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Comment: Why the Championship is no longer a case for the defence

 

Hollow victory: Kerry boss Eamonn Fitzmaurice holds the Sam Maguire Cup aloft back in 2014
Hollow victory: Kerry boss Eamonn Fitzmaurice holds the Sam Maguire Cup aloft back in 2014
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Of all their 37 All-Ireland football titles, there is a serious unease about Kerry's 37th.

You could almost split the county in two over how their 2014 triumph was perceived, because of the means. It also shows clearly how myth-making plays a role in sport.

In order to beat Donegal in that decider, Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice realised very quickly that they needed to become a very similar beast. Having watched Dublin push up on Donegal and wheel their machine guns in place, Donegal manager Jim McGuinness outflanked them by drawing them in and hitting them on counter-attacks and flick-ons, exposing their lack of defensive cover.

Dublin had been used to opposition sides kicking ball in, so their defenders marked from the front. Donegal attackers would instead carry the ball in and force Dublin backs into uncomfortable positions.

If Kerry didn't heed the warnings, they were toast.

And so Fitzmaurice did what every great Kerry manager did to win All-Irelands. He adapted.

Indirectly or directly, he was in contact with some prominent coaches and players in Ulster, getting to the bottom of the Donegal matrix, getting snippets here and there.

He had only three weeks to prepare for the final and one of them was spent recovering from an absolute war of a semi-final replay against Mayo in Limerick. Yet in that time they transformed themselves into a mean, defensive unit.

They beat Donegal in what many Kerry people rate as one of the worst finals of all-time (the murders of Mayo in 2004 and 2006 they see as great games, and why wouldn't they?), decided by a cruel mistake on a kickout by Paul Durcan, Kieran Donaghy converting his goal chance.

While the clock wound down, Donegal were trapped inside McGuinness's spider web defence, watching Kerry footballers tip the football around the middle, happy to run down the clock and not gift possession back.

Now, some revisionism is required here. Look back on that game and you will see that Kerry did not exactly flood their defence. Instead, they just retained the shape of the defence. Half-backs just refused to cross the 45 metre line. That was all it took.

Ever since that Championship, the rate of goals scored has never been the same. As you can see from the tables here, that All-Ireland Championship had 63 games and the average goals per game was 2.5.

Given that the vast majority of teams tend to ape what has been successful in the short term, there is evidence here that the following season they were focused on shutting out goals entirely, the average dropping to 2.1 per game.

The average points scored in a game took a dive as well, almost two entire points, but as you can see, after 2015 they have steadily climbed back up again.

The most remarkable thing is that last year's Championship proved to be the highest-scoring Championship average yet. Naturally because of the extra eight games for the Super8s, it was the highest in total, with points scored cresting the 2,000 mark for the first time. But 31.1 points per game is a significant rise from 27.1 points per game, a mere three seasons previous.

The rise in figures can be down to any number of reasons, but some broad philosophies can be applied.

After 2014, any county team that were serious about themselves took the clear decision to work on their defence. Since then they have been maintaining defence while working on their offensive game.

Rule changes have helped too, but something had evolved purely out of the greatest coaching minds. The midfield mark has made contests from kickouts more attractive, with a clear reward for fine fielding.

Teams are also now far more likely to push up on the opposition kickout, having seen just how effective it was when Eamonn Fitzmaurice - him again - committed bodies up the field and forced Stephen Cluxton into a blind panic in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final.

Tyrone executed it brilliantly at times in their Super8s game against Dublin in Healy Park last summer, helped somewhat by sidelines being taken in.

The sad thing is that while the game evolves from season to season, there is little room for this tactical appreciation. Instead, we have a glut of pieces appearing over the last week suggesting that opposition to the experimental rules is reprehensible.

Indeed, there was a madcap and ludicrous idea that managers opposed to the rules - and by rules we mean the restriction on consecutive hand-passes - are in some sort of 'collusion' with reporters.

All of that has a flavour of 1950s Ireland to it, where you obeyed the powers that be and there is no room for dissent.

It's harder work to deal in facts, but if we apply the same goals and points tally to this year's Dr McKenna Cup, we see that as things stand, the restriction on the hand-pass has slowed goals down. In a province where coaches see the beauty in Gaelic football Catenaccio, our average goals scored are down to 2015 levels, when the fetish for defence was at its height over the last decade.

The hand-pass rule has to be voted down by Central Council this weekend, if there is any sense.

Or, or, or…

Maybe all the players and coaches are all in collusion too.

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