Steven Poacher: Deciding the first line of engagement

AS the National Football league round robin concluded at the weekend, a lot of talking points emerged, some familiar ones, such as the magic of Monaghan, Mayo flying in the league again, Derry’s continued resurgence under Gallagher and then we had the Armagh debate, a fan base with huge expectations, but are these expectations realistic and are Armagh really playing anymore defensively than they were last year?

In Division Three, Fermanagh were the table-toppers, a county with a brilliantly astute manager in Kieran Donnelly and a squad maximizing their resources with a well-rehearsed game plan. In Division Four, Laois continued the trend of big Leinster counties flopping, asking the question, is Leinster now the weakest of the four provinces?

This weekend sees the four League finals being played at Croker and normally Division One is the showpiece game but Sunday’s Division Two clash between Derry and Dublin is one of the most tactically anticipated battles in the GAA. Dublin v Derry promises to tick every box from a coaching perspective, to watch this game with an analytical coaching eye will be fascinating


Rory Gallagher is a genius in my opinion, he has inherited a group of players who only a few years ago were in Division Four of the National League and dumped out of the championship by a poor Laois team in Derry.

That is serious progress in four seasons. Gallagher has the X-Factor as a coach, he has all the best players playing for him and he tolerates no nonsense as well and has every one of the squad buying into the project.

This weekend’s clash probably won’t be free flowing, open attractive man-to-man football with lots of kick passing, it will be a hugely tactical encounter with so many facets to analyse and the first half in particular will likely see a game of working each other out before the real fireworks in the second half.

Of course, the easy narrative to hammer this weekend will be the word defensive, especially because Rory Gallagher and Derry are involved, and it will undoubtedly be a very similar defensively orientated game-plan from both without possession of the ball.

However, this Derry team under Rory Gallagher have developed an aspect to their game that not many are giving enough credit for. Their ability to turn a deep lying defensive shape into a free flowing counter-attack has yielded a plus 51 score difference, significantly better than anyone in Ireland bar Westmeath whose one off freakish result against Antrim gives a slight false reading.

One of the main reasons for this is Derry’s ability to get numbers ahead of the play and get height, width and depth into their attack and what that does is create less congestion in the middle third and allows for a number of 1v1 duels for the ball carrier and if the ball carrier beats the first man, it opens up a world of opportunities but it also creates a number of opportunities for cut runs that opens up goal-scoring chances even against some of the best defensive units.

Before we just throw lazy narratives out about this weekend’s game, let’s look at the word defending. For me, defending in Gaelic is like building a house, you start at the foundation and build out, it’s the same in Gaelic football, you start at the back and build out.

One of the first points you must consider is where is the first line of engagement going to be, if it’s a high press, a middle third press or you decide to drop deeper in a zonal type defence, you still must decide where will we be engaging first?

If you decide to plump for the high press, everyone must be responsible, the high level of work rate and discipline must start at 13, 14 and 15 in your team. If you decide to plum for the middle third press, flooding bodies into the opposition’s set up zone, you must have high levels of contact and intensity in this area and tracking runners is so key!

You will have heard the terminology – match-ups, tagging or spoilers – personnel used to disrupt or negate the opposition’s most influential players, they could be the biggest scoring threats or the players most likely to make things happen. The good teams and top teams in the country will get their match-ups spot on, they also have the personnel and resources to do this.

Watch the likes of Mick Fitzsimons and Chrissy McKaigue this weekend and you will see the fine art of individual defending and this is a game that could be decided on a big moment of a defensive error such will be the closeness of the game, but the fact still remains the same like Kerry last year, great teams are built on great defences and this year’s champions will ultimately be a shining example of that.

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