The day of the luxury player is long gone – the key now is work-rate above all else

There was a time when a Seán Cavanagh or a Maurice Fitzgerald could coast through the game but not any more

Barcelona’s midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta put  pressure on  Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema. The speed with which they seek to regain possession is a key part of Barcelona’s game. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Barcelona’s midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta put pressure on Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema. The speed with which they seek to regain possession is a key part of Barcelona’s game. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images


People talk all the time about the game being different now from what it was all the way back in the day. But when they do, I think they miss the point. The change from all the way back in the day took place a good while ago and the truth is that it hasn’t stopped changing in all the time since. In actual fact, the game is really different now to what it was just five years ago.

In all the uproar about Seán Cavanagh’s tackle on Conor McManus, very few people have asked the question – what was he doing being the last man back in the Tyrone defence?

How come it was him and his brother and midfield partner Colm who were the closest to the Tyrone goal at that particular point? Five years ago, you would not have seen Seán Cavanagh in that position.

I played on Seán in the 2005 All-Ireland final and it was obvious to me that he had a dispensation from the rest of the Tyrone team. His job was to find space and it was the job of the players around him to get the ball to him so he could exploit that space.

He had Brian Dooher to do his tracking back for him and his role in that team was to drift into a place where he could do damage going forward. His workload was facing in one direction.

If you had to pick out one thing that is completely different now to what it was five years ago, the fact that Seán was the one making the last-ditch tackle against Monaghan sums it up for me.

Work-rate is everything now – right across the field. And the day when you could allow your most talented player to float through games and add the finishing touches are gone.

The best footballers are still the most skilful footballers. But it’s what we ask of them that has changed. Even when I was playing there was still a total acceptance that there were certain guys in the team that the rest of us did the work for.

It would have been silly for us to make Maurice Fitzgerald burst himself to chase back 70 metres in the hope of getting a tackle in. That was what the likes of me were in the team for.

We knew that and we didn’t give it a second thought. No team would. If you have any bit of unity in your squad, you wouldn’t resent a special case being made for a Maurice Fitz or a Seán Cavanagh or a Bernard Brogan. Certain guys can do certain things that the rest of us can’t. So they got a bit of leeway and more often than not they paid it back in spades.

But that whole idea was based on the rest of us getting them the ball. Whereas nowadays, those players are expected to do just as much work in regaining possession when it’s lost as everybody else.

That’s one reason you see the best teams sharing the scores around so widely now – if the guy who would have been your marquee forward five years ago is after chasing back to make a turnover, then the wing-forward or wing-back who picks it up better be an accurate shooter when it comes to making it count.

Best player
The emphasis of the game has changed. So many scores comes from turnovers and tackles now that the idea of what makes the best player in any team has shifted.

Five years ago, it was easy enough to pick the out the sort of player who would be first choice in a GAA transfer market. It was Colm Cooper, it was Stephen O’Neill, it was Steven McDonnell.

Now, you’d probably put someone like Paul Flynn top of that list. He can kick scores off either side but that’s not his greatest worth to the team. His greatest worth is his ability to get possession, be it running as a target for Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs or be it putting in tackles around the middle of the field and creating turnovers.

Massive fitness
For the game that’s played today, Flynn is your ideal footballer. You’re just as likely to see him put in a great tackle on his own 21-metre line as you are to see him stick the ball over the bar from distance. He has massive fitness, great decision-making on the ball, can chip in with scores when he needs to. Totally dependable in everything he does. That’s what the game demands now.

Mayo have been the team of the year so far because their game is about work-rate and turnovers and doing the right thing – the ruthless thing – when they get on the ball. Look at the goals they have scored against Galway and against Donegal. It was the inside forwards who were pouncing on defenders, hurrying them into mistakes, stripping them of the ball.

Back in 2011, I went to the Champions League final between Barcelona and Man United. I was fascinated with the way that so much of Barcelona’s game is based on work-rate. They control the tempo of any game by the level of their work-rate.

When they don’t have the ball, they’re constantly talking to each other and pushing each other to press up and get a tackle in. And then once they have it, they do damage like nobody else.

Barcelona have this drill whereby every time one of them loses possession, they have six seconds to get it back. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Messi, Xavi or Iniesta or whoever – the first job that matters is to get the ball back. Six seconds and if you’ve haven’t won it back, you start a new drill with someone else.

The problem
It’s like when you hear of doctors saying that the first 24 hours after a heart-attack are the most crucial. You do all you can to fix the problem before it becomes a problem.

In our game, teams have identified turnover ball as the key. It’s the time when the other team has gambled – they’ve committed men forward and now is the time to punish them. So if you’ve lost the ball, you’re desperate to get it back.

That’s why the work-rate of the best forwards has to be so high these days. People talk about Bernard Brogan having a poor season but I don’t agree at all. There was a time when Bernard could have waltzed through games and saved all his energies for scoring goals and points but not anymore.

Watch him against Kerry and keep an eye on the work he is putting in. He got on the ball a huge amount against Cork and had Eoin Cadogan substituted by half-time.

His shooting let him down but it won’t always. He could have had 1-2 scored inside the first 25 minutes but he dropped two into the keeper’s hands and hit the butt of the post.

The point is that he did a lot more besides shoot at the goal and that’s because there’s no option available now for someone like him to be a special case. He’s just like everybody else, he has to make his tackles and fight tooth and nail for every ball.

That’s non-negotiable now. And believe it or not, it’s what separates some of the top forwards from their equivalents in other counties.

The reason Cavan weren’t able to find any sort of foothold against Kerry was that they just don’t have the personnel. They have a couple of decent forwards but they look to me like they think their job is just to score. Kerry’s backs were far too comfortable coming out with the ball in that first half.

One thing
Or if you take somebody like Jamie Clarke, that level of work-rate is the one thing that’s missing in his game. He is clearly a brilliant footballer, capable of shining in a game where he’s double-marked all the way through. If you badly needed a goal in a game, he’d be in the top two or three players in the country you’d go looking for.

But when do you see him really busting a gut to go and break up an opposition attack? You don’t see him tackle too much, you hardly even see him commit a foul. To be a complete forward, that unfortunately has to be part of your game now.

It’s not long at all since a Jamie Clarke kind of player only had to look good, like a shiny new car rolling out of a dealership. If he was prepared to put in the work and make his tackles count, well and good. But that wasn’t what you had him for. That came on top.

Nowadays, all the added extras have to come as standard. The best players still have all the skills but they can’t rely on those alone. If they do, they’ll be letting their team down. And the way the game has changed, that won’t be tolerated.