Joe Kernan: Lack of flair a blight at core of the game
If possession is deemed to be nine-tenths of the law in civilian life, then it is quite simply everything in gaelic football.
Every coach in the country is acutely aware of one basic tenet that underscores the sport — the opposition can do very little without the ball.
They can funnel back, tackle and harass, crowd out the ball-carrier and attempt to restrict the runs of supporting players. But without the most important item on the field they cannot put points on the scoreboard and that of course is where matches are won and lost.
Yet while possession is absolutely essential in order that a team’s strategy can function smoothly and that their opponents are forced onto the back foot, there is a very real danger within gaelic football that teams have now become almost paranoid in relation to guarding the ball.
And this is one of the chief reasons why we have had such a preoccupation with hand-passes and fisted passes this year.
In many instances, even at the highest level, players are not merely seen to be passing the ball — they are passing the buck.
Rather than bring themselves to unveil a spark of creativity, many players are quite content to off-load the ball to a colleague, who may not even be better placed than they are, in order to purge themselves of any degree of responsibility.
And this has been reflected in the performances of numerous teams. Cavan and Donegal, for instance, show a marked tendency to overdo the hand-pass and their recent championship records bear testimony to the folly of this pursuit.
Another county which in recent years laboured under incessant hand-passing was Kildare but manager Kieran McGeeney has changed the players’ mind-set, urging the adoption of a more direct style of play which brought marked progress this year.
You won’t see Tyrone or Kerry dwelling on the ball, shirking responsibility and passing backwards rather than reveal a frisson of adventure.
Instead, they will move the ball quickly and smoothly, preferably by the use of lengthy foot passes. And more often than not such passes find their way into the hands of very capable target men like Stephen O’Neill and Kieran Donaghy.
Armagh have reaped dividends too from their ability to ply Ronan Clarke with quick, accurate passes while Michael Murphy, who made such a big impact in the International Rules last Saturday, has been something akin to a one-trick pony in the Donegal attack because of his ability to get on the end of probing balls from his midfielders and half-forwards.
Down’s Benny Coulter, Cork ace Daniel Goulding and Meath’s ever-dangerous Joe Sheridan are other players who we see time and time again urging their colleagues to get the ball in quickly to them.
They have confidence in their ability to get scores and can convert even half-chances thus upping their teams’ morale considerably.
Nothing frustrates fans more than sustained bouts of hand-passing and fist-passing — it can be tedious and unimaginative, a product of lazy coaching and insular thinking.
Gaelic football is evolving all the time, the pace, fitness and conditioning required to play the game at the top level now are much greater than they were even five years ago because of the more sophisticated training methods employed and the diligent manner in which most players continue to look after themselves.
We are still some way off a return to the old-style catch and kick which portrayed the sport in perhaps its simplest form. But there is no doubt that those sides who choose to move the ball quickly and seek out their target men with accurate deliveries will continue to reap the rewards of this tactic.
It is hard to defend against, with backs often forced to concede frees in striving to contain their opposite numbers. It’s because of this that experienced players like John Doyle, Colm Cooper, Martin Penrose, Martin Clarke and Daniel Goulding were among those who enjoyed a rich harvest of points from placed balls over the course of the recent championship.
Their teams prospered because they showed a flair for adventure while at the same time attending to their defensive responsibilities.
In the International Rules series, it often took no more than three passes to transfer the ball from one end of the pitch to the other.
If more teams can achieve this ploy on a consistent basis during 2011 then we could be in for some very exciting and entertaining matches.