Substance over style is what matters in Gaelic football

Dublin’s Philly McMahon isn’t the type of player who would have been considered Footballer of the Year material in the past, but the Ballymun man’s talents are perfectly suited to the modern game
Picture: Philip Walsh 
Against the Breeze with Paddy Heaney

ANYONE who has played Gaelic football for any length of time will be able to testify from bitter experience that there are a colossal amount of managers whose knowledge of the game is sketchy.

Like all other forms of management, be it business, politics or sport, ignorance isn’t always a drawback. With a sufficient quota of raw ‘thickness,’ significant progress can be made with only limited knowledge.

For a long period during the ’80s and ’90s, football management was dominated by the ‘110 per cent brigade’. These were the managers who loved the clichés but tended to shy away from the finer details. Managers of this ilk would tell defenders to “get up his backside”. In any other setting, this command might produce a few furrowed brows. Maybe even the odd smirk. But not in a GAA changing room.

For decades, that was the sum total of the coaching advice given to all corner-backs. Half-back and half-forwards were informed that they had to “die” for the breaking ball. Full-forwards always had to be “out in front”.

Guidance on how precisely a forward should out-manoeuvre a defender who had presumably been ordered to enter his lower orifice was rarely forthcoming.

The truth is, for a long time, Gaelic football was a tactical abyss. At a conservative estimate, ‘the third midfielder’ was the only innovation that was used for about 20 years. All other tactics were banned. Although thoroughly underwhelmed by a lot of what I heard in changing rooms over the years, I had the privilege of playing under one manager who was a notable exception.

As a fresher at Jordanstown, I came under the tutelage of Seán Smyth. A former Down manager, Seán was one of the first managers I encountered who actually used tactics. Better again, some of his ideas actually worked.

One game in particular proved to be a watershed moment. Reduced to 14 men in the first half, Seán took command at half-time. Standing on the back pitch at Jordanstown, we were treated to a strategic masterclass. When we didn’t have the ball, our half-forwards had to drop back into the defence. Everyone had to flood the central channel.

The crux of Seán’s advice was that we shouldn’t be drawn to the wings. “If they want to take pot shots from out there, let them work away,” he said. Although impressed by Seán’s conviction, I remained sceptical.

But in the second half, I experienced the rare sensation of helping to execute a gameplan that worked to perfection. Looking back, I can see that Seán’s gameplan for the second half was essentially the blanket defence.

Use forwards as defenders. Occupy the scoring zone. Don’t concede goals. It was as effective in 1992 as it is now. After we won that game, I hung on every word Seán said. Seán’s attitude to one player changed the way I looked at footballers. The individual in question was monstrously talented. His showpiece trick was to solo-run half the length of the pitch, beat three or four men then kick a point. I was routinely awestruck.

Seán was less enraptured. Although he was a gentleman to his bones, and never said a harsh word to anyone, Seán identified a key flaw in our star player’s game. After scoring one of his miracle points, our star player could often drift out of a game for 15 to 20 minutes.

Seán simply wasn’t prepared to overlook these long periods of inaction. He would tell the wunderkind: “You run 60 metres and score an amazing point, but your point has the same value as a 13-metre free kick. And if you don’t touch the ball for 20 minutes, a player who wins two scoreable free-kicks is better than you.”

Sound familiar? Yip. It’s the GAA’s version of ‘Moneyball’. In 2002 and 2003, the Oakland A’s surpassed all expectations when they reached the Major League Baseball play-offs. By re-evaluating the statistics traditionally believed to hold the greatest significance to victories, Oakland were able to compete with teams that had much larger budgets.

In the same way as ‘Moneyball’ and the theory of sabermetrics has forced Americans to re-evaluate their national game, a similar phenomenon could soon unfold in Gaelic football.

Consider this year’s All-Ireland football final. The starting teams featured the stellar talents of Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly, James O’Donoghue and Colm Cooper. Yet, the most influential 
footballer on the field was Philip McMahon, a tough-as-nails defender who kept Colm Cooper on the back foot throughout the game. In the semi-final, McMahon marked Aidan O’Shea. While he enjoyed the assistance of a few team-mates, McMahon still deserves credit for breaking forward to score a crucial goal.

A couple of seasons ago, McMahon couldn’t get his place in Dublin’s starting team. This year, he’s been nominated for the Footballer of the Year. Although he was guilty of some unsavoury conduct in the semi-final and final, there are other reasons there will be resistance to McMahon scooping the coveted award.

The two other nominees have the qualities which are considered to more befitting of the Footballer of the Year. Bernard Brogan is as polished off the field as he is on it. A brilliant footballer, Brogan is the quintessential poster boy. Before the All-Ireland semi-final, Jack McCaffrey wasn’t even in the betting for the Footballer of the Year. But after four votes on The Sunday Game, McCaffrey suddenly became the name on everyone’s lips. A clean footballer, who plays fast and fair, McCaffrey would also be regarded as FOTY material.

In that regard, Philip McMahon poses an intriguing question. If the FOTY award recognises the player who had the greatest impact on deciding the destination of the Sam Maguire Cup, then it must go to the Ballymun man. McMahon doesn’t have McCaffrey’s pace, nor Brogan’s panache, but in the world of the 14-man defence, that doesn’t matter. McMahon gets the job done.

Nowadays, it’s not how you do it. It’s about what you do, and how often you do it.


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