Darragh Ó Sé: Wrong players make a monkey of best manager

If you want to design a great intercounty football team, what would be first on the list?

“If you could see into certain players’ heads like you could with Homer Simpson, there’d be a monkey riding a bicycle across a tightrope”

“If you could see into certain players’ heads like you could with Homer Simpson, there’d be a monkey riding a bicycle across a tightrope”


Football doesn’t stand still. You’d have to wonder why people are surprised by the different tactics that come and go in the sport, as if nothing new had ever happened before. Pat Spillane was dropping deep into his defence from the forwards 40 years ago, Jack O’Shea the same. Evolution didn’t just fall out of the sky in the last few years.

The requirements for surviving at the top of the intercounty game are different now to what they were even 10 years ago. Imagine sitting down with a blank piece of paper and trying to build a team from scratch. What would you look for?

If you want to understand how football has changed over time, just look at the Tyrone team that beat Derry and compare it to the early Tyrone teams Mickey Harte won All-Irelands with. Look at the body shapes. Look at the fitness levels. Look at what roles players carry out in a game.

I played against Seán Cavanagh in those days. Back then, he had diplomatic immunity from tracking back. Nowadays, he’s far more likely to pick up the ball on his own half back line as in the Tyrone attack. He gets back, takes on responsibility for breaking up play like everybody else and then gets forward to be a weapon in front of goals as well.

Running game

So let’s take this blank piece of paper and set up our team. What do we need? If you want a starting point for what has changed the game, fitness is absolutely top of the list. I don’t think people really understand the levels of fitness needed now. When I played, even the top teams were carrying a couple of players who were fitter than the average member of the public but would be blowing hard in the final quarter. Those guys don’t exist now. Not tolerated.

More than ever, it’s a running game. The buzzword this year is “transition”. Don’t be fooled: transition is mostly running. For the best teams, it’s running and kicking long at the right time. Either way, you need ridiculous fitness to survive. So at a certain level – top four, top six – that fitness is taken for granted. It’s non-negotiable.

The next item on the list is personnel. No point having fit players who won’t do what you need them to. I’ve been in dressing rooms with players who are getting instructions and it was obvious that if you could see into their heads like you could with Homer Simpson, there’d be a monkey riding a bicycle across a tightrope. Maybe the monkey would be whistling to himself.

You can’t have that these days. At a certain level, these systems are basic enough. You get men back, you break up play, you attack at pace and you cover for the men who go forward. You’d be surprised how difficult it is to drum that into some guys. It takes putting ego aside and cutting down on individuality. That’s no picnic, especially when you’re dealing with guys who are the best players in their clubs.

Second Captains

This is not a new problem. I remember playing the Dubs one time in Croke Park and our number one priority for the first 15-20 minutes was to take the sting out of the game, quieten down Hill 16 and basically make it a tight, boring game. Don’t give them anything to get excited about. That was our mantra going in.

It all worked fine – for about three minutes. Then, my midfield partner decided to be a hero and go on a big solo run. Nothing wrong with that, except that my man wouldn’t have been a noted solo-runner. Basically, he got a rush of blood, ignored the plan, soloed high above his head and presented himself as a nice, juicy target for two Dubs to line up and absolutely poleaxe. The Hill went bananas.

After he peeled himself off the advertising hoardings, he jogged back over towards me with a big confused look on his face. “Jeez, I wasn’t expecting that!” he said. I nearly hit him myself.

So you need the right type of people. As for the type of players you need, that’s also changing all the time. Let’s start at the start. Goalkeepers. You never saw a goalkeeper in white boots. They were never good enough footballers to get away with it. They were solid guys, maybe a bit mad, definitely braver than the rest when it came to throwing themselves in front of the ball.

Packed defences

If you’re starting a county team from scratch now, do you even go looking at the club goalkeepers around the county? Or do you do what Cavan have done with Ray Galligan and convert an above-average free-taker into a goalkeeper? I think more and more you will see teams going that way. Thanks to packed defences, being a shot-stopper is well down the list.

I wouldn’t swap places with goalkeepers now. The Derry keeper had a nightmare three or four minutes where he couldn’t get the ball kicked out. Tyrone kept coming back at him with scores. By the fourth or fifth one, he looked like a golfer who had no idea where his drive was going.

When it comes to defenders, the man-marker isn’t as important as he used to be. You look at the corner backs on the top teams: for their clubs they’re centre backs or midfielders or half forwards. They’re athletes first and foremost, well capable of leading the charge when the turnover comes and comfortable shooting off either foot at the end of a break-out.

I played with corner backs who you wouldn’t embarrass by including in the shooting drills. You’d be afraid they’d get cranky and think you were trying to make a fool of them and they’d take it out on your star corner forward in an in-house game the next night. Nowadays, it’s a bad performance if you haven’t ended a game with a couple of points from the full back line.

Most important player

But again that’s the wrong way of saying it. There’s no full back line now. There’s a marker, maybe two. There’s a guy patrolling the D. There are five or six across the 45, numbers irrelevant. There are no wing backs or wing forwards, just wingers. If Jack McCaffrey is up against Donnchadh Walsh or Lee Keegan is playing on Diarmuid Connolly, who’s marking who?

Midfielders don’t need to be the tallest guys on the team. You need one giant to contest hop-balls but mostly, in the best teams, midfielders won’t be called on to catch anything above their heads. Those converted free-takers playing in goal will be hitting them on the chest from 60 yards away (on the rare occasions they haven’t gone short to the converted midfielder playing corner back).

The most important player on the team is the link man at centre forward, which is the one position that is still broadly similar to what it used to be. You need a classy player there, a guy who plays constantly on the half-turn, taking possession while running laterally across the half forward line and sending fast, intelligent ball inside.

Upfront you have one strike forward. You’re pushing the boat out if you go with two. At least one corner forward puts his head down and sprints back up the field as soon as the referee throws in the ball and the second one usually isn’t far behind. It’s everyone’s responsibility to work back, it’s everyone’s responsibility to get up and score points of his own.

There’s no hiding place either. The oldest GAA tactic in the book – whipping off the corner forward when things go against you – is dying out. Now the manager has his stats team telling him who has made the most tackles, who has been on the ball the most times, who has given away the most fouls. The curly finger goes to the guy who isn’t hitting his numbers.

Wrong personnel

When it’s good, like it was with Tyrone on Sunday, it looks great. It’s exciting to watch. But it all comes back to personnel. Derry were trying to play a similar game but they don’t have the personnel. And as for when club teams try it? Forget about it. That’s the main reason people complain about this style of football: they see club teams doing it badly and it looks dreadful. Donkeys in derbies.

Personnel is the key. It comes down to another much-used phrase: “buy in”. Everyone has to buy into the game plan. No flakes allowed. People wonder why the championship only gets going in August: it’s because a lot of teams make allowances for the wrong sort of personnel. Guys who don’t fully buy in but are kept on because numbers are tight when it comes to intercounty quality.

The championship now is more ruthless than ever it was at weeding those guys out. The evolution of football has demanded it.

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