I watched Galway and Roscommon on Sunday afternoon in complete dismay. It was like a vision of the game in the near future when it may be in ruins.
The match hadn’t even finished when I felt certain that the GAA needs to introduce a rule by which at least three players from both teams must remain in the offensive end of the pitch at all times. Otherwise, we are going to have stalemate after stalemate and the game itself will go nowhere.
It was a peculiar thing to watch the match given my involvement with Donegal and the controversy our system attracted during those years.
From the outset, I was looking at how both teams set up. And there was an element of what Donegal did between 2011-2014 in terms of a heavy defensive structure but that is where the similarity began and ended.
Either it is not in the Roscommon or Galway DNA to play this way or else the coaching strengths of the respective managers are not suited to this type of system.
And at the end of the day: Roscommon and Galway are not Donegal. They are counties with their own football identity and style and a very rich tradition. The reason we did what we did in Donegal was because of the players we had at our disposal and also because of how the game was played in the county going back generations.
When I was learning the game in Donegal, as a young lad at county training the refrain was always: keep the ball! Keep the ball! Because our pitches are mostly on the coast in Donegal and we are exposed to the Atlantic winds, it made sense for Donegal to retain possession and look to develop a slick running game. That style was second nature to our footballers and still is.
Best player in the country
When I got the Donegal job, we had
, probably the best player in the country and one of the biggest, along with Colm McFadden and Patrick McBrearty. So in that trio you had size, skill and ball-winning ability on the edge of the square.
It gave us two clear approaches of attack. When we went long to those three players, then opposition defenders would drop back to cover it off. They had to. And that inevitably left space for us to run the ball. And the team was and is blessed with natural ball carriers: Frank McGlynn, Karl Lacey, Rory Kavanagh, the McHughs, Leo McLoone, Anthony Thompson. The whole lot had the capacity to get on the ball and make serious incisions.
But that gameplan was unique to us. Absolutely unique to us. Every decision we took in terms of how we set up was to make ourselves competitive. If we went long, we asked questions in the air. If teams dropped back we looked to run the ball aggressively. Yes, we defended in big numbers, absolutely. But we always left bodies up the park. We pushed up on the opposition kick-outs; we tried to pick up breaks on the 50-50. In Salthill, Roscommon had a gale force breeze at their backs and they handed Galway the kick-out. And I'm sitting there thinking: what is going on?
Here were two teams with 14 men behind the ball but no real intensity and nobody up the park. So they lacked that bridge between defence and attack.
When I was with Donegal, I despised when we were defending for the sake of defending. Any time we did, we struggled at the other end of the field. If you look at all the teams who are using that template now, who has been successful? Only Monaghan. And it is no coincidence that Monaghan have natural ball carriers but also target men in Conor McManus and Kieran Hughes inside. So the direct threat was there. The template worked for Monaghan but they are the minority.
Sunday was a puzzle. Either people don’t understand what is required or they are not executing it as they hoped to. And how could they? They are not Donegal. This is a central point. That system was bespoke to us. Our defensive system gave us a platform to attack. It was suited to the Donegal players. What occurred on Sunday bore very little resemblance to that. All I saw was defending. Just defending in numbers but with no intensity.
So I think looking at where things are at, I feel this is a situation that is not going to resolve itself. Gaelic football is in danger of becoming mired in a defensive stalemate that, in my opinion, is a debased and corrupt kind of parody of what Donegal set about achieving a few years ago. I am not specifically talking about the teams in the Connacht final here. It is a trend sweeping the game in general. For me, what we are seeing now is flawed in terms of the evolution of the game.
Looking for an edge
I understand that people are going to say this is rich coming from me. But just because it worked for us doesn’t mean it will work for everyone else. And there are huge gaps in how the defensive system is being interpreted. Why has this all come about and where did it start?
Well, I feel it started in Ulster and the reason for that is that the Ulster championship was always incredibly competitive. When I started out playing in the early 1990s through to 2004, every county was looking for an edge. Training harder. Psychology. Tactics. Anything to get them over the line. And you had a cast of seriously ambitious, ruthless managers.
So if you played Tyrone, who were very defensively savvy and you didn’t match that – as Donegal didn’t – you lost. That’s it. And when we sat down in Donegal before the 2011 season, that was our primary question. What can give us an edge? And we came up with a bespoke plan that suited our players and our tradition.
All of that was a far cry from what we saw in Salthill. Both sides had done their homework and it was as if Roscommon realised that Galway would be extremely defensive and felt obliged to match that. Whether the teams were playing to their actual strengths became immaterial.
So to break that cycle, I really believe there should be a rule introduced where three players – at least – must remain in the offensive half of the pitch while their team is on defence.
This is not because I think defending is bad. Defending is an integral part of the game. But you do it to win the ball back! So you can go play. To attack! When we were going well during my time in Donegal, we always had three up and our players who defended the periphery were there as the links between defence and attack.
Any day we only had two up we never had the same fluency. And only once – against Dublin in 2011 – did we have one man up. And we got nothing on the scoreboard that day. And we acknowledged that. And that had to change.
On Sunday, all the players were behind the ball and were moving at half pace. Even when they won it, they had no outlet receiver so they had to go short and lateral and the other team fell into defence and the cycle started again.
I would make an allowance for the weather conditions but not the tactical mindset. It was a pity. Roscommon were, hands down, the most exciting team to watch in the league. And when I think of Galway football I think of a sweeping, majestic, expansive game. I’m not sure it’s in either county’s interests to go down this road. How can a gameplan that was tailored to a specific group of players be a general template? It can’t be.
So this is not about redressing what happened in the Connacht final. It is about the bigger picture: the trend that is developing of teams clogging up their defence with maximum cover without any clear thought as to why they are doing it or what they want to achieve.
So why not road test this in the national league? I feel the problem would be sorted overnight by this simple adjustment. Coaches will coach to the rules. You would still have tactical innovations and the ability to set yourself up defensively.
But you are guaranteed, as a manager, that the maximum you will face would be 11 defenders. And you know you can plan a game around a minimum of three guys in the offensive end of the pitch. I think it would actually take pressure off managers to avoid giving scores away at all costs.
And it would open up the pitch so that players like Shane Walsh and Danny Cummins and Cathal Cregg and Niall Daly would have more space to express themselves. And critically, it would bridge that gap between defence and attack.
Drop bodies back
When you get to the point of Sunday, where a team just drops bodies back and wait for the whole game – I can honestly say that has nothing to do with what we were trying to achieve in Donegal – and nothing to do with how Donegal are playing their game this summer.
Tyrone and Donegal are the two teams suited to playing this kind of game. And Tyrone are the original of the species: they always brought bodies back. I feel the model was very successful and it captured a period in GAA history where Donegal caught other counties and managers off guard. But that moment has passed now. Defence is an important part of the game. But so is the attacking side of the game. And you must have both to be successful. And the only way to have that attacking element is to have bodies of the offensive side of the field.
A three-man forward rule would redress the balance between defence and attack. It becomes a different game. I feel really passionate about this. Our vision for the game in Donegal was very much to the left of general thinking. But much like British politics, the general thinking seems to have drifted alarmingly to the right. Where does it go from here?
I understand that if Roscommon or Galway win next weekend, they can point to the Nestor Cup and say that the end justifies the means. And that’s fine.
But in my opinion, a team cannot ultimately succeed unless they have a cohesive plan for defence and attack. And I know there are probably people who will delight in the irony of my calling for a limited number of defenders. But my argument is that the overall pattern of the Connacht final did not reflect the vision of the game we had in Donegal.
In fact, I would argue that what we attempted to do was the opposite of that. And what we did, we did for us alone. I think that attempts to copy it will only lead the game down a dead end. And it won’t give teams or managers the success they are working so hard to achieve. They must remain true to their identity. And maybe introducing this rule would help them to reconnect with that.