Evolve or Die
Stick the kettle on, make yourself a cuppa tae and we’ll sit down and have a wee chat about football.
My brief here is to look at the football year ahead at both club and county level and foolishly offer my thoughts as hostages to fortune.
But in the words of my especial hero Leonard Cohen, “How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday still inside of me?”
2020 is a year that we won’t forget. It be written about,taughtinschooland in years to come we will tell our grandchildren about how we all saw ourselves as some sort of Anne Frank with Netflix.
And high and behold, it was also the year when, with equal measures of surprise and amusement, we discovered through Facebook and Twitter, that every town in Ireland had at least two or three virologists living in it. The Scottish comedian Kevin Bridges was right, if social media was a pub you just wouldn’t drink there.
On the sporting front, 2020 will be remembered as the year when, on the 100th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, David Power and his cabinet led the Tipperary Footballers to an historic victory in the Munster Senior Football Final. The win ensured that the Tipperary football players are now pubhold names. They made us fall in love with football again and gave the county a much needed distraction during lockdown.
But as we look to the future and see Kerry waiting on the championship horizon, many experts and even more non-experts are predicting a short hot summer for our footballers especially on the back of our league results this year.
Gaelic Football has evolved and we need to evolve with it. This evolution in our game shouldn’t surprise us. Ever since Michael Cussack took the best elements from rugby and soccer and designed a new game which he cunningly called Gaelic Football, this wonderful product has being constantly evolving. Ireland’s first commentator, PD Mehigan described an early game of Gaelic Football as follows: “Masses of men drove into each other while the fleeter of foot watched from the outskirts”. This of course was rugby with a round ball before it evolved over the years into the game we know today.
In the early 70’s Kevin Heffernan stole a march on the opposition by making sure Dublin were fitter than any team they played. Mick O’Dwyer followed Heffo’s lead and added to it by deciding possession was king. The great Kerry teams of the late 70’s early 80’s were the first to use the hand pass as an attacking weapon.
Sean Boylan’s Meath team of the 90’s took the best bits of Heffo and Micko’s philosophies and mixed in a large dollop of physicality. The Northern teams of the naughties took all of these elements and added in the concept of “blanket defences”.
Thankfully the era of blanket defences is coming to an end and we are now seeing a return to attacking football. Scientists in the Victorian British Empire decreed that 18 was the magic number. They decided that 18 was the age when the human body became fully adult. The rest of the world followed their lead. You can vote at 18, you can legally drink alcohol at 18 and it is also the age where you are considered mature enough to be legally responsible for yourself. In the year of Our Lord 2021, 18 has now become the magic number in Gaelic Football. It is the numberofpointsyouneed to score if you want to win a game.
In this year’s Allianz National Football League, 86% of winning teams scored 18 points or more. In the 2019 Allianz National Football League only 34% of winning teams scored 18 points or more. So on that evidence it seems that Gaelic Football is finally emerging from the other side of boredom.
Tipperary only hit that number once during the group stages of this year’s league (our win over Wicklow). Albert Einstein told us the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. What worked for us in the winter football campaign of 2020 is not working for us in summer football campaign of 2021 so there can be no doubt that Tipperary’s game plan needs to evolve.
Pushing up is the new sitting back. Coaches and commentators often talk about the importance of turnovers and with good reason. Over 50% of scores will come from turnovers and in 82% of games the team that wins the turnover count will win the match. Armed with that information teams have finally copped on that the higher up the pitch you turnover the ball, the greater the chance you have of getting a score or at the very least a shot on goal. Dublin have been doing it for years and in last year’s championship Mayo’s corner forward, Cillian O’Connor turned over more ball than any other player in the championship. We experienced this first hand and to our cost in the All Ireland semi-final.
You don’t need to be a close relation of Old Moore to know that our game plan of dropping men back behind the ball and attacking from deep is now out-dated. Teams will no longer retreat and allow half backs to solo 40 yards up the field. Instead, they will push up on the ball carrier in an attempt to turn the ball over as high up the pitch as possible and herein lies Tipperary’s future problems if we don’t move with the times.
Our half forwards are probably the most honest line of players we have but you would nearly be afraid to call them half forwards for fear of being sued under the Trade Description Act. We are asking them to mark the opposition half backs rather than asking them to get the opposition half backs turned facing their own goal and making them mark us. I have no doubt that if we saw the GPS stats of our half forward line they would be top of the class but surely the main job of a forward is to score. Through no fault of their own we are not seeing a return from our half forward line on the scoreboard. In our four league games this year we got one point from this line. We are basically asking them to go against all their offensive instincts and become busy fools.
With an absentee half forward line, we make it easy for opposition teams to double up on our full forward line and this is the last thing we need if we are to hit the magic number of 18 points consistently. During this year’s league we became almost reliant on the “advanced mark” as a source of scores. (Incidentally, in my opinion the advanced mark has brought no benefit to the game. It’s akin to hitting a 5 iron in golf to 20ft and being given the putt)
Of course there will be times when the opposition are on top in a game and you have to drop back to overload the defence but in the 2021 version of Gaelic Football the mind-set has changed to pushing up first and overloading the forward line in an attempt to hem in the opposition defence and force errors.
We are of course lucky in that not only have we the players to play the “high press” system, we also have a management team knowledgeable enough to implement such a system.
During the league we had an unprecedented number of players in the repair shop and were therefore forced to play the group games with both hands tied behind our backs. We started the Limerick game minus eight players from the Munster Final winning side of last November. Very few counties could cope with the loss of that many players and especially the calibre of player we were missing.
It did however give us a chance to blood a few new players. Tadgh Fitzgerald and Jack Harney emerged as two young men who will have fine careers in the blue and gold. Conor Bowe looks like he was born ready and is ideally suited to playing the “full court press’ game while Philip Ryan’s relations may be Coole’s from Curreeny but it wouldn’t surprise you if you heard he was related to William Tell on his mother’s side.
For a young man who was barely old enough to vote in the last General Election, Sean O’Connor had a fine league campaign and proved that in his happy mood he can mix it with the best of them.
The league results were disappointing. You can’t gloss over that but if we move with the times and evolve our game plan, then, with the players we have at our disposal, another Munster Final win in the next couple of years is not beyond our capabilities. However, if we don’t evolve, then I fear the sale of paper hankies will receive a huge boost from disappointed Tipperary supporters.