The Championship

Skills not systems can deliver Championship success

It was until Jim McGuinness utilised the natural talent available to him that he transformed Donegal into All-Ireland champions  

AS a keen sports fan, I enjoy reading up on the happenings in other codes, particularly about the perceived reasons behind a team’s success or demise. 

Why it happened, how it happened, how it could have been avoided. I always try to find a relevance in what is being said in terms of how the arguments could be translated into my own sport.

Following Iceland’s heroic victory over England in the European Championships, Jamie Carragher gave an extremely honest appraisal of English players’ mindsets and how their humiliating exit came about.

Throughout his column in a daily newspaper last week, you could get a clear sense of the frustration he feels when it comes to the modern-day English professional player. He calls them “the Academy Generation” because they have come through in an era when footballers have had more coaching than ever before.

However, Carragher pointed out that young stars get things too easy. They have been pampered from a young age, they get ferried to football schools, they work on immaculate pitches, play in pristine training gear every day, and everything is done to ensure all they have to do is focus on football. Because of this, the former Liverpool man believes players have become “too soft”, both physically and mentally. 

He feels there is a weakness running through England squads which is getting worse with each passing year, and was enraged by the way the team disintegrated as the stakes got higher.

Regardless of all the coaching these players have received from the moment they first walked through the academy doors, they have consistently failed to reach the same level of performance on the national stage as their Spanish, Italian, German and now Welsh and Icelandic counterparts.

Carragher believes the academies have shielded these players from the real world to the extent that they can no longer think for themselves and have lost track of the traditions the game was built on.

Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher believes England's latest crop of international footballers have had it too easy  

It’s not that other nations are technically better, they are much more streetwise, cuter, know how to win and, crucially, they don’t panic when the pressure is intensifying.

Likewise, Gaelic footballers, have never been better prepared. Every session will be outlined a month in advance, they’ll have strength and condition coaches, fitness coaches, nutritionists, performance coaches, access to physios, doctors and leisure facilities - everything they could possibly need to maximise their potential.

I fully enjoyed and embraced all of those aspects during my time as an inter-county footballer. There are comparisons to be made between Carragher’s take on the modern-day soccer star and the current Gaelic footballer, although obviously they don’t enjoy the same amount of perks or the money being thrown at them.

My point is that, despite what some people would have you believe, the vast majority of time spent with GAA teams these days is on the pitch and not in the weights room. But is this time being spent wisely?

In my opinion, in the vast majority of cases, no. Have we lost track of the core principles of our game and the ability to coach our players about how to execute the basic skills when under pressure? In my opinion, in the vast majority of cases, yes.

Too many players are happy to take the conservative approach. They’ll pass the buck to the nearest man without lifting their head to see if there is a better option. Why is this? Because it’s the way players are being coached.

It is all a stark contrast to the methods of the legendary Brian Cody who, as former Kilkenny hurler Michael Rice explained this week, picks certain players because they are able to make the right decisions on the pitch.

“A player shouldn’t have to look over to the bench asking ‘what do I do now?’” said Rice.

“If they did, they’d be out on the line beside Cody.”

I would urge anyone to type ‘Meath goal against Dublin in 1991’ into YouTube. What stands out most is not Kevin Foley’s finish to draw the sides level in the final minutes of the fourth contest of an epic rivalry, or the slick Meath link play that weaved through the Dublin defence.


You need to go way back to when Mick Lyons gets the ball at right corner-back and absorbs a thunderous hit from Vinny Murphy. Being under such pressure with the stakes so high you could have forgiven Lyons for simply offloading possession to his nearest team-mate. Instead, he steadied himself before giving a confident punt pass 40 metres out the field to not only clear the danger but also set up the gripping finale. 

Under such circumstances these days, would many full-backs have the confidence to take on the pass, or would they take the safe option and fist the ball to their nearest team-mate? I’ll let you decide.

Only the top five or six teams in the country seem to have the right formula. Donegal started a trend a number of years ago and, Tyrone apart, nobody has been able to replicate it even though the majority of teams at club and county level now set up in similar fashion.

The longer smaller counties and clubs try to close the gap to the leading lights by focusing on systems over skillsets, the further they will be cut adrift because the execution of basic skills, decision-making and playing the game with pace and intensity are being forgotten by all but a tiny minority.

Managers across the country watched on as Jim McGuinness set out his stall to transform Donegal from annual flops into All-Ireland champions. And while he got a superb defensive structure in place in 2011, it wasn’t until he utilised the natural talent available to him to add a more attacking dimension to their game in 2012 that they claimed their second All-Ireland title.

I recently had a fascinating conversation with a great GAA man, much wiser than me, who said: “These GAA systems are like a computer.

“They are brilliant when they work, but when something goes wrong, we go into meltdown because we have become over-reliant on them and have forgotten how to do the basics of what our careers were built on.”

The fitness, conditioning and analysis of modern-day football doesn’t scare me. The lack of traditional coaching does. There’s only one group of people who can sort that out and they aren’t at Croke Park’s top table.

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