“It goes back to the time Clive Woodward guided England to the Rugby World Cup, it’s paralysis by analysis……. This game of Gaelic Football has been infiltrated by a load of spoofers and bluffers, people with no experience in some cases of Gaelic Football, fellas with ear pieces stuck in their ear, psychologists, statisticians, dieticians… and we’ve forgotten the basic principles of the game – the catch and kick. “ – Pat Spillane, 2013

The comments about spoofers and bluffers from Pat Spillane took place during the half-time analysis between Cavan & Fermanagh in the Ulster Championship 2013. He was angry, the game wasn’t being played how it should be, the only way to play FOOTball is with your feet. It’s a game only about catch and kick. It’s an interesting thought, maybe there is only one way football should be played. But this isn’t gymnastics, there are no points for style. Stoke City and the Crazy Gang Wimbledon of the late ‘80’s didn’t play like Barcelona or Arsenal and the traditionalists hated them too.

In fact this style of play debate was the starting point of a book ‘The Numbers Game’ by Chris Anderson & David Sally. While discussing the merits or otherwise of Rory Delap’s long throws David Sally wondered why all teams didn’t employ the same tactic. The only answer Chris Anderson (a former professional GK) could come with was ‘because there are some things you don’t want to do when playing football. Because, even though a goal celebrated by a long throw is worth just as much as one from a flowing passing move, it’s almost like it doesn’t count as much. Because, to purists, they’re are somehow not quite as deserved.’

This debate is not confined to Soccer. Almost as soon as the Galeic Games were codified it seems there was a traditional way of playing. Check out this extract from Dick Fitzgerald’s book in 1914!

‘Everybody knows that the tendency of the outdoor games of the present day is to reduce the individual player to the level of a mere automation. In a manner the individual in modern games is a disadvantage to his side if his individuality asserts itself too strongly.’

Gaelic Football history is littered with these conflicts of style. Fans get much more excited by the big high catch from a Kieran Donaghy who turns and scores then a sweeping hand passing move from one end of the pitch to the other ending in the same result. But the fact is there isn’t just one way to play football, there are loads of ways and if there is one thing that separates great minds from the rest it is the ability to question how things have been done.

Do people always get it right, no! but the questioning, development and innovation can lead to much greater things, things that weren’t envisaged by the traditionalists. All of these developments come from people who are willing to question the most common seven words in football ‘That’s the way it’s always been done.’

Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s and whose character Brad Pitt played in the film Moneyball was recently asked about hiring outside baseball people. When asked about one of his right-hand men, Farhan Zaidi, who has has a PhD in behavioural economics and whether that was a disadvantage Beane replied ‘he has no experience-bias when he comes to my office, so he is able to question the obvious. A guy like myself, who has been in the game his entire life, may not be able to spot when the emperor is not wearing any clothes.”

Far from an outsider but still one of the most recent innovators is Jim McGuiness. We all know the story, McGuinness took over a team that had failed to win an Ulster Championship game in 4 years. A team that had last won the All Ireland 19 years previously. He wanted to build a team that could not only compete within Ulster but go even further. No doubt he knew the players well, but even from afar he knew what he was getting when he inherited the squad. Rather than take on the likes of Kerry, Cork & Dublin at their own game (the so-called traditional game) he needed to beat them at a different game.

This was a modern day form of David v Goliath, The Oakland A’s v’s the Yankees, The Have not’s v the Have’s. David couldn’t fight Goliath with a sword, he couldn’t take him on at his own game, David had to change the rules, do something unexpected. Football teams throughout history have been doing exactly the same. 

Jim McGuiness took charge of his first Ulster Championship game against Antrim in 2011 on a very wet May day in Ballybofey. It was the only game on TV that weekend and was the start of the Championship season. It was 6 points to 3 in favour of Donegal at half-time. During the half-time analysis Joe Brolly summed up the game and Donegal’s tactics as follows;

“The disease of Donegal football is solo running and hand passing, it’s a lethal cocktail which can lead to only one thing, which is boredom” Joe Brolly continued, (referring to Donegal’s style)…”that’s ok at the moment but it’s not going to be any good in terms of winning an Ulster Championship or advancing beyond that.”

Within 40 months Donegal would be 3 times Ulster Champions & visit the All Ireland Final twice, winning once, only losing 3 championship games in that time; An Ulster Final, All Ireland Semi-Final and an All Ireland Final.

I don’t quote Joe Brolly to make a mockery of his analysis, which in hindsight couldn’t have been more wrong, but rather to highlight this notion that there is only one way to play football. This is not a unique situation to Gaelic Games, all sports seem to have a ‘right’ & ‘wrong’ way to play the game. But history has shown that that has never been the case. Just as ‘new’ coaching and training methods are developed there is an ebb and flow to tactics and strategies, history has shown that not unlike the catwalks of Milan or New York there is a reinvention every season and while it is often heralded as a revolution, when you look a bit closer it seems more like recycling than revolution.

2016 will require something different from the challengers. While it would be wrong to call Mayo, Monaghan, Kerry, Donegal or Tyrone David’s they are going to need to recycle or re-invent something about their game to find a way to topple the Dublin Goliath.