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The trap of negative and defensive Bird Box football

“Football as purgatory”? Many counties are eschewing the development of the game in favour of short term results.

During last year’s FIFA World Cup, an interesting correlation with the GAA’s football championship occurred to me: the World Cup is a competition renowned for its worldwide appeal and ability to integrate some of the planet’s smallest nations, but generally, one of the favourites will emerge to win the trophy. Sound familiar? To that end, an article appearing prominently on the Twitter timelines from The Economist, grabbed my attention: “What makes a country good at football?”

While the general tenet of the piece was – as the nature of its publication of origin would suggest – broadly based on an individual country’s underlying economic and sporting factors, the broad conclusion was that successful countries get children playing soccer from as early an age as possible, and, crucially, within a creative environment.

This type of approach has helped transform Germany from a team built on physical prowess, to a more creative, dynamic unit that won the previous World Cup. England, masters of failure at international level, have managed to win the most recent Under-20 and Under-17 World Cups – and had a successful 2018 by their own standards. France, who lifted the trophy in Russia, had the second youngest squad at the tournament. The youth structures in these countries are paying off.

But not every nation has subscribed to this theory, instead falling into what said article refers to as the “middle income trap, in which developing economies quickly copy technologies from rich ones but fail to implement structural reforms.” In the soccer world, veteran coaches like Guus Hiddink and Marcello Lippi have been parachuted into mediocre footballing nations outside of Europe and South America – think South Korea, China and Australia – to provide a quick-fix:

“A clever manager might bring new tactical fads but cannot produce a generation of creative youngsters. China is said to be paying Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to victory in 2006, $28m a year. Unless he is supported by youth coaches and scouts who reward imaginative play, and a generation of youngsters who love the game, the money will be wasted.”

Take the USA soccer team as an example. They had a moderate level of success under Jurgen Klinsmann up until 2016. But when the German departed the post, their squad entered qualifying for the 2018 World Cup with an average age of close to 29. They failed to qualify.

We are seeing a similar trend in Gaelic football. Many counties are eschewing the development of a creative environment for kids to learn the game and grow into, in favour of cajoling senior players into a limiting playing structure that offers them a perceived best chance to win games. As manager of Donegal in the early 2010s, Jimmy McGuinness was highly pragmatic, introducing a “tactical fad” that was very much about winning in the immediate term.

Whilst this approach was extremely successful, it represented a sea-change in Gaelic football, with copycats springing up everywhere. Monaghan and Tyrone had already been noted for playing in a similar style, that happened to match well with their identity, but smaller counties started to play with double sweeper systems. Even Kerry were dragged down to Donegal’s level, on their way to winning the 2014 All-Ireland.

By the time proceedings had kicked off in Moscow last June, we had already seen high-profile championship wins for Carlow and Fermanagh, playing overtly negative football, and the Ernemen – managed by Rory Gallagher – have started 2019 where they left off last season. Remarkably, each of their three league games this year has seen exactly fourteen scores. However, their claustrophobic style of football has put them top of an equally claustrophobic Division Two table – which only serves to justify Gallagher’s approach.

Their style of play might help the aforementioned counties punch above their weight for a few weeks, but they won’t trouble the big guns in any shape or form. They have fallen into the same trap as those mediocre soccer teams who risk losing the future generation of players in order to gain immediate results.

In Fermanagh and Carlow’s defence, pun intended, they are not the only purveyors of this odious approach. Divisions Three and Four are dripping with it, while Galway, Cavan and even Cork are recent culprits. On TV last Sunday night, Joe Brolly described Monaghan’s dour league battle with Galway as “football as purgatory”. He has previously described any strong attempts at footballing negativity as the “Black Death”. I prefer to frame it within the context of a much more modern cultural phenomenon – this is Bird Box football.

(For the uninitiated: Bird Box is a Netflix movie in which the cast of characters – led by Sandra Bullock (back on top-form, by the way) – wear blindfolds to avoid coming into visual contact with supernatural objects that would plunge them to near-immediate death.)

Selling blindfolds at the turnstiles of football games might provide something of a cure, if attendances weren’t dropping so rapidly.

It might blow over, but already the trend has spilled into club level, where teams across the country are playing more defensively in order to combat a similar approach from their opponents. What is worse, many clubs are over-paying managers and coaches to implement it.

Every resource that is pumped into producing highly-structured, unimaginative teams at either club or county level, is at the expense of ensuring younger players are playing football in an enjoyable environment. It is a race to the bottom, and enables teams such as Dublin and Kerry to sleepwalk their way to the latter stages of the Championship year after year. Just like Germany and Spain have done in international soccer in the last decade.

The good news is, we are not yet past the point of no return. Rigid football has had limited success. The best way to combat Dublin and Kerry is to maximise the output from your most natural resource. The clubs and counties that show some patience, that get creative in their long-term thinking and planning – both on the field and off – can still reap the real rewards.

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