I find myself being drawn into the debate emerging, again, re tactics employed by managers and teams to win matches. This weekend in the GAA All Ireland Football Quarterfinals Tyrone stand accused in some quarters of very cynical play – designed to ensure they won a knock out match and progressed to the semifinals. Star player, Sean Cavanagh, was awarded ‘man of the match’, but attracted lots of criticism for committing a ‘professional foul’ when an opposition player advanced on goal. In their previous match both he and fellow star Stephen O’Neil were involved in ‘professional fouls’ late in the game. I believe the players did what they did in the interests of their team – in the context of winning both matches. Their manager has been incensed – he is seeking to protect players who he believes did not do anything wrong – not particularly out of line with what goes on in knock out championship matches. And he points to the many fouls committed against his players in both games.
During the week I attended an outstanding cricket test match in England – Third Test of the Ashes series between England and Australia. There has been plenty of controversy in this series – batsmen knowing they were out not ‘walking’, umpiring errors, deliberate slowing down of over rates by England as they seek a draw.
In the last couple of weeks we have had another two top sprinters unveiled as drug cheats.
What does all this tell us? What is acceptable in trying to win and what is not acceptable? How does it leave us feeling – us the players, the coaches, the spectators, the kids starting out in their sporting careers? And obviously the above includes both professional (cricket and athletics) and amateur (GAA football)?
This year I find myself supporting a Dublin GAA football team that seems to possess great speed and agility in attack – and benefits from ‘open play’. So therefore we want fast flowing, foul free, play and trust that our skills and speed will bring us home as ultimate winners. But if I were coaching a team against Dublin and did not have the same speedy assets what tactics might I employ? Without doubt I would look to break up the game, slow down the game, negate the influence of the very fast and skillful Dublin forwards – through denying them possession, crowding my defence, man to man marking, fouling – some combination of all of these – whatever would work to enable me to counter their advantages.
Of course since I am supporting Dublin this lets me assume the higher moral ground (this year) – as I am supporting fast flowing, open football. But what of the outer county and the other manager – to whom is he accountable? In the first instance – to himself. Thereafter to his players, their supporters and all those involved in the game more generally. Some where in the middle of this is an expectation from his county that he will maximise their opportunity of winning – and will therefore design and implement tactics likely to overcome Dublin’s range of skills.
Today we saw Mayo ‘destroy’ the Donegal team which seemed to have perfected, in the last two years, massed defence, superior fitness and fast breaking football. Mayo were not short of men in defence when required – but played Donegal ‘off the pitch’. Many neutrals had high praise for Mayo and will no doubt believe that the negative tactics developed by Donegal have been seen off.
One other element of sport at a high level e.g. playing in front of 70,000 paying attendees in Croke Park yesterday, is to provide entertainment – some sense of ‘value for money’. Kevin Pietersen did this yesterday in the Ashes Test match yesterday by scoring another century for England in the aggressive style in which he bats. Brian Lara, possibly the greatest West Indian batsman of all time, says he saw himself as an entertainer No. 1 and a batsman No. 2. Severiano Ballesteros claimed in his final TV interviews that his popularity was based on the range of shots he played – that’s why people wanted to come to see him play. But all three were also outstandingly competitive sportsmen focused on winning matches. And they were three of the most talented – so entertaining the audience was part of their gift.
But would any of these GAA football teams mentioned – Donegal, Tyrone, Dublin or Mayo have achieved very much in terms of winning without developing and implementing tactics which maximise their opportunity to win – by emphasising their skills and limiting the potential of their opponents to succeed? And is there anything wrong with this?
Very easy for commentators to criticise the manager and/or the team that seem to be less creative, limit the potential of the opposition to play ‘attractive’ football and focus on winning, potentially at the cost of the entertainment element of the game. I felt this frustration myself watching Tyrone yesterday but what does this ‘frustration’ really amount to?
Playing rugby in years past I remember being matched against a future international rugby player – who was 10cm taller than me, an outstanding footballer and able to jump far higher off the ground than me. My objective was to find ways to prevent him catching the ball – in the hope of limiting the damage he would do to our team. For part of the game I had some limited success – and did not even question for one second whether such an approach was ‘right’. I was working with my inferior team to try to counteract one the opposition’s key weapons.
I think it is time for a few reality checks. Some teams do not have the same skills as other teams. They will seek to develop and implement tactics which counter the opposition advantages – if they do not do this we will not have competitive matches. Some of this behaviour will include breaking rules and accepting punishment e.g. frees, penalties, yellow cards and, even, red cards. If the rules prove ineffective in counteracting unduly negative (probably difficult to define) behaviour then the rules need to be adjusted and implemented effectively by the relevant officials.
I have taken huge pleasure from playing, coaching and supporting/ spectating at sport. I have experienced frustration in all roles – but overall the experience has been fantastic. I would like to think that drug taking would have no part to play in sport – unfortunately it does and I would suggest should continue to be dealt with very harshly. However in the case of coaches and players pushing the envelope to try to win I do not have much of an issue. When I hold all the skills I am absolutely fed up to see there frustrated by less skillful teams. But it is for me to figure this out – if I possess the skills. Finally, the ‘professional foul’ is simply an assessment by the fouler (and potentially his coach/ team) – that the result is worth the punishment. If you make the punishment sufficiently serious it will be cut out (and there will be some innocent victims) most professional fouls. But sport is not perfect and we do not want it to be perfect.
As a coach to younger players I believe my responsibilities are primarily to assist in development of the players, ensuring they enjoy their sport and develop their skills. But I have no doubt that as coaches we will in years to come find ourselves looking to develop tactics to maximise the likelihood of winning specific matches. I hope that what we do to try to win will be right.