GAA Football

Kicking Out: Revived art of one-to-one defending essential

Lee Keegan credited Donie Buckley with turning him into a top-class one-to-one defender. The teams with the ability to rely on defenders to win individual battles are the teams that are once more becoming successful in Gaelic football. Picture: Philip Walsh

YOU think you know love? You haven’t heard Tony Scullion talk about blocking a football.

One afternoon a week throughout our primary school days, Scullion appeared through the doors with the whistle around his neck, a bag of footballs slung over his shoulder, and a contingency.

There was nothing worse than rain on the days Tony was due. But you sensed he loved it.

In his possession at all times was a single videotape.

When it was too wet to be outside, he’d gather everyone in the assembly hall and put the tape on.

It must have been half an hour long. If there was a shot of a single score being kicked in that half hour, I can’t remember it.

It just seemed like one block after the other.

Men throwing themselves full length on a forward’s boot.

And Tony would be standing up beside the TV, his eyes ablaze as if he was one of the snot-nosed eight-year-olds looking wondrously at him.

“What a block!” he’d exclaim in that unmistakable Ballinascreen brogue of his.

And when the sun came out the following week and you got back out to the grass, you could have spent 45 minutes just blocking and nothing else.

“Get your two hands right down on his boot. Right down!”

Scullion won four Allstars, including three in four years from 1992 until ’95.

Ulster football had some of its greatest ever attacking artists in operation at that time. Canavan, Linden, McCartan, Blaney, the wee man from Kilcar, et al.

If their job was to bring colour to the canvas, it was that of Scullion and his contemporaries to alter their work armed with just a HB pencil.

It’s like the joke Oisin McConville always tells about picking teams during a training session.

“Defenders over here, footballers over there,” he’ll say.

One-to-one defending is once more a Caravaggio in fashionable grayscale.

The teams that are winning football titles now all have the same thing in common – they have top class one-to-one defenders.

Tyrone won the All-Ireland this year almost solely on the back of the development of their full-back line.

When they reached the final three years ago, Colm Cavanagh sat as the sweeper because Mickey Harte felt he couldn’t leave the men behind him exposed in one-on-one situations.

That allowed Dublin to utilise the spare man from deep and kill them with runners.

When Kerry scored six goals in a league game against them early this summer, Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher took stock of what they were trying to do.

Instead of reverting to type, they doubled down on their efforts to become better one-on-one defenders.

“After that, it would have been very easy to revert to a defensive style of play, dropping behind the ball. But after that, the exposure we had to one-v-ones in training, was incredible,” said Footballer of the Year, Kieran McGeary last week.

“It goes right back to the two men who took us this year. What way was Fergal Logan and Brian Dooher football’s played back then? You’re a wing-forward, you’re a wing-back, that’s who you’re marking - go out and do your job.”

Dublin were always comfortable leaving Philly McMahon or Jonny Cooper or Michael Fitzsimons one-on-one when they had to.

Mayo didn’t have anywhere near the calibre of forwards as some of the teams they’ve faced in the last decade, but have always been blessed by the volume of brilliant defenders at their disposal.

A big part of that was manufactured by current Monaghan coach Donie Buckley, regarded as the market leader in coaching the tackle.

His principles weren’t rocket-science, but he insisted on them. He’d set up defensive channels, starting at six metres wide and working out to 10 metres by the time championship would come around.

Players were taught to be aggressive but have their technique right – no crossing your legs over when moving your feet; go with one foot forward and use the same arm; don’t tackle from behind, get your hips level with his first.

“Donie took me aside, worked on my footwork, certain box drills, trying to be more tenacious with tackling, tackling from behind, so Donie really helped me as a defender,” said Lee Keegan last year.

In his last spell with Kerry, Buckley appeared unwanted and sidelined by Peter Keane.

Whether it was a clash of ideas or egos, it’s no coincidence that Kerry’s Achilles heel is still their inability to defend in one-on-one situations.

While it might not have appeared so when you looked at them on Sunday afternoon, the volume of dedicated, relentless man-markers in Kilcoo’s ranks has been a staple diet of their success over the last decade.

That they had someone of the calibre of Ceilum Doherty they could move across from wing-forward to nullify Ciaran McFaul without altering the make-up of their defence says it all.

Having the Branagans and Ryan McEvoy and Dylan Ward to shut down Glen’s key attacking assets was the reason I felt Kilcoo would edge the Derry champions at the weekend.

Glen had deposed a Slaughtneil team that won three Ulster football titles in four years. That success was built on the two McKaigues and Brendan Rogers, as well as the likes of Paul McNeill and Francis McEldowney.

In Meehaul McGrath, they had a number 10 who could track from there. Slaughtneil had always been comfortable defending one-on-one if they had to.

The blanket will only carry you so far.

Not only is the art of one-to-one defending alive again, but it’s essential for success.

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