Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Making a case for the defence

Cavan's Alan Clarke powers through against Eoin Donnelly of Fermanagh
Cavan's Alan Clarke powers through against Eoin Donnelly of Fermanagh

When Ballinamallard United won promotion to the IFA Premiership in April 2012, their manager Whitey Anderson imagined what life would be like among the Cliftonville's, Glentoran's and Linfield's of this world.

What he had were unheralded talents, underestimated players operating in the relative obscurity of the Fermanagh village. They also had a number of Gaelic footballers who were happy to combine the two sports. Leon Carters plays for Coa O'Dwyers, James McKenna for Enniskillen Gaels and Chris Curran's performances for Swanlinbar has him rated as the best footballer in Cavan not on their current county panel.

Without a big budget, Anderson only brought in three players; goalkeeper Alvin Rouse would establish himself, Ryan Campbell became the top scorer but Conor O'Grady did not become ever-present choices. He prioritised their organisation. The centre-halves Leon Carters and captain Mark Stafford would get special attention.

In every training session he would set out 22 players on the pitch. Carters and Stafford would be accompanied by the reserve centre-halves Craig Hill and Gareth Liggett so that the deputies could see the nuts and bolts of their defensive system. Anderson would bring the ball to different areas of the pitch and then ask them where they should all be positioned. He preached a gospel of shape, shape, shape.

As he explained to his players, it was as if they were tethered to each other by a length of rope. That rope would keep their shape and define the space the opposition would play in.

It sounded a little like Tony Adam's recollections of the training ground work that George Graham would do with Arsenal. While the flair players such as Alan Smith and Paul Merson would head home finished for the day, the defenders stayed behind.

"That back four", said Adams, "Lee Dixon, myself, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn were all top of our game. That doesn't happen by luck, that's hard work, morning and afternoon and we hated George for it but we reaped the rewards."

In their first season among the big boys, Ballinamallard had the third-best defensive record, leaking five more goals than champions Cliftonville and two more than runners-up Crusaders.In any 'invasion' sport, the backline is the platform for success.

That's the reason why Graham's backline might have bored you to tears, but they were winners.

Gaelic football has evolved at a very gentle pace when you consider how much importance and influence a defensive system will exert on a game. It has only been just over a decade since the notion of a 'sweeper' was introduced to inter-county football, but now it is the most crucial position on the field.

This innovation has made Gaelic football a different game. Now, forwards are turned over in possession far more than before. With time and space simply not there any more, a forward may look up and see nobody showing on the inside. Holding onto the ball is not an option as defenders swoop in. This happened regularly to Fermanagh's Shane McCabe against Cavan, yet the pundits ever-loosening grip on reality puts it down to 'handling errors.'

We are in a period where a tactical advancement enables teams with limited resources to avoid a heavy defeat. Antrim restricted Monaghan to only eleven points by getting their backline right. The trick is to develop your attacking play when you face a blanket-style defence.

In employing a sweeper, communication is also vital. We listened with rapt attention to Belfast Telegraph columnist Ryan McMenamin doing himself enormous credit on the Sunday Game highlights show as he described how a sweeper and a man-marker must occupy either side of a shooting forward when an attacking team is looking to play the killer ball.

On Sunday, Cavan found a way of distorting the Fermanagh defence. When they broke, they kept Jason McLoughlin burning up the wings, chalk from the touchline on his boots. He pulled the Erne defenders out of shape and caused havoc.

Gaelic football has always been an insular sport, but now there are a new breed of coaches that are breaking it down in components and it has left the margins for error – in Ulster at least – minuscule.

Evolution will continue and new innovations are on their way. That's the way sport goes, no matter how much wailing Pat and Colm and Joe do for their fat cheque every Sunday.

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