The day of the luxury player is long gone – the key now is work-rate above all else
There was a time when a Seán Cavanagh or a Maurice Fitzgerald could coast through the game but not any more
Barcelona’s midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta put pressure on Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema. The speed with which they seek to regain possession is a key part of Barcelona’s game. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
People talk all the time about the game being different now from what it was all the way back in the day. But when they do, I think they miss the point. The change from all the way back in the day took place a good while ago and the truth is that it hasn’t stopped changing in all the time since. In actual fact, the game is really different now to what it was just five years ago.
In all the uproar about Seán Cavanagh’s tackle on Conor McManus, very few people have asked the question – what was he doing being the last man back in the Tyrone defence?
How come it was him and his brother and midfield partner Colm who were the closest to the Tyrone goal at that particular point? Five years ago, you would not have seen Seán Cavanagh in that position.
I played on Seán in the 2005 All-Ireland final and it was obvious to me that he had a dispensation from the rest of the Tyrone team. His job was to find space and it was the job of the players around him to get the ball to him so he could exploit that space.
He had Brian Dooher to do his tracking back for him and his role in that team was to drift into a place where he could do damage going forward. His workload was facing in one direction.
If you had to pick out one thing that is completely different now to what it was five years ago, the fact that Seán was the one making the last-ditch tackle against Monaghan sums it up for me.
Work-rate is everything now – right across the field. And the day when you could allow your most talented player to float through games and add the finishing touches are gone.
The best footballers are still the most skilful footballers. But it’s what we ask of them that has changed. Even when I was playing there was still a total acceptance that there were certain guys in the team that the rest of us did the work for.
It would have been silly for us to make Maurice Fitzgerald burst himself to chase back 70 metres in the hope of getting a tackle in. That was what the likes of me were in the team for.
We knew that and we didn’t give it a second thought. No team would. If you have any bit of unity in your squad, you wouldn’t resent a special case being made for a Maurice Fitz or a Seán Cavanagh or a Bernard Brogan. Certain guys can do certain things that the rest of us can’t. So they got a bit of leeway and more often than not they paid it back in spades.
But that whole idea was based on the rest of us getting them the ball. Whereas nowadays, those players are expected to do just as much work in regaining possession when it’s lost as everybody else.
That’s one reason you see the best teams sharing the scores around so widely now – if the guy who would have been your marquee forward five years ago is after chasing back to make a turnover, then the wing-forward or wing-back who picks it up better be an accurate shooter when it comes to making it count.
The emphasis of the game has changed. So many scores comes from turnovers and tackles now that the idea of what makes the best player in any team has shifted.