try and combat zonal defending is for the keeper to play as a 15th man. He comes forward and plays donkey with the opposition in the middle third. This discourages the opposition from pressing in that area. Instead, they fall back to their own 45. The ball gets knocked laterally and backwards and we get several minutes of nothing happening as the attacking team probes predictably. With this rule, that will no longer be possible.
Rule 2: When the ball has crossed over the defensive 45, or the midline, or the offensive 45, it cannot be brought back over them. Penalty for infringement: 21 metre free in front of goal.
Let us imagine the corner-back wins a short kick out. He is being tackled hard by the corner forward. Rule 1 means the defenders cannot go back to the keeper. The full-forward is meanwhile harrying the full-back, making a lateral pass to him very dangerous. The rest of the forwards are pressing up on their defenders. The number one option becomes moving the ball forward quickly, which is precisely what we used to do – win the ball, burst out, kick to the wing forward.
Let us imagine the corner back bursts past his man. He is now 30 metres out. It is dangerous to go back if the opposing team are pushed up. In a few seconds he is across the 45. Now there is no option to go back. The team in possession can only advance. They cannot use the goalie to hold possession. Sideways is dangerous. Once they are over the mid line they cannot go back over it. Once they go over the opposition 45, they cannot go back over it. It will force teams to entirely change their strategy. Rather than hold possession under little pressure, they will have to go forward. Meanwhile the defensive team is incentivised to push up and tackle hard.
At the moment, a team that is winning can simply work the ball backwards and laterally to the goalkeeper, move upfield, then back downfield, using the keeper as the spare man. In the 2017 final, Mayo were a point down and Dublin had a sideline on the Mayo 21 yard line. Bernard Brogan took it short and Dublin systematically worked the ball the whole way back to Stephen Cluxton. They went back across Mayo’s 45, back across the midline, back across their own 45, kicked it to Cluxton and played donkey with Mayo until the final whistle. With my rule, the Dubs would have gone for the killer score as they would have had no choice. With Mayo hounding them ferociously and no option of playing the ball backwards, it was all they could have done. Meanwhile, Mayo would have been incentivised to go for broke, to turn the Dubs over and drive forward for the equalising score. As it is now, the vast majority of games end in anti-climax, the team with the lead holding possession endlessly. Where is the drama? The entertainment? The glory?
These two simple, easy to police rules will make a dramatic contribution to restoring the health of our once great game. The GAA could start with them, then as their confidence grows, in due course add Rule 3, (outlawing the sweeper/zonal defender who plonks himself between the full back and centre back and kills the game’s natural flow).
Paul Mannion, one of the greatest forwards I have seen, was interviewed recently when he received the PWC/GPA Player of the Month award. Fresh from his Man of the Match performance in the All-Ireland final where he won his seventh All-Ireland medal, you might have expected him to be floating on air. The opposite. He was positively glum. Unenthusiastic. Depressed even. “Football wise,” he sighed, “the game has changed a lot over the last number of years (long pause) During the season, there was a lot of commentary about the kinda slow build up play, lateral passing and some of that (choosing his words carefully) I can totally understand… I can empathise with supporters.. it’s quite boring…no player wants to be part of a spectacle like that for sure… where everyone is now just very cautious about losing possession… naturally enough..it leads to situations where teams kinda have to set up very defensively and kinda that’s made it difficult for everyone…”
Ain’t that the truth.