DECLAN McCOY: Careful, we don’t want a football match breaking out

AFTER a riveting weekend of football, it’s fair to say the Ulster Championship is alive and well.

Whilst I may bemoan the lack of jeopardy and level of shadow boxing in the current format, I thoroughly enjoyed the games. Cavan just came up short in a spirited performance and Jim McGuinness has rejuvenated Donegal again.

Both games, in a way, form the crux of this week’s article. I contend that the profile of a county or elite player has been rapidly changing in recent years.

Traditionally, the top players were just that, top players. They were top of the class in a particular skill or in a variety of skills. You had the kick pass, the catch, shooting and your man-markers. They would then be physically conditioned to a high level to supplement their skills. So, for example, your Peter Canavan, Gooch, Maurice Fitz or Seamus Moynihan.

It is now the exact opposite. In an era of systems, transitions, and tactics the athlete is king. We are testing athletic ability instead of skill levels. Many players are now physical specimens who eat up the ground, but they are told not to try and play ball.

It reminds me of the Simpsons when Homer becomes a boxer and goes on a winning streak because he can take a hit but can’t punch. His trainer, Moe, utters the famous phrase, “careful, we don’t want to get into a boxing match here.”

Donegal blitzed Derry at the weekend with sheer intensity in the tackle and an unbelievable speed of transition. This requires a ridiculously high level of conditioning and a near robotic understanding of team-defensive positioning. Now on top of this, Donegal have some great players and McGuinness is the master at analysing the opposition to the nth degree and exploiting any weaknesses.

Flip it to the Cavan game. They needed a point in the last play to earn extra-time and instead of a creative spark, both teams stayed in structured attack and structured defence modes until the clock ran out.

I guarantee you both teams ran these scenarios religiously in training. Tyrone would have been told to defend two thirds of the pitch, not to come out of their defensive shell and not to foul. Cavan would have been told to go back and forward until a gap opens.

This level of systematic coaching prohibits the maverick play that gets a shot off before the clock goes dead. Players are afraid to do something that will be highlighted in video analysis the following week. I can only imagine the screaming at TV’s that went on in Cavan during that last play.

The creativity is being sapped from the modern game and being replaced by robotic systems of pattern and repetition,

Who’s to blame? As coaches how much time do we allocate to the skills of the game in training? I can tell you now that most sessions are broken into conditioning, shape, and scenarios. This is supplemented by two gym sessions per week to further enhance the physicality required to implement the system.

Kicking, passing and shooting is not a coaching priority anymore. Tackling forms a large part of most sessions, however it is tackling in a system as opposed to one-on-one scenarios. How often does a corner-forward skin a defender in a battle anymore? You have no space and when the forward does receive the ball in space it’s a mark. So, in losing the art of man-marking you are also losing the nippy forward as the incentive is being diminished with the attacking mark.

Ultimately the game is about winning and if you’re not conditioned or rigidly set up then you are at a disadvantage.

Dublin are the greatest team of the modern era and are also the most systematic team ever to play the game. As a coach I admire the levels they have gone to. I could also watch Jimmy McGuinness and Donegal until the cows come home. They are so tactically prepared and physically conditioned it’s hard not to be in awe of them.

There’s no doubt the modern game is often hard to watch but the culture of ‘winning is everything’ is here to stay. There’s not a committee in the land that would appoint someone to play good football over someone that will win ugly.

On a positive note, at underage level, particularly Go Games, trojan work is being done up and down the country on developing skills. This will eventually filter through. So ironically whilst skill levels are on the wane at senior level, they have never been better at the youngest age of the spectrum.

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