Donal Cashin talks about the evolution of Gaelic Football, and how its tactical modernisation is a good thing for the future of our national game.
-Marc O’Shea: All Stars x3
-Kieran Donaghy: All Stars x3, Footballer of the Year, former captain
-Darren O’Sullivan: All Stars x1, former captain
-Alan Brogan: All Stars 3, former captain
-Bryan Sheehan: All Stars x1, former captain
-Paul Galvin: All Stars x3, Footballer of the Year, former captain
-Michael Dara McAuley: All Stars x2, Footballer of the Year
-Paul Murphy: All Stars x1, Man of the Match in 2014 All Ireland Final
The common denominator between this illustrious group of talented footballers?
They were all named on the subs bench for this year’s All Ireland Football Final between Kerry and eventual victors, Dublin.
While these players have won it all, earning endless accolades, the present holds different challenges for the modern day GAA player.
Gone are the days where teams name their strongest XV for every match. The corner forward gets taken off with 10 mins to go and maybe another sub is introduced for an injured player. Slowly but surely our national games are evolving; all down to young, forward thinking, modern managers who have taken nuggets from other (professional) sports and applied them with ruthless effect in GAA.
We have seen elements of the drift defence made famous in rugby union/league applied firstly by Jim McGuinness and now by every coach in the country and rechristened as the blanket defence. The concept of zonal defence and marking space instead of the traditional man-to-man marker was key to McGuinness and his successful All Ireland-winning Donegal team.
James Horan, during his successful tenure as Mayo manager, looked at the tackle area where discipline, slowing up the ball carrier, and the positioning of the body in the tackle are all traits of American football of which he is a keen follower.
Since the new year Jim Gavin’s Dublin have been training with top basketball coach Mark Ingle to focus on movement, zonal marking, deft hand passing and footwork drills. Releasing the ball in the tackle is a key component in basketball and very much a vital weapon of Dublin’s effective running game.
Kerry’s Eamonn Fitzmaurice has been criticised unfairly by his own supporters for the defensive style of play which he implemented when beating Donegal in last year’s All Ireland final. Fitzmaurice is a student of the game and having watched Donegal and in particular McGuinness’ masterplan, outwitting the traditional Kerry style in the 2012 All Ireland semi final, he realised Kerry had to fight fire with fire.
This, coupled with Tyrone’s manslaughter of the Kerry team in 2003, which Fitzmaurice played in, ensured that the Kerry manager knew the mindset and set up of his team had to change. Even for Kerry, tradition is in the past, the game has evolved. The days of catch and kick are no more; possession and structure are king.
However challenging it was for these managers to push their beliefs to the limit, the real challenge was to convince their panel of players that the game as they know it and played since they were juveniles has changed, and if they wanted to be part of the journey, they also had to change.
Of course it’s easier when your team is winning, and the formula for winning means that no player’s position on the team is safe. It is now a game of panels and impact subs, where each game is different and individual player roles might be surplus to requirements, depending on the opposition and how they set up.
This is how the top teams play; ruthless managers win at all costs.
With ambitious panels, these managers have ensured that training sessions are incredibly competitive, where it is instilled in the players that if you show a desire in training you will be picked, and if your levels drop, no matter who you are, no matter what you have won, you will be dropped.
Whether this can be replicated by the other counties is highly unlikely. The top tier have drifted away, the top managers have done their homework. The bar has been raised and it’s now incumbent on every other county, county board, manager and player to change their mindset.
The game is now professional in application. The new managers have rubber stamped a new era in the GAA.
Whatever way we see the game going, it is now time to reflect and rejoice in the application of our top teams. The top managers’ forensic analysis and preparation of their players, the top players’ conditioning and willingness to sacrifice everything for the team, even their starting positions is the new mindset.
Whatever happens in the future, we will all look back at this period of our games as a time where a special group of people changed the mentality of a nation, a modern mentality for a modern game in a professional era.
“Aim For The Sky, And You’ll Reach The Ceiling,
Aim For The Ceiling, And You’ll Stay On The Floor”
(Bill Shankly, legendary Liverpool manager)