Back to basics

The match in Ruislip is now a week behind us and it’s time for us to move on and start looking ahead to facing Galway three weeks from now. To help us do so, I’m delighted to welcome back into the guest slot FourGoal McGee who provides some insightful thoughts on what we need to focus on and where our true strengths as a footballing county could lie.

Like most of the commentators here, I wasn’t in Ruislip last Sunday. I did not experience a 2 flight/2 coach journey from Mayo to London. I don’t know how the team was prepared for the match or the instructions that they were given going out onto the field. I don’t know what was said at half time or in the break before extra time. I have no idea how many of them needed to be back for work on Monday morning or even when they actually got back.

As a result, I have not commented up to now on the Mayo vs London game. And even if I did, it would be more in the nature of asking questions than providing anything that might explain what transpired in Ruislip. So what is the point of commenting now, you ask?

Well, it’s to try to see what can be done from here. And to do that, it is worth looking around at a few things that are beginning to emerge in the footballing year to date.

For a start, there has been a view in the Mayo management set up that we need a “system”. After all, Tyrone has one. It is the system that all kids are taught to play in Tyrone from the age of eight up. It is based on everyone defending when the opposition has the ball and everyone attacking when Tyrone has the ball. It relies on men running into positions to receive short passes. A highly energetic system that is difficult to play against. A number of other counties copied them but none have bettered it.

Dublin has now developed a somewhat similar system but it relies on longer passes – usually with the foot. The stats on today’s game against Laois will show that Dublin had about three times as many completed foot passes as Laois and were about equal to Laois on hand passes – on 51% of the possession. And though Connolly scored a goal and 2 points, a more lethal forward given the amount of ball he got would have been on his way to an All-Star with a bagful of further scores.

Kerry has yet another system, relying on fast diagonal ball from centrefield being either caught and scored or broken to incoming fast running forwards. The trick with Kerry is that they can adapt it to who lines out on the day.

Cork’s system involves getting fast ball into the half forward line with the option of short passes into the full forward line or playing it back to the runners coming from centrefield. This allows them to play most of the game in the opposition half and can put up seriously big scores as a result.

Down doesn’t really have a system – they rely on a small number of very talented players, Kildare are all about strength and fitness, Donegal are trying to out-Tyrone Tyrone – coupled with an over-reliance on Michael Murphy and I’m not sure if Armagh are developing anything new – other than giving Billy Joe Padden a chance to finally shine.

So logic would suggest that, to get up there with the Corks, Dublins, Kerrys and Tyrones, we need a “system”. Or does it? I actually think we have one but we need to go back a bit to find it in our senior teams. Where it has emerged in the last 10 years, has been in our under-age teams. And if you look at these teams you will see the following:

  • A goalkeeper that dominates the square
  • A full back that dominates in front of the square
  • Tight marking, yet attacking wing backs
  • A centrefield partnership, where one minds the house when the other attacks/defends
  • At least one small, mesmerisingly fast wing forward
  • A reliable free taker
  • At least two full forwards that can win all sorts of ball and take scores

To find this mix in the senior team, we have to go back to 1996 and most of the boxes are ticked there. What you get from this mix is fast open football which will unlock most “systems”.

I am privileged to be involved in coaching a number of under-age teams and we always emphasise that to win the game, you must play as much of it as possible in the opposition half. Come at them in waves and come at them in as many different ways as possible. If something isn’t working, we will see it from the sideline and sort it out. And if we lose, it will be because the opposition were just better than us on the day – not because we didn’t play to our ability. There are designated free takers for scoreable frees. All frees outside the scoreable range are taken by the player nearest to the ball – with everyone else getting into a position to accept a pass.

We emphasise that there are three movements in playing football – firstly, winning and receiving the ball; secondly, passing the ball and thirdly, providing an option to support the player on the ball when the pass has been made. When, we haven’t got the ball, we mark tightly but do NOT try to get everyone behind the ball – because if we are all behind the ball, we are in the wrong part of the field when we attack again.

In that “system”, there is no place for sweepers, third midfielders, roaming half forwards, etc. It’s just football and 90% of the time, it is a joy to watch. It’s football as I learned it as a young lad in Mayo in the 1970s. It’s Mayo football – an open, attacking, fast-moving game. It’s the game I loved then and it is the game I try to pass on now.

Mayo football, in its purest sense, is not a defensive game. It thrives on taking the play to the opposition. And over the years I have seem glimpses of it re-emerging in Mayo county teams. The 1983 U21 team had it. The senior team in 1996 in the semi final against Kerry had it. The 2006 comeback against the Dubs displayed elements of it. The Minors in 2008 had it. Even this year, when the shackles were taken off at 14 points down in the Croke Park league game against Dublin, it surfaced and brought us back to level pegging. The league game against Cork earlier this year also showed again that it is there – just below the surface.

We have to stop this irrational belief that we can adopt someone else’s system. We need to be playing Mayo football.

And no better place to start than against Galway, in Castlebar on 26th June.

Keep the Faith!

13 thoughts on “Back to basics

  1. Good man Fourgoal. That’s the only way we can play. Off the cuff and none of this nonsense about systems and blanket defences. Football is a simple game. Remember, we are the Brazil of Gaelic football still.

  2. great article four goal. you’re dead right. we have to have a bit of pride in ourselves and forget everyone else. if we play the way we can, it can still be a successful season.

  3. Great piece FourGoal. Denis Walsh wrote something similar in the Sunday Times yesterday week. He said that the best “system” working now is Cork’s, where they play players in their positions and let the best man win.

    Hurling and football are of the same family. Nicky English told the boys on Newstalk one night that in his opinion hurling was a simple game. If you win the man-on-man battles 8-6 or 9-5 you win the game. 10-4 or better and it’s a hiding. Very hard to win without winning the individual battles.

    Hurling is different to football because the ball travels faster and longer – the option to spoil isn’t there.

    There’s a role for tactics of a sort in football, I think – and I defer to Four Goal’s coaching expertise here, I am only a high stool philosopher myself – but it’s more in terms of the player matchups than breaking up the lines. Ronan McGarrity at fullback to mark Kieran Donaghy, as a friend of mine likes to insist – a basketballer on a basketballer.

    But out from those sort of once-off matchups I think you have to be true to the fundamental nature of the game. A system works the first few games its introduced because it confuses the opposition, like Tyrone v Kerry in 2003.

    But as the years go by it’s easier to pick out the flaws and revert to more orthodox football. If Mayo are picking up a system that’s already past its evolutionary high point they won’t go far.

    FourGoal’s fundamentals are spot on. Win ball and feed your forwards. Stand your ground at the back. And keep the faith.

  4. Do we have any of the personnel to suit Fourgoals requirements for a succesful team based on ‘Mayo style’ football? I would answer thus based on Ruislip and the league campaign:
    A goalkeeper that dominates the square-No
    A full back that dominates in front of the square-No
    Tight marking, yet attacking wing backs-definitely not
    A centrefield partnership, where one minds the house when the other attacks/defends-No, regardless of who lines out here with the candidates available-
    At least one small, mesmerisingly fast wing forward-I dont see any memerisingly fast forwards anywhere in our front six
    A reliable free taker-??!
    At least two full forwards that can win all sorts of ball and take scores-quality forwards they may be but Freeman and Doherty werent impressive when tightly marked and crowded last Sunday-huge potential (certainly Freeman), but still totally unproven.

    If we dont have the players that fit the profile required to play Fourgoals preferred style as outlined above then I assume thats why we’re playing a ‘system’?! Im not saying its the right system, it certainly didnt look it the other day, but that may be the managements justification for it? Negative, I may be negative but from what Ive seen the problem at the moment is the quality is simply not there-system or no system.

    Fourgoals system is what we all want but sadly cant have, at least at the moment

  5. I think that the problem – and it has been pointed out on these pages before – is that these players seem to be emerging in the Minor and U21 teams but we don’t seem to be able to get them to make the transition to Senior.

    From the recent underage ranks, I would say that we have the potential goalkeepers in Hennelly and Schlingermann, Kevin Keane looked like a decent emerging full back a year or two ago. Danny Kirby, Aidan O’Shea and Shane Nally seemed to know what they were about around the middle of the park, Aidan Walsh and Niell Douglas looked to have the makings of the required freetakers.

    I can’t specifically remember any small fast half forwards – although Cathal Freeman wasn’t a big lad as a minor – and we do seem to be missing the tight marking element of the attacking half backs.

    So although a good few of the 2008 minors are knocking on the door of the squad, we are a bit like Irish Rail, we’re not there yet – but maybe we’re getting there!

    In the meantime, I also don’t think the sweeper system is the answer. We used it for 20 mins against Dublin and went 14 points down. We abandoned it for another and got back level. Laois also tried it in the first 20 mins yesterday and looked like they would be blown away. When they abandoned it, they also played much better. If it is not the natural style of football, it is not the answer.

    An Spailpin nailed it earlier. Matching up man to man is more effective and it is more in our natural style of play. If you look at all the times Kieran Conroy marked Donaghy, it was the Mayoman that was coming out on top, yet how many would agree that Kieran should be our first choice full back. For the Galway game, I would identify a Mayo back for each Galway forward. I would then give him strict instructions to concentrate on shutting the Galwayman down and keeping the ball out of the Mayo half.

    Complicating it beyond that is unnecessary.

  6. A system is only as good as the players on the team. Having 15 good players (5 or 6 of whom are outstanding) is the best system I can think of.
    When you have top class players anything is possible. When you havent IC football is difficult.
    In that situation all you can do is your best and I hope that is what the lads will do against Galway – their very best! We can ask no more than that.

  7. I agree with 4goal, Mayo style of playing should not be changed .We had our own style of fast open attacking football with long acurate foot passing , which if played properly is very hard to play against.
    Why not play this type of game, and by playing it every day we develope it and fine tune it.
    Club football and underage football should be coached with this brand of traditional Mayo football.

  8. Just watching the gulf grow wider as the championship bores on. How many games played? Yet everybody including London are still in it. Leinster will have their semi finals soon. Twelve counties and yet Connacht snores on. Trips to New York and London thrown in for good measure.

    Laois, Meath, Down, Offally, Limerick, Monaghan etc beaten and in most cases well beaten. All following the stupid defensive all back syndrome currently infecting the game. Supporters browned off and bitter. Laois who like Mayo are gildy and need a certain handling forced into an Ulster straitjacket but the fallout has just started there.

    We can still turn ourselves around. I call it “giving it a lash”. Four Goal expresses it brilliantly what should be done. We don’t do systems in Mayo because we are not able to. So we should go man for man and then expect each man to do his job. That friends will quickly separate the spoofers from the men.

    Better to have given it a try than lose aping and copying others that will quickly change to the next fad that comes along.

    Two more goals leaked, this time against Donegal in a challenge. Two v London. The message is clear. Those charged with running our county should be putting in place systems and coaches that will have that type of system gone in 3/4/5 years. It will take time to bring through players who can defend and do their primary job. Sadly we do not possess them today.

  9. I agree with Fourgoal. Mayo’s system is indeed free flowing traditional footfall however there’s a naiveté (or lack of cuteness) to their play that has cost them dearly through the years. As long as the inconsistencies exist around the refs interpretation of a fair tackle the Mayo forwards should exploit this. How many times do you see a Kerry or Cork forward lock arms with their marker in contact and hit the deck for a soft free? I have rarely if ever witnessed a Mayo forward do this. I appreciate that there’s a issue with free takers at present but at least this sets up the possibility of a score. My only point of disagreement is around 2 scoring forwards – bottom line is that the 13, 14, & 15 must be proven score takers – ideally two-footed.

  10. Its all well and good to advocate the free flowing game however if the players are not there to do this then you’re still onto a hiding from the better teams. Why ? Because the brand of player required to play a 15 man game in the modern era is not available in Mayo.
    So what’s the brand ? Well in my mind its simple. Take the 1996 team (closest to wining AI in last 60 years) and pit them man for man against the current crop.
    Straight away 2 things stand out – size and strength. this current team is nowhere near as big or physical as that generation. And as a result they will not win as many of those man-on-man battles.
    What else – well obviously off the ground 45s & free taker. (Oh God ! I’m so sick and tired of saying that.) And I feel it seems I have been saying it now for 10 years.
    When the game laws changed to an out of the hand free being allowed we seemed to adopt a change and forsook the requirement of having a good off the ground place kicker. And we haven’t had one that is good enough at IC level since.

    Bottom line – we’re stuck with who we have and frankly we just ain’t as good as we think we are.

  11. If we are not good enough to give it a go and let loose, any system is just to justify the managers job and the sweeper system is brutal to watch. It might have worked for b’tubber, but how many times has it worked at county level, when your at a different standard? E.G…. Leave canty as a free man in cork full back line…. or draw him out to midfield to contest high ball with howley!!!!!……

  12. Thanks for all the comments folks. I have to admit that my experience in coaching is entirely at underage level and I’m not sure how well the principles would transfer to senior.

    My experience its that underage footballers love to play the game that way and that players quickly develop into team roles and develop as footballers.

    But the main thing that you see is how much they enjoy the game. They never take to the field in fear, they completely empty the tank by the end and have no problem about sacrificing their own game for the team. And really that’s what team sport its really supposed to be all about.

    Keep the Faith!

  13. honestly im not sure what plan etc our guys are working too if any. Its one thing having a plan but another thing for the players to execute it. Not sure where the fall down is, but there is definitely is a fall down thats for sure. Maybe it will all make sense on the 26th! Here’s hoping.

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