Football gripped by existential crisis as defensive strategies dominate

Croke Park’s main worry though should be creating a more competitive championship

Jim Gavin accused Cork of defensive tactics. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Jim Gavin accused Cork of defensive tactics. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

The mood is a little uneasy at the moment in the world of football. Last week Croke Park’s financial report for 2014 brought further news of how the big-ball game has been eclipsed by hurling, with the latter bringing in greater gate receipts for the second year running. Average championship attendances were also higher at hurling matches.

These findings are qualified by firstly, the sequence of All-Ireland hurling final replays, which have boosted revenues for the past three years and secondly that because the hurling championship has a smaller number of competing counties it is a more elite competition than the football equivalent and it’s not unusual for average attendances to be higher.

Yet there are deeper concerns for the game.

Football is the GAA’s most demanding responsibility. The game is nationally popular but requires constant supervision. By and large, the hurling community is happy with its lot and suspicious of change, preferring instead the uncomplicated conviction that it’s all but perfect as it is.

Tactical innovation has a less fundamental impact on hurling, as the bat-and ball skills remain central and can move play far more quickly than is possible in football, making the execution of skills a lot harder to negate.

Apprehension Football on the other hand is relatively fresh from a massive consultation process, conducted by Eugene McGee’s Football Review Committee, which revealed deep misgivings about cynical play in the game – the apprehension that skills aren’t rewarded, whereas the unfair countering of them is.

The black card has been a partial success but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that at this stage a cynical foul has roughly a one in four chance of attracting the sanction, so the incentive to foul is still there. Were that ratio to tighten, the incidents of calculated fouling would drop.

Regulating such behaviour is one thing, however, that there’s an appetite to pursue. Interfering with the game itself doesn’t attract the same sort of consensus.

GAA director general Páraic Duffy’s recent suggestion that the restricted kick-out used in last year’s international rules might be worth a run in football triggered anxieties – in the absence of a mark – about entire teams migrating to the relevant 45-metre line in order to queue up for whoever was unfortunate enough to catch the ball.

At the moment football is gripped by an existential crisis over whether the game has been strategised to the extent that it can never be played with a sense of spontaneity any more, as defensive systems cut down on the space available and prioritise conceding as few scores as possible.

Since the football league started just over a week ago there have been some telling remarks on the current state of the game from managers and players involved, ranging from complaints of cynical play to bafflement as to how to play against 13-man defences.

Quizzical Dublin manager Jim Gavin remarked after losing the first league match that he’d never seen Cork play so defensively. This was politely rejected a week later by opposing manager Brian Cuthbert and one of his players, James Loughrey. There wasn’t a sense of outrage in the denials, more a quizzical implication that if anyone thought the Dublin match had been negative they should have seen some of the other displays.

Loughrey spoke with the experience of six championship seasons in Ulster with Antrim, having seen defensive systems up close and made a point often not sufficiently emphasised: playing defensively requires an awful lot of work and preparation.

Signs are, however, that teams are willing to make the effort, particularly if the likes of Cork – for so long upholders of the orthodoxy of six attacking forwards – are attracted by the necromancy of defensive systems.

Tyrone tried to build a style around their most talented players, who this generation have been largely forwards, but the fall-out in an un-supplemented defence proved calamitous.

On a general point this is another of football’s characteristics – a tendency to be blinded by what you last saw. It was accepted a year ago that Dublin’s attacking style had proved so successful in 2013 that teams were trying to emulate it last season.

This was advanced as one of the reasons why the introduction of the black car mightn’t have fully explained the rising scoring rates in the 2014 league.

Now, months after Dublin’s colourful approach received the Flowers are Red treatment in the Donegal semi-final, that example has apparently been discredited. Even Dublin themselves are revising the more kamikaze aspects of their game plan.

Should the authorities intervene? Is there a need to revisit the restriction on hand passes, trialled 20 years ago? Would an Australian Rules mark and a minimum required distance for kick-outs restore the primacy of catch and kick?

To justify attempts at genetically engineering a different type of football there would need to be more evidence that such intervention is necessary. Does anyone really believe that the quality of play – as opposed to local allegiance and competitiveness – is the big selling point of football?

Last year’s All-Ireland final may have been hard going but the semi-finals were compelling. Kerry might have made one the county’s periodic journeys to acquire and exploit Ulster innovation in the All-Ireland but they were as all-singing and all-dancing as Dublin in their provincial final. When Donegal won in 2012, there weren’t too many aesthetic objections.

If anything’s going to depress attendances it will be the lack of competitiveness: In Munster and Ulster the last three of the last four provincial titles have gone to the same two counties; in Connacht and Leinster, it’s been four out of four. Every single one progressed to the All-Ireland semi-finals during those four years with just one semi-finalist out of 16 coming through the qualifiers.

Tactical fashions are temporary but competitiveness is a permanent requirement.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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