Steven McDonnell: Why don't more teams take the direct approach earlier in the game?

Shane O'Neill's won the Armagh intermediate final thanks to a last-ditch long ball played into the square but why do teams wait until they are chasing a game to employ this tactic?
Steven McDonnell

HOW many times in a Gaelic football match have we seen a high ball launched in around the goals and with the slightest of touches, the ball finds its way to the net? Once again, on Sunday past, we witnessed this in the Armagh Intermediate final when Shane O’Neill’s, losing by two points at this stage, launched the long, direct ball into the area and a goal was scored.

My ex-Armagh team-mate, Paul McGrane always had a great saying - “get it into the mixer” - and how true is this saying.

Paul put it into the mixer nine times out of 10 and the likes of Ronan Clarke and myself built our careers around hanging in and around the square waiting for these types of deliveries. By playing so often with each other, we formed a telepathic understanding of each other’s game, but we relied on the ball being delivered to an area where we could actually hurt our opponents. I’ve lost count of the number of goals we would have scored by simply getting the ball into the mixer.

Throughout this intermediate final, St Paul’s had been the better team and while Shane O’Neill’s got the ideal start with a goal after 18 seconds, St Paul’s played the better football. However, a two-point lead is always a dangerous lead to have in football and you always leave yourself open to that sucker punch opportunity, which did happen in the end.

It is absolute heartbreaking for the likes of St Paul’s to be on the receiving end of this but credit must also be given to Shane O’Neill’s for staying close enough to be able to see the game out like this.

I don’t ever make any secret about how I like football to be played. Long, direct kick-passing and getting the ball as often as possible into the score zone so you are giving yourself the best possible chance to go and win the game.

My question here is, why does it take a team 61 or 62 minutes to launch that high ball into the square when their backs are against the wall to try and score a goal? The outcome sometimes can be a positive one but without being a stats expert, if you have players on the inside line prepared to fight for a ball, then I would image if 15 long, direct balls are delivered like that during the course of a game, then opportunity should present itself at least 10 of these times. It may be a ball that is broken away by the full-back but collected by the corner-forward and kicked over the bar. No matter how many blanket defence’s are put in place, if a ball is moved fast enough up the field and delivered with a kick pass, not even the fastest players out there can move faster than a kicked football.

Crossmaglen are applauded time after time for their style of play and there is no doubt that they do it better than most. There is no head down and taking a solo unless it is totally required. It is playing with your head up and identifying the furthest point that a ball can be delivered to with one of their players being available. On top of this, most of their players are comfortable kicking a ball 50 yards because I’m sure, this is what they do night after night in training. It’s a simple philosophy but when executed correctly, is a joy to watch.

I’m often asked would I like to still be playing the game nowadays given at how negative and defensive the game has gone and my answer to that is of course I would. I was double-marked plenty of times as were Ronan Clarke, Diarmaid Marsden and Oisin McConville but we never ever lost sight of the fact that we where forwards in the team and while we had to work hard, we had to be in an area of the field to receive passes from our half-back line and midfield players. If we weren’t there, questions would be asked. If I was playing the game today, I would demand the ball be kicked long and early to give us that opportunity to score for our team. I wouldn’t always have to be floating around the edge of the square as I would like to think that some creative movement would get me to an area of the forward line to be able to score but based on my experience of playing on the inside line, you have a better chance of scoring from a 50/50 long direct ball coming in than no ball at all. That’s why more long direct ball should be delivered during the game and not only in the dying seconds.