Tedious business of naming dummy teams causes more problems than it solves

Even if the secret is kept, you run the risk of messing too much with your players’ heads

Thu, Jul 18, 2013, 12:00

Everything at inter-county level is about getting an edge. It’s well known now that Dublin regularly send someone out to film the challenge matches of the other big counties when they get wind of them. That might sound a bit excessive but when I heard about it, I said fair play to the Dubs. It tells you a lot about the level of planning they think you have to be doing, constantly pushing on and seeing if there is something you can do that others haven’t thought of yet.

But you can get too clever. The carry-on with the dummy teams seems to me to be a classic example of managers complicating matters more than they need to. I’ve been thinking about it for a while and trying to work out what the benefit of it might be. And I can’t work it out. To me, it looks like it causes more problems than it solves.

I’m not talking here about the like of Eoghan O’Gara coming in for Paddy Andrews the other day. Sometimes a fella will be carrying a knock and you want to give him every chance to make it. That’s fine, no problem. Or if you have some young lad that you want to keep back until the day of a game so that he doesn’t lose a week’s sleep over starting his first game, that’s fair enough. Managers have been doing that for donkey’s years.

No, what baffles me is the kind of thing Cork did ahead of their Munster final against Kerry a couple of weeks ago. I was in Killarney around 11am that morning, meeting a few fellas, sorting out a few tickets, shooting the breeze. And within the first three sentences of every conversation I had, the changes in the Cork team were all known.

Everybody knew Aidan Walsh was going to start at midfield, that Noel O’Leary was coming in at wing-back and that Donncha O’Connor would start at corner-forward. And the big topic of discussion was that Ciarán Sheehan wasn’t going to be coming in, that it was going to be a dummy change not made by Conor Counihan. This was three hours before the game and everybody knew the changes that were going to be made and the ones that weren’t.

So you have to ask yourself, what is the benefit of it all? What do you gain? If the idea is to make Kerry take their eye off the ball, then it failed badly when every man in the street knows the score three hours before throw-in.

I think what you potentially lose is far more serious than whatever little edge you might gain. You have to be careful with the mental side of things. Everybody wants to start every game. It’s a dent in your personal pride when you’re not starting.

Roar and Shout
I don’t care how together a team is or how good the team spirit might be, players live inside their own heads and they think first and foremost about their own game. We all roar and shout about how this is a 30-man squad and all the rest. But once the game starts, you have to look after your own patch and your own performance.

The 30-man squad stuff is hugely important but its real worth is in preparation for the big games rather than in the games themselves. There’s no way I would have been conditioned properly for playing intercounty football without training against the likes of Donal Daly, Séamus Scanlon, Kieran Donaghy and Mike Quirke. Unless you have big, strong, athletics guys beating the hell out of you all the way through the year, it’s impossible to be ready when the biggest games come around.

Once you have everybody in a squad buying into that idea, even the guys who aren’t making the team know that they’re adding something and morale stays high. But I just don’t see how naming dummy teams can do anything only hurt morale. You’re basically setting a couple of players up for a fall, playing around with their emotions in the run up to really important games. How can that be good?

It happened a few weeks ago in the Fermanagh v Cavan match in the Ulster championship. Fermanagh had Barry Owens, James Sherry and Tomás Corrigan not only go through a full warm-up but also walk in the parade and stand in the huddle for the national anthem. Then, as soon as the anthem was over, the three boys went and sat in the stand and three subs hopped up out of the dug-out and went to take up their position.

Again, everybody in the stands that day knew Fermanagh were going to make changes before throw-in. These things always, always get out. You might think you have the tightest squad imaginable but in a group of 30 young lads with another heap of backroom people, these things leak out. It just happens.

Say you’re a young lad who has been named in the team but you know you’re not going to be starting. The team is named on a Wednesday so you have to keep smiling all week as people congratulate you for getting your start. They ask you how you’re feeling, tell you to enjoy the big day and all that.

Meanwhile, you’re trying to keep a straight face. You could be talking to your best friend or your father or somebody you don’t want to feel like you’re bullshitting, so you kind of go, ‘Listen, keep it to yourself, right? So-and-so is starting and I’m on the bench.’

That’s all it takes. It’s out there now. And if it isn’t the lad himself, it’s someone else. Someone half-tells their brother and the brother has a pint some night and everyone knows the brother is close to the team and suddenly the rumour is out the gap as fact. And so you get to the point where whatever purpose the manager had for naming his dummy team is lost altogether.

Little conversations
The knock-on effect here is what’s going on in the heads of the players. Take the player who has been named in the team but isn’t starting. You need him to be a very experienced guy to be able to handle all this messing around in the right way.

Before a game, a player will have little conversations with himself about how he has prepared. Have I trained right? Have I eaten right? Have I slept right? Have I done everything I could have for this?

If you’re going to be a sub, you need to get yourself into the right frame of mind for it. You’re going to be looking out for what sort of calls a referee makes, how a game is flowing, who’s a weakness in the opposition. You need to really concentrate. And for all of that to happen, your mind has to be clear. But it’s very hard to have a clear head if you’ve spent the week in the team and out of the team, trying to keep a secret and trying not to give anything away, wondering what the manager really thinks of you and if he really trusts you.

Because that’s what naming a dummy team really comes down to. It’s an issue of trust. The manager is saying, ‘Right lads, this can’t get out. If this gets out, some man has let the team down.’ Then when it does come out – which it inevitably does – everybody is looking at each other and wondering who let it out. All eyes naturally turn to the man that was dropped because it’s only logical that maybe he bitched to somebody.

But what if he didn’t? What if it was the lad who got put in instead of him and couldn’t keep it to himself? All of a sudden, there’s suspicion around the lad on the bench and his head is swimming by the time he gets on the pitch. You’re messing around with players’ heads at exactly the wrong time.

And the other side of it then is what the players who actually have been picked are thinking. Take the likes of Walsh, O’Connor and O’Leary for Cork. These are lads who are going to be key to whatever success you have and who are looking to the management to see what new thinking they come up with to beat a team like Kerry.

It reminded me of a county final we played one year against Laune Rangers. The day before the game, one of the management came to me and said they’d come up with an idea for the final. I was thinking that this was great, maybe there was going to be a plan to stop Mike Frank Russell or something But no, the big idea was to ask me would I play at wing-forward just to keep them guessing.

Wing-forward! Ah lads. I knew I hadn’t been playing my best stuff but there was no way I was going make some young wing-back a hero. I said, “Sorry now lads, that won’t be happening.” I refused to do it. I couldn’t believe that this was their big masterstroke.

I would imagine a few of the Cork lads were thinking something similar with this dummy team. Like, really? This is your big trick? Keeping Noel O’Leary back only to throw him in against Paul Galvin? It’s not exactly the greatest piece of innovation anyone’s ever come up with.

You should pick your best team. Pick them, tell them up front and don’t complicate the thing. The more you mess around, the more imponderables you bring in. Intercounty football is hard enough as it is without adding another layer to it.

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