When we watch football these days, we can do one of two things. We can complain and moan that the modern game is an eyesore or we can really sit down and dig deep into it. At one point in the first half of the Donegal v Down game on Sunday, there was a two-minute spell that reminded me of the Lions game the day before in Brisbane. Even the jerseys looked nearly the same.
But the worst thing to do here would be just throw our hands in the air and turn it off. There’s that old American saying – You gotta dance with the one that brung ya, or else you’ll go home alone.
This is the game we have now, like it or not. The least we can do is try to understand what’s going on in it.
This all happened between the 28th minute and the 31st on Sunday, leading up to a great point by Mark Poland to make the score Donegal 0-6 Down 0-4.
28:00 – Paul Durcan's kick-out is slapped down by Ryan Bradley. Kevin McKernan picks up the break for Down but his run forward is stopped by Anthony Thompson on the Donegal 45. Eamon McGee picks up the turnover and feeds Rory Kavanagh who moves into the Down half and crosses the 45. McGee takes the return pass off his shoulder and runs into three Down defenders on their own 20-metre line...
Football now is about turnovers. Because teams like Down and Donegal pack so many players into one small area of the pitch, forcing a turnover is the one time when you have a chance of catching the other crowd with their pants down. In the three minutes and 18 seconds between Durcan’s kick-out and Poland’s point, I counted eight turnovers in total.
People think it’s all about loading bodies back behind the ball. That’s part of it obviously. If you watch Donegal, the sheer weight of numbers is the main reason they don’t concede goals. The two McGees are serious defenders, tough and aggressive coming out to the ball and very hard to get past if you get to face them. But they get a lot of protection back there.
You hear fellas saying that the way to beat the blanket defence is good, early long ball. I’d say the likes of Donegal and Down are delighted when they hear that solution put forward. Belt away with the long balls, lads – Neil McGee will break it down for whichever Donegal jersey is there to pick it up.
No, you’ve got to make them commit men forward, turn them over and move the ball at pace. You’ve got to have quick hands and quick brains.
Cork did it for 20-25 minutes against Donegal last year and they barely kicked a single long ball into the forward line.
28:45 – After taking a pass from Eamon McGee, Ryan Bradley is set upon by Down wing-back Ryan Boyle. They scrap for the loose ball but by the time Bradley gets it into his hand again, Kalum King is on top of him as well. Bradley has lost 25 yards at this stage and is only delighted to play it back to Leo McLoone, who is coming at pace...
Blanket defences love a stationary player. That’s all they’re looking for. When you see a team that is passing the ball laterally, it’s because the defence is keeping a screen up in front of them. The only way through is to come onto the ball with some momentum.
If you are stationary or any bit ponderous, a team like Donegal or Down just want to get one hand on you. They want to stop you up, make you turn, make you foul the ball. Before you know it, you’re gobbled up by three players. And you will turn over the ball.
McLoone made a bit of yardage with the ball but he ran into three Down players. Who those Down players were is the key here. The first tackle on him was made by Donal O'Hare, the corner forward. Then wing-forward Ambrose Rodgers and Boyle piled in.
Thirty yards from the Down goal, McLoone lost the ball and gave away a free. Forwards need to tackle, they need to work. You’re going nowhere otherwise.
29:40 – Down take the free and almost immediately win another when David Walsh tackles Conor Laverty around the neck. There is a breather for 40 seconds as Walsh is booked but then Down make a mess of it and hand possession right back. The play switches to Rory Kavanagh out on the left wing on the Down 20-metre line but he's stripped of the ball in another gang-tackle. Down break forward but they concede a free of their own on the Donegal 45 when Declan Rooney fouls the ball...
Funny enough, the player standing over Rooney when he gave away the free was Michael Murphy. He chased all the way back and made the tackle along with Paddy McGrath. Again, forwards must work and they must tackle. In fairness, I thought Rooney was hard done by here. All the more so when Murphy starting slapping at his head as he held onto the ball.
I’d say any player, club or county, watching that would have had to laugh. Poor Declan Rooney ran all that way, didn’t get his free and then got slapped about the head four or five times by Michael Murphy while lying on the ground. You think you have it tough in life?
It just goes to show though how well-drilled these teams are. Every player is given his brief and if that means Michael Murphy covering across while Rory Kavanagh has been caught upfield, that’s what it means. You need thinking players, not just working players.
The days of the big speech and the pride and the passion are long gone. You are sending players out with specific briefs. You are making them all realise how the system is supposed to work and what their role is in certain game situations. Above all, you are conditioning them to react. I remember being mortified if I was ever blocked down in a game. I’d be so cross with myself for losing possession that I’d be distracted for a half-second and the ball would be away. With players these days, it’s factored in.
The game is going to be messy. You are going to be caught in possession and turned over. But the same goes for your opponent so don’t be throwing your hands on your head. Either get the ball back or get back into your position to set up the system. Players now are relentless. They get up and do their job instead of bemoaning what just went wrong. That takes serious mental capacity.
31:00 – Donegal give away a line ball at top of the left which Down quickly transfer across the pitch. Rooney plays a one-two with Rodgers before hitting a long pass out to Benny Coulter in the left half-forward position. Neil McGee, Kavanagh, McGrath and Bradley get sucked out to Coulter, leaving space through the middle for Poland to run into...
The score to cap it all off was so well taken by Poland. He picked the ball up on the 45 and headed for goal. He came at pace – no stationary player here – and he easily broke Bradley’s tackle. McGrath and Frank McGlynn came sprinting to cut off the space but they had spotted the danger too late and Poland skipped past them both with one sidestep. He cut to the right and split the posts from just outside the D to bring it back to two points.
That’s the thing people forget when they look at this style of football. All the tackles and turnovers and work-rate mean nothing if you don’t have the players to finish it off. In the end, for all the talk about defences, these games are won by getting your best players in a position to score points. Down were just caught too many times with the wrong players in the right parish. Look at how many shots they left short.
The game is about more than who has the best blanket defence. It’s about improving your forwards so that they become reliable each time they shoot. When you see Colm McFadden sticking over points like he did on Sunday without a second thought, you can see the amount of work that has gone into his score-taking. He was always a talented footballer but now you know the ball is going over the bar when he shoots. They had four wides in total on Sunday. And none in the first half when they were building a lead.
We all love traditional football and if I’d my way every game would be about high fielding and one-to-one battles and all that old fashioned stuff. But the game has changed and we can’t dismiss it. Not when there is so much thought and so much work gone into making it the way it is.