Jim McGuinness: Gaelic football is now just a shooting contest

Elemental rawness created by fierce defensive play now marked absent

Tyrone’s Kieran McGeary in action against  Ryan McHugh of Donegal during the Ulster SFC semi-final at Brewster Park in  Enniskillen. Photograph:  Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Tyrone’s Kieran McGeary in action against Ryan McHugh of Donegal during the Ulster SFC semi-final at Brewster Park in Enniskillen. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

 

The heart has gone out of Gaelic football. Much as last weekend’s games in Ulster were lauded, I feel that there is a real danger that what makes the game special and unique is about to be lost. There is a conspicuous lack of physicality. A pronounced absence of aggression. A dearth of turnovers. The game has become sanitised – and, in my opinion, soft.

We had a game ourselves on Sunday so I never got to see the Donegal-Tyrone match live. I knew the result when I turned on the recording. The game started and Tyrone won the throw-in. Thirty-three seconds later Kieran McGeary kicked a point. In the build-up there wasn’t a hand laid on a Tyrone player. And Donegal had 13 men inside their 65.

Seconds later, Shaun Patton took a short kick out for Donegal and Michael Langan sauntered up the field. Péadar Mogan offloaded to Hugh McFadden inside his defensive 65 and he soloed straight through the heart of the Tyrone defence and flicked the ball to Jamie Brennan, who scored with his defender two or three yards off him. That first minute looked to me like a snapshot of where Gaelic football is at right now.

Years ago, when myself and my brother Mark were living in Brooklyn we got tickets to see the Knicks play the Charlotte Hornets. I still remember the excitement of riding that downtown train to Penn Station with our tickets in our pockets. We wanted to get there early for a couple of reasons. I wanted to see Patrick Ewing warm up.

But also, getting in early was what we were schooled on from going to Ulster championship games. The first minute after the ball was thrown in during games in the 1990s could sometimes be the high point of the day. That was when the action started. It was like a release of pent-up energy. It was full blooded and chaotic. That is what brought the crowd in early – and still does.

Well, we took our seats in Madison Square Garden. Charlotte had Mugsy Bogues playing and he was 5’ 3”. I think he hit 11 points in the first minute or so. But: many of the fans had yet to take their seats. We couldn’t figure this. Knicks fans were out buying beers and chips and were in no real hurry into the arena. A guy sat down halfway through the first quarter. The seats were still filling up. I couldn’t help asking my neighbour: how come nobody gets in on time? His answer always stuck with me. “Because the game hasn’t started yet”.

I am worried that that is becoming true in Gaelic football. We had a brilliant game between Armagh and Monaghan in the sense that it was high scoring and very close. But it was not a game that Kieran McGeeney or his defensive coach will find brilliant. It is just so far removed from that electrifying chaos which Kieran himself played in.

Mayo’s Ryan O’Donoghue scores a goal during the Connacht SFC semi-final against Leitrim at Elvery’s MacHale Park in Castlebar. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Mayo’s Ryan O’Donoghue scores a goal during the Connacht SFC semi-final against Leitrim at Elvery’s MacHale Park in Castlebar. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

To me, there are not many avenues left for the underdog to exploit in terms of competing. The game is refereed in a way that is soft and sanitised. Coaching tactics favour showing down the side and shadow defences. The games in Ulster last weekend were crowd pleasing because they paired teams of comparative ability. There was some good quality score-taking and the results were up for grabs into injury time. But the game becomes reduced to a procession of scores, following the pattern of a game of basketball between evenly matched teams: up and down scoring until you reach endgame. Now, you can say that that is fine and wonderful. I would argue that something is missing.

Donegal conceded 23 points to our biggest rival over the past 10 years. That doesn’t sit well. That is hard for many people to get their heads around. I do believe that the technical ability of players has improved dramatically. But I don’t agree that this is the reason for the hike in scores. The shots to score ratio bears this out. Armagh scored 0-14 from 16 shots against Monaghan in the first half. That tells you a lot. It tells you there is a lot missing in the defensive department.

The reality is that few defences put any real pressure on their opponents anymore. It is as if there has been a pact to trade scores. Is this what we want? The Dutch soccer league is the highest scoring league in the world with 3.18 goals per game. But there is no real international interest in it.

You need to work out: what am I looking at? Many of those strikers who excel in the Dutch league don’t go anywhere. They couldn’t retain those numbers in the Premier League where they meet cohesive, aggressive defences where teams have to do it both ways.

So we need to be careful what we wish for. When I managed Donegal we always tried to eliminate the ‘hope-you-miss’ attitude. As far as I can see that has become the governing attitude among all teams. You will run beside the attacker and shepherd him and stand off two or three metres and you won’t make full-blooded contact.

You will put your hands up and make a bit of a noise as he shoots. He will score maybe four out of six times. So you are hoping he will miss. If not, you know your shooters will get their chance at the other end. That all-out parched, desperate defensive honesty has somehow been extracted from the game.

I watched the comedian Michael McIntyre perform a sketch years ago one Friday night. He told a yarn about going out to a fancy restaurant. It was about the wine and the waiter and the rigmarole around the tasting. He used this phrase: That is when the bullshit production starts. Nobody knew anything about the quality or the vintage of the wine. So they go through this charade. He looks at the wine, he smells the wine and he carefully tastes it. And then this moment of suspense – which isn’t – when he pauses for a second and says: ‘Yes. Yes. I will take it’.

And I get the feeling now, looking at the defensive aspect of the game: that a lot of it is a bullshit production.

You are trying to tell me that Donegal couldn’t have reduced that 0-23 to 0-16? Or that Tyrone couldn’t have kept Donegal to a lower score. You are telling me 2-25 is a true reflection of the scoring potential of the best teams? I don’t believe that. I think it’s because they are meeting little more than token resistance. Sometimes it looks like practice shooting.

We’ve always prided ourselves in the purity and honesty of Gaelic football. People were happy to wax lyrical about the big hits and physicality. That has been coached out.

The upside is you don’t have to do the hard yards. You don’t have to do the hard coaching. It takes ferocious and relentless work to keep an opposition score to 0-17, say. It takes months on the training field. So it seems to me that teams have made this tacit agreement. The midfield battle is gone. The defence is gone. Gaelic football is now just a shooting contest.

For any supporter in any sport, if you feel that your team is giving everything to the cause, that is all they ask. I am not suggesting players aren’t putting it in. And I am not suggesting that the coaching is not of a high standard. The game is more defensive now than ever in terms of numbers behind the ball. But nobody is defending! It is important to point out that tight, aggressive, confrontational defending is a core trait of the game, not a dirty word. And I can’t see it anymore.

To my mind and my eye most of the effort is concentrated in one direction. The problem with shoot-outs is that they become absolutely boring when it is not a close game or when there is a difference in technical ability. It becomes a lights out scenario, a la Mayo-Leitrim. There were some gorgeous scores in that game. But: who cares?

So for all the praise about the high scoring we need to take pause. Are people walking out transported by an unbelievable collision of cultures and counties? I don’t think so. The elemental rawness created by fierce defensive play based on heart and passion and skill is absent from the theatre. The energy that creates is also absent.

Championship football should be a battle of inches for 70-plus minutes. I don’t know what Gaelic football is right now. But it is not that.

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