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It's time for a United front for style

Great game: Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney (left) and Roscommon manager Kevin McStay
Great game: Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney (left) and Roscommon manager Kevin McStay
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

It's been interesting to observe the return of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as Manchester United manager.

It's fair to say that Man United fans were glad to put the Jose Mourinho years behind them, where Old Trafford had become the place that football went to die.

Following victories over Cardiff City, Huddersfield Town, Bournemouth, Newcastle and Reading, he stands to surpass Matt Busby's record from the 1946-47 season of consecutive victories if - and it is a big if - they can beat Tottenham at Wembley on Sunday.

What has pleased United fans more than anything is a perceived return to traditional values associated with the club, the famed 'attack-attack-attack' chant once more pouring down from the stands and being responded to by the players in deeds.

The identity crisis the club has been through since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement has faded into memory.

Roy Keane mentioned how Ferguson was brilliant at judging the mood in the dressing room. In a previous era, it only took, 'Lads, it's Tottenham' for Ferguson to get his players on message.

But when it came to the really big games against fellow title-chasers, Ferguson adopted a pragmatism. He could 'park the bus' as well as any of them as they closed out tight games.

Winning was the most important thing for Ferguson. At home against the minnows they would crack open the style and swamp less capable opposition.

Gaelic football, locked into a decade-old identity crisis, treats winning as a dirty word at times.

In an effort to change styles and move away from the risk-averse approach favoured by some managers, new experimental rules are currently in place during the pre-season competitions.

Now, it is important to take them each in isolation.

The introduction of a sin-bin, where a player spends 10 minutes off the pitch when they commit a black-card offence, has been broadly welcomed by players and managers.

The tweak to the goalkeeper kickout has been so minute as to be practically unnoticeable. The sideline kick that must go forward hasn't really had a huge effect.

The two that will probably not survive the meeting of Central Council on January 19 are the offensive mark, which insists the ball must travel 20 yards from outside the 45 metre line, and the limit on consecutive handpasses.

Measuring a distance from boot to hands is always going to be a flawed rule and the potential for disputes is just too great. The limit on handpassing was always going to hurt the football culture in Ulster, where that style of play is most prevalent.

So far in the opening two rounds of the Dr McKenna Cup, 24 goals have been scored as teams seeking that final pass to go through on goal have been frustrated by the restriction. At the same stage last year with 12 games played, there were 47 goals scored, so complaints by managers are backed up by statistics.

You start to wonder though if the brief the Standing Committee on Playing Rules were handed was to attempt to make every game of Gaelic football a uniform test. To eliminate, as one county manager described it, a 'contest of the mind'.

Portlaoise last summer played host to the game of the season, between Armagh and Roscommon.

Normally, journalists spend the first five minutes of any game figuring out the positions of players and the match-ups.

Here, that wasn't possible. In the very first minute of the game a long ball into Roscommon's Cathal Cregg required a diving block by Gregory McCabe to prevent a certain goal. From there, the action flowed and every play was more daring than the last.

At pitch level, the temperature was 27 degrees. It was breathless stuff and felt like the respective managers, Kieran McGeeney and Kevin McStay, had made a pact to just go for it. Armagh lost, but any fan leaving that day would have felt immensely proud of their team even though defeat cost them a place in the first ever Super8s series.

The second game of that double header was simply awful. Tyrone annihilated a dreadful Cork team by 16 points.

While Cork were awful, Tyrone's style of play made them look even worse. The bottom line was that Tyrone made it to the Super8s, and from there to the All-Ireland final. Winning is their thing.

Their style was remarkably different from Armagh's, just as Ferguson's style with Manchester United was different for playing Tottenham, or Arsenal. Yet in Gaelic football, any divergence from an open game is seen as something shameful, as if it diminishes the game in some way.

Right now, we are at a point where the parameters of the debate have become so narrow that it is forcing the game itself to alter.

And the results have been disastrous so far.

Differing styles make fights, and football matches. How much longer will this endless navel-gazing and insular outlook on coaching go on?

Belfast Telegraph


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