No right way to play Gaelic football, says Jim Gavin

Dublin manager and Tyrone opposite number Mickey Harte share similar views despite differing styles

Perspective is everything. So, Dublin and Tyrone play out a National Football league draw under Croke Park lights in early March.

Yet it’s relevance runs deeper than that.

A captivating tactical battle between modern heavyweights, this was also a spectacle best forgotten by the 27,469 pair of eyes, most of whom are young boys.

But of course they won’t forget; they will replicate the patterns.


A neutral sees a sport stagnated by an array of soft fouling, too subtle and too crafty to draw a referee’s ire. David Gough’s only yellow cards were for heavy challenges by growing Dublin recruits Tomás Brady and Emmett Ó Conghaile.

Afterwards Mickey Harte, Tyrone's wise old sage cemented as manager with 12 years of regenerative success, and Jim Gavin, the Dublin manager who staunchly stands over a fast paced flowing philosophy, adopted interestingly similar views of what was offered as an advertisement for a game in serious competition with professional sports on this island.

“There is no right or wrong way to play,” said Gavin with his usual magnanimity. “It’s fascinating to be involved in the middle of it.

It’s a great challenge for coaches to set up their defensive systems and set up a system to counteract that.

“We saw in the All-Ireland final how that went. I don’t know if that’s the template for the future...”

Think it’s fascinating for the public Jim?

“I wouldn’t think so, no.”

Without mentioning rugby by name, Gavin seemed to reference Ireland under Joe Schmidt, pointedly the manner in which they counteract opponent's driving maul by cleverly refusing to embrace it, via a chink in the rule book, thereby negating its effectiveness.

“The managers are playing within the rules. We see it in other sports at the elite level where it can be very strategic and tactical and it’s about holding onto possession and not conceding territory.

“Gaelic football has evolved that way. It might come back the other way but managers and player are playing within the rules,” he reiterated.

“Whether it is pretty on the eye, the All-Ireland champions don’t really mind. The counties who win the All-Ireland’s, who win the cups are just happy with victory.”

Ever tempted to join them?

“No,” Gavin replied.

Harte, the ultimate football pragmatist, also leaned into other sports while defending his team’s ultra defensive yet rapid counter-attacking ways.

“The game is about how well you can defend and how well you can attack,” said Harte. “It’s a very fluid game at the minute.

“I like to see difference in the game. I like to see quality defending. People don’t give defenders credit for defending with discipline. That’s good to see as well.

“Many other teams get all their players behind the ball, in fact in Premiership soccer - I know teams have 11 a side - but sure how often do teams have everybody behind the ball there, make a break and get scores.

“I don’t see why it should be any different in Gaelic games. If you need to defend as a team and as a unit then you need to attack that way as well.

“I think that’s entertaining when people break from the back at pace, with control, and get good scores.”

Tyrone did this with five of their twelve points. The others scores were from frees. Dublin posted 1-5 of their 1-9 from play with Dean Rock’s dead eye gathering the rest.

Harte was also asked whether he worried for the neutral who sought entertainment from Gaelic football. The answer coated in his perspective, his proven brand of winning at all cost.

“Whoever said goals were what makes the game? Whoever said that people only come to see goals? Goals are just one aspect of the game. Sure it’s nice when we see them from time to time.”

The contest drew two guttural roars from the paying gallery; Rock’s fisted goal in the 69th minute followed by the wave of end to end action that followed into injury time. Everyone calmed and departed as Niall Morgan’s late free flew wide.

“There are many other aspects of our game worth watching,” Harte continued. “I don’t think the people out there were very disappointed at all. I think they must have been very happy. Because there was a lot of energy, a lot of hard work, a lot of skilful play, a lot of good play under pressure.

“We have to look at the game in totality. Goals will come when they present themselves. Anybody who is going to Gaelic football to see goals only, maybe they should go to another game.”

Maybe, after Saturday night, they will.

“Supporters want to see good football, however that may be portrayed.

People see different qualities in what they’re looking at. I wouldn’t think that there is any one script, ‘This is how the game should be played.’

“The game will be played as it needs to be played. If people like that, they’ll come along; if they don’t they’ll vote with their feet and won’t be there.

“It’s the way it is at the moment, more than it used to be. It will change again. Nothing stands still.”

Those who weave football’s future have spoken.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent