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exclusive Watching Dublin is like watching Manchester City - they win but they are very boring

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Aidan O'Shea of Mayo in action against Brian Fenton of Dublin

Aidan O'Shea of Mayo in action against Brian Fenton of Dublin

Aidan O'Shea of Mayo in action against Brian Fenton of Dublin

During the pandemic sports of every kind have been my escape valve, my drug of choice.

Last week I reached peak nirvana – with the Masters, the rugby, the Champions League, the rowers and the brilliance of Rachael Blackmore all being beamed into my house.

But feck it. After three days of watching the horse racing from Aintree on ITV, I felt a great urge to throw my shoes through the telly. By then I was well fed up with all the sugar-coated feature pieces and the constant mantra being rammed at us that it was all about the love of the horse and their welfare. All that was missing from their coverage was Father Ted and Dougal singing ‘My Lovely Horse’.

It was a total and utter overreaction to the Gordon Elliott photograph of a few weeks ago. This wasn’t a proper sports programme. This was a cheerleading exercise and a total PR job for horse racing.

If that’s the level of confidence that the British racing authorities have in its product, then it is little wonder that the score was 23-5 at Cheltenham last month.

As a student of sport, however, I’m always interested in the intricacies, the tactics and the skills that I can learn from any sport – and how I can apply them to the sport I love above all, Gaelic football.

I’ve been watching Manchester City a lot of late.

Unbeatable

They are the best soccer team in England by a country mile.

And I’ve been impressed by their successful game plan, that is all about possession of the ball, passing it well, and using wing-backs and midfielders to offer extra protection in front of a defence. After a slow start to the season, they were nigh-on unbeatable until Leeds turned them over eight days ago.

I was interested to read their manager Pep Guardiola’s explanation of their success. Because every word he spoke chimed for me with another team I know.

“We run less, there’s no need to run a lot with the ball. Without the ball you have to run, but with it you have to walk or run much less. Stay in your position and let the ball run, not you.”

“We play in our rhythm,” Guardiola continued. “We play many passes and attack at the right moment.”

Yes, Manchester City are brilliant as individuals and as a team, but I find them boring.

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They are effective, but it is mechanical and just going through the process. We like our sport to come with flaws and mistakes and unpredictability, we like a game full of twists and turns – and that’s when sport makes the most compelling viewing.

My use of the word ‘process’ should have given it away to you. Watching Manchester City play soccer is the same as watching Dublin play Gaelic football.

The template for both teams is the same. The system is the key – and it is all about going through the process. It is about patience and composure, and ensuring that risk-taking is low.

For all that the Dubs are a great team, and no one can argue otherwise, is there a fear that the game, as played by Dublin, is becoming boring and less entertaining by the day?

Two recent comments made me think.

Firstly, Cork’s 1989 All-Ireland winning captain Dinny Allen said that he doesn’t watch Gaelic football any more, barring the occasional match between a couple of the top teams at the business end of the Championship.

His gripe was that football is now about playing percentages, keeping possession at all costs, being patient and waiting for the other team to make a mistake. I think he’s right.

The other comment came from Jim Gavin himself, the king of the ‘process’.

He worries that we are only one more rule change away from being Aussie Rules. And that’s true, too. Bring in the Aussie Rules ‘around the waist’ tackle, and it and Gaelic football would be identical.

We had the defensive mark from the kick-out, now we have the advanced mark – and it is suddenly a skill in our game that you can catch a ball at chest height, delivered from as little as 20 metres away.

My God, there’s no great skill involved in that.

Master

For all that, I cannot understand how teams don’t use the advanced mark.

It’s essentially a gimme of a score if you get right – and it is not at all a hard skill to master. Yet county teams are ignoring it, because it means risking a kick that does not touch the ground. And because you cannot hand the ball for the point to the team’s ace free-taker, a Dean Rock or a Sean O’Shea.

Whoever makes the advanced mark has to kick it over the crossbar himself. Something that has proven to be beyond so-called ‘top’ forwards.

From six rounds of last year’s Allianz League, the highest number of marks in any one match was seven, which was in the Monaghan v Dublin clash. More than half the counties in the league recorded three or fewer marks in their six games. They, essentially, ignored it as a tactic.

Sure, you could tell me yourselves which four players had the highest number of successful advanced marks in the league in 2020.

They were Conor McManus (Monaghan), David Clifford (Kerry), Michael Murphy (Donegal) and Ciaran Kilkenny (Dublin).

So my problem this morning is that millions of euro are being spent on training inter-county teams, and no stone is left unturned in the preparation for games. Yet the end product, in terms of entertainment and excitement, is underwhelming, to say the least.

As I’ve written all too often, top Gaelic football matches can be sterile, choreographed and generic, with teams sticking to their game plan, no matter what. Such as a team persisting with it’s blanket defence tactic while six points down? Give me strength!

I’ve noted already Gavin’s thoughts about our game’s closeness now to Aussie Rules. Well, it’s now also more and more aping American football, basketball and rugby – sports which use ‘playbooks’ that involve a rehearsed series of moves.

Killing

We know the Dubs have borrowed, in their forward play, from the work of basketball coaches – in the way they set up ‘screens’ to make sure that it is their best, and most accurate, shooters who take the shot for a point.

We’re all familiar too, particularly here in Kerry, with Dublin’s easy way of killing a game by keeping the ball for minutes at a time. Yes, Pep, plenty of passes and attack at the right moment. That’s the Dubs, too.

I saw lately a comparison of stats from the Kerry-Offaly All-Ireland final of 1981, a match I played in, and the final between Dublin and Mayo just four months ago.

The difference across the almost four decades is remarkable. Here we go. Possessions in the 1981 match, 171; in the 2020 match, 78. In other words, lads rooted the ball up and down the pitch in Kerry v Offaly; in Dublin v Mayo, the same football was jealously guarded.

As for turnovers; there were 123 in 1981, just 36 as Dublin’s six-in-a-row was completed.

How about the percentage of foot passing?

A juicy 64 per cent between Kerry and Offaly, just 23 per cent when the Dubs and Mayo got going. It goes on. Kick-out retention was just 58 per cent back in the day, it was 75 percent in 2020, five months ago.

And here’s an interesting one. The ratio of scores to possessions of the ball last year was an impressive .45. In other words either Dublin or Mayo scored almost every second time they had the ball in their control.

What was the figure for 1981? A miserly .13 between Offaly and Kerry.

To put that in English, those great heroes I played with, Mikey Sheehy and John Egan and the Bomber, feted as some of the greatest players ever, scored just once in every eight times we got the ball. Christ.

Bygone

And it wasn’t just us. The superb Matt Connor was down the other end of the pitch that day! And Offaly didn’t score a lot either. Look, I’m not one of those old-timers who thinks everything was great in bygone days.

For one thing, there were far more bad games back then than there are now.

But in the game now there is less kicking, fewer long-range shots for points, less high-fielding for fifty-fifty balls, and all too often for long spells teams with the ball are going sideways and even backwards.

Sometimes in Gaelic football, there is an inclination to rush into things and make rule changes. But making rule change does not always improve the game, we see that with the two marks that are now part of the action.

However, if the possession-based game stays dominant, we may need to look at limiting the number of handpasses. We might look at penalising any players who brings the ball back into their own half after they have brought the ball out of it.

We might have to encourage risk-taking, by giving five points for a goal, or two points for a score kicked from outside 40 metres.

I’ve been arguing this for a while, we need to have a big, structured, conversation in the GAA about what way we want the game of football to go.

Tomorrow, inter-county teams go back training, and I make a plea to all inter-county managers.

Less of the strength and conditioning stuff, the stats and video analysis, the GPS readings and the playbooks. Let’s take the handbrake off the players and the teams.

And let’s encourage them to play with more freedom and flair and belief in their own abilities.

Finally, let’s make this short season a memorable one for football in terms of entertainment, quality and excitement.

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