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GAA's much-criticised tactic has been getting results for over two decades

By Declan Bogue

A thought struck us as we sat down to catch up with the Laochra Gael series on Monday night, calling up the programme reflecting on the colourful life and times of this paper's GAA columnist, Ryan McMenamin.

Recalling his duels in packed Croke Parks in an era of plenty, McMenamin was Tyrone's ultimate austerity enforcer against Kerry ace Colm Cooper, not least in the 2005 All-Ireland final. He says he got lucky when he gave him a nudge as the ball was crawling out, but retrieved it and made a dart upfield.

That play allowed his confidence to grow and after Tomás ÓSé hit a second Kingdom goal, he took it upon himself to do something.

He revealed that Cooper was never the fondest of having to track back and he took advantage of that fact to generate a move that ended in a Peter Canavan score.

McMenamin was also seen helping himself to scores in other crucial games, such as the 2005 series against Armagh, the 2003 Ulster final replay and the 2009 Ulster final win over Antrim.

Typically, his scores involved taking possession deep, laying off and creating an overlap. The move would conclude with McMenamin popping up in space before cushioning a shot over the bar with a kick through the laces.

A pity, though, that scores of that kind are practically gone from Gaelic football.

The game 10 years ago bears little relation to the game right now, just as the game in 1995 was only a distant cousin of the 2005 edition.

The vast majority of teams now will bring back a certain amount of forwards to defend space. Even the notion of a wing-forward is now largely dead, replaced by wing-backs who are seen as better tacklers. Witness Tyrone's half-forward line now populated by backs such as Tiernan McCann and Barry Tierney, rather than old-school wing-forwards Peter Hughes and Shay McGuigan.

My problem is the seriously lazy generalising in our punditry. A few weeks back in Healy Park, the partisan commentators for Kerry radio stations bemoaned the defending by the home team, labelling it on air as 'northern style' and scrunching up their noses at the unappealing aesthetics of the contest.

All this despite Kerry doing precisely the same.

There is a clear difference between cynicism and defensive play, yet in recent weeks it was suggested that Mickey Harte should be sacked from his job as Tyrone manager, while it was also written, rather appallingly, that he had no 'soul' for setting up his team to defend.

It's not just Harte though. Brian McIver was said to cut a 'pathetic figure' after he turned a 15-point Derry defeat to Dublin last year into a four-point loss last month .

On Sunday, there was much ironic mirth that Arsenal fans could taunt Jose Mourinho with 'boring, boring Chelsea' chants as his side ground out a draw that inches them closer to the title, under the surely-approving gaze of former Gunners boss George Graham.

For two consecutive weeks, Chelsea have produced performances less appealing than having to stick pins in your eyes, but Mourinho rejected the criticism, saying it's no biggie. Just business.

The stakeholders of soccer move on to the next game without a prolonged post-mortem and agonising over where the sport is heading.

Something we spotted in Jerome Quinn's 1994 Ulster Gaelic Games Annual (moving house throws up all sorts of arcana) reminds us that football has been fluid for longer than we might think.

Quinn writes of Errigal Ciaran beating Lavey in an Ulster club game late in 1993: "It was noticeable how opponents were finding their style of play difficult to handle. Errigal would pull 13 men into defence and then sweep forward in numbers, playing off their outstanding captain, Peter Canavan."

The blanket defence is 22-years-old. Who would have thought?

Belfast Telegraph


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