Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Gaelic Football: A Diagnostic, Part II

The blanket defence is killing Gaelic football. It must be stopped.

Games evolve as they’re played. Players and managers think of new things, new tactics, new skills all the time. But every now and again whoever is in charge of a particular sport has to look at its development and ask: are these new developments true to the fundamental nature of the sport, or do they take the sport to a place where it really shouldn’t go?

How did the blanket defence come to be? Why didn’t anybody try it before? Joe Brolly’s Arcadian vision last Sunday of a manly, self-policing game is all balls. There was never a time when teams wouldn’t trample their grannies into the muck to win. Why, then, did it take so long for Tyrone to invent the blanket defence and Donegal to perfect it?

The answer is sports science. The modern Gaelic footballer has access to both a wealth of sports science knowledge that was not available to previous generations, and the leisure time to put that science to practical use. We never saw the blanket defence before because no team could come close to achieving the levels of fitness required to make it work.

Has this fitness infusion changed Gaelic football for the better, or for the worse? Advocates of both the system and of sports science say for the better. Players are fitter and faster today, they say, and this can only be a good thing.

They run “classic” games like the 1982 Football Final through software like Dartfish and produce charts to say that football is clearly better today than it was then in terms of possessions, plays, and different other criteria. Besides, they say, who can halt the march of progress?

Nobody can halt the march of progress, of course. But not everybody agrees on what progress is. One person’s evolution may be another’s devolution; one’s progression another’s regression.

To answer whether the blanket era of football is evolution or devolution, let’s take a lesson from Marcus Aurelius: What is Gaelic football in itself? What is its nature?

Gaelic football is a game of catching and kicking. That is its nature. But what price catching and kicking in modern football? Players who can catch and kick the ball are still useful in the game, but some of the greatest exponents of the modern game are noted for neither their catching nor their kicking, but for their unearthly ability to run and run and run and run.

The level of athleticism is what makes the difference in Gaelic football today. Modern levels of training has outpaced the earlier conceptions of what the human body is capable of doing, and an ability to execute the skills of the game has been replaced and, in some places, surpassed, by the ability to keep going, going, going in terms of value to a team.

The key skill now and into the future is workrate. But isn’t workrate something more suited to a factory or an assembly line than a sporting field of dreams? Alexi Stakhanov was named a hero of the Soviet Union for mining over 100 tonnes of coal in under six hours in the 1930s, but I doubt very much if anyone would have paid in to see him to do it.

When sports scientists talk about greater workrate and roll out their tables and charts and measurements they miss an important point. Sport isn’t meant to be empirical. It’s meant to be transcendental. Sport is meant to bring you away from the ordinary, not be just another part of it.

Joe Brolly is wrong in saying it’s the duty of managers to keep games true to themselves. The duty of managers is to win within the rules of the day. The duty of the GAA is to make sure the rules of the day are staying ahead of managers. This is not currently the case, but there’s no reason why it can’t be.

The GAA gave up on the eighty-minute finals after five years, and cracked down on handpassing when some teams were about to turn football into a variant of Olympic handball. There’s no reason for them not to slice up the blankets and let the games breathe again. Perhaps they could start with a proper definition of the tackle? God knows we’ve been a long enough time waiting for that.