Meath warmup & performance

On Sunday I attended the Leinster Senior Football championship semi-final between Kildare and Meath in Tullamore. It was a roasting hot Saturday evening and I headed down with my dad, eager to see what I thought would be an excellent match between two up-and-coming teams. Cian O’Neill had looked to be building a very good Kildare side and achieved promotion to National Football League 1. My dad and I had gone to watch Meath play Louth in their opening fixture in the Leinster championship, and as I had seen Louth a few times previous and know their level, we were very impressed with Meath that day. So we figured this semi-final would be a belter.

As in Parnell Park a couple of weeks ago, we arrived at the ground over 90 minutes before throw-in, with unrestricted seating in the stand it’s the only way to get good seats. For both games we got great seats and we saw everything (including a Kildare player who should have got the line!). As someone who works coaching, analysing and mentally preparing teams, I’m intrigued by all aspects of the game – warmup, manager body language, player body language, how the players communicate, substitutions, everything.

At 6:00pm on the dot out came Kildare to a big cheer from the supporters on the terrace on the far side. Their management had their cones and gear laid out well in advance, all organised and under control. They got into their warmup, doing a few different drills, all stuff they did without supervision. While Kildare were warming up, Meath backroom staff came out to set up their cones and equipment, and at 6:13 Meath came out to a massive pop from the crowd. When they came out all their gear was well organized and ready too. Meath worked away at their warmup, again the players knew what their routine was. I had been at Parnell Park a fortnight previous and recognised the drills they did, for example a wheel-shaped truck-and-trailer foot & hand passing drill that took up most of their half of the field, and a very good defense drill along the end line where they work to repel attackers. Meath, being traditionally old school, spend a lot of time in unstructured play in their warmup too, shooting for points or goals and passing amongst themselves. Paddy O’Rourke in the Meath goal spent a good period of time practicing his kickouts with the sub goalkeeper. During their warmup, Kildare left the field at around 6:23 and re-emerged at around 6:40. Meath stayed out on the field from 6:13 onwards. Kildare’s warmup was a little more structured than Meath’s.

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A lot has been said and written in the days since Meath were hammered by Kildare, for some reason a lot of this has focused on their warmup. It was a hell of a hot evening in Tullamore. Meath has a new manager this year in Andy McEntee and their warmup has changed considerably, I’m sure, from that of his predecessor. It wasn’t the telling factor in their loss of the game though, nor was it the reason they beat Louth well a few weeks back. Those who are pointing to the warmup as the reason behind the poor Meath performance are either deliberately or unconsciously deflecting attention away from the real reasons behind Meath’s loss. If Meath were tired after that warmup then they aren’t fit enough to stay with a team as well prepared as Kildare.

Here, in my opinion, are the reasons that Meath lost.

  • Meath cleared out their forward line, leaving two men inside, McMahon and Lenihan. These two had been well-used in the game against Louth (where Louth have had no sweeper since Derek Maguire headed to America). Meath played the ball in deep to these two against Louth, and then their pace men, particularly Graham Reilly and Cillian O’Sullivan, fed off them and caused Louth considerable damage taking the ball at pace heading for goal. Against Kildare, this couldn’t happen. Kildare used a sweeper, Eoin Doyle, in front of them. Meath tried for almost the whole first half to put the ball in and then chase it looking to feed- this fell down as Lenihan and McMahon could barely win a ball between them due to poor quality ball, poor quality runs, and the excellent positioning of the sweeper.
  • Meath have gone with one fielder and one runner at midfield, rather than two fielders. For their kickouts, Ronan Jones made runs to drag his man away from the centre of the field. If his man followed it would leave space for his partner Menton to be kicked the ball. If his man didn’t follow a shorter kickout to Jones could be made. This didn’t really work at all. Kildare put a few men around Menton and with his marker Kevin Feely just as good in the air, Kildare either won clean ball or had numbers on the breaks. Kickouts put Meath under severe pressure throughout the game, with Paddy O’Rourke eventually trying to find Cillian O’Sullivan, by no means a big man or noted fielder with long kickouts. Meath badly needed a second (and third and fourth) kickout option.
  • Meath refused to carry and pass to break the Kildare defence down. Only Cillian O’Sullivan and Bryan Menton did this with any real threat for Meath in the game. O’Sullivan worked his balls off throughout, and while his final ball let him down at times, mostly this was due to having no support. To hear the abuse he got from his own fans was shocking. Padraig Harnan and McEntee from wing back tried to support by making overlapping runs. The other Meath forwards were ineffective and seemed to not understand they needed to change their gameplan.
  • I’ve been to a lot of games in my life, and this was the first time I saw a player at county level not really make much effort at all. One Meath forward spent most of the game hovering around the centre-forward position, and made little to no effort to get involved in the play. If his man was passed the ball he’d jog over to him but in the entire match I would say he reached maximum effort only three or four times. Even with his teammates running closeby him, he never looked for a pass but twice. Up until he was substituted with about 15 mins left to play, Meath effectively had only 14 players. Clearly something was mentally or physically wrong with the player and I hope this can be remedied as he has serious talent.
  • Kildare are a more complete team than Meath right now. I couldn’t see any real weaknesses in their team. They look finally to have some quality forwards rather than their tradition of relying on one or two stars to fire the majority of scores. They are very shrewd. Several examples of this: Meath man marked Niall Kelly with Mickey Burke, a sensible option to be fair, but Kelly pulled Burke here, there and everywhere and left the centre-forward position empty for Kildare to run into. Another being the deployment of Doyle as sweeper. Another being the use of Ollie Lyons to provide the overlap in attack. They could think quicker on the line and play and think better on the field than Meath.

Sadly, the media has jumped on the warmup. Lads who weren’t in Tullamore on Saturday night talking about things they didn’t see. Lads who were in Tullamore talking about things they don’t know about. Meath management and analysts will, I hope, see what the real issues were and will remedy them. This is a good Meath team. They are going the right direction. A couple of changes to personnel such as moving Jones to wing forward and bringing in a fielder at midfield, dropping Wallace and Reilly and bringing in O’Coilean. I’d leave Burke in the corner and allow Keogan to hold the centre-back position too. Their problems in this game, as I outlined, are fixable. But lads whingeing about the warmup? Just lazy analysis, plain and simple.

NFL Division 4 2016

This Spring I spent my Sundays travelling around Ireland watching mainly Division 4 football. I’m a Performance Analyst and worked for some teams in Division 4, scouting and preparing reports on their upcoming opponents. It was a most enjoyable experience I must say, made most enjoyable by the quality of football played. I would guess I may be the only person in the country who saw each team play, most teams more than once, apart from supporters who loyally followed their own team throughout the league.

Earlier this year the GAA tried to remove the 8 teams from Division 4 of the National Football League from the Championship. Their proposal was that if any of the 8 teams failed to reach their provincial final, they would be removed to compete in a knockout ‘B’ Championship. In my opinion, it was a pretty poor proposal, and I was glad when it failed to gain much support at Annual Congress.

There are some excellent footballers playing in Division 4. Below I have selected my “Team of the Season” from the 8 counties. I was surprised when I looked back at it to see that all 8 teams are represented. I saw just one match per weekend, as for some reason the GAA scheduled almost all the games at the same time, so the selection is based on what I saw at the games I attended. This selection of 15 I believe would be well capable of being an asset to any Division 1 side. To think of demeaning them, the work they put in, and most importantly the skills they have, by removing them from competing in the All-Ireland Championship is frankly scandalous.

  1. Craig Lynch (Louth) – good shot stopper, good kickout, comfortable in possession
  2. Tadhg O hUllachain (Waterford) – lightning fast man marker
  3. Sean McVeigh (Antrim) – strong in the air, tough as nails, old school full back
  4. Stephen Kelly (Wicklow) – pacy, good man marker, all round footballer
  5. Derek Maguire (Louth) – best sweeper I’ve seen, gets forward to great effect
  6. Gary Reynolds (Leitrim) – leader, marker and covers for his teammates
  7. David McGreevy (London) – leader of a London side unlucky to pick up only one win
  8. James Stewart (Louth) – fielder, processes a lot of ball and attacked well
  9. Daithi Waters (Wexford) – leader, linked play well and excellent on opposition kickouts
  10. Darren Hayden (Wicklow) – very quick and caused problems carrying ball towards goal
  11. Michael McCann (Antrim) – accurate, playmaker and very clever off the ball running
  12. Emlyn Mulligan (Leitrim) – playmaker and leader of attack. Excellent penalty taker
  13. Donal Shanley (Wexford) – accurate from play and frees, moves off the ball cleverly
  14. Darragh Foley (Carlow) – strong in the air, mobile, accurate
  15. Paul Whyte (Waterford) – strong, very accurate and good in the air

Very close to making this XV are Chris Kerr (Antrim), Tomas McCann (Antrim), James Califf (Louth), Declan Byrne (Louth), Colm Kehoe (Wexford), Gary Kelly (Carlow), Sean Gannon (Carlow), Mark Gottsche (London), Conor Prunty (Waterford), Barry Prior (Leitrim) and Mark Kenny (Wicklow) who were all excellent in the games I saw.

These guys, and their teammates, are deserving of respect. Pundits and the media are quick to give plaudits based on the training and hard work these players put in, but to ignore the skills and craft of these players does them a disservice. These guys wouldn’t be out of place in any company.

The Championship prospects for each team are outlined briefly below. There is cause for optimism for most teams in my opinion:

  • Antrim won’t be out of their depth against Fermanagh in the Preliminary Round in Ulster and could grab a victory if they can be confident in their system and don’t retreat into themselves on the day.
  • Carlow and Louth will be an excellent game in the Preliminary Round in Leinster and I’m sure it won’t be a one-sided affair as their league fixture was- whichever team comes out on top will give Meath a good rattle the next game out.
  • Wicklow have had an up and down league but if their management can settle on a team and resist making wholesale changes when the team is behind, can cause some damage against Laois in the Preliminary Round in Leinster.
  • Wexford, if they can pick their best team and get them all on the field, can beat Kildare in the First Round of Leinster. They have a good system of play, good forwards and some quality midfielders. Whichever team wins, I believe, will beat whichever midland team they face in the Semi-Final.
  • Waterford face Tipperary in the Munster Quarter-Final. Again, Waterford, dependent on getting their best team on the field and keeping their key players fit, can grab a win.
  • Leitrim will face, in all likelihood, Roscommon in the Connacht Quarter-Final. Despite having some quality players, I do think this will be a step too far for Leitrim. On the other hand, they are capable of raising their game as they showed in a quality win against Louth in the league.
  • London have been dealt the worst hand of all, with a Connacht Quarter-Final against Mayo. It’s a big ask, but London have performed well in Division 4. Close defeats have followed them all year, narrowly losing to Carlow, Leitrim and Wicklow in games they could have won. If they lose to Mayo, it would be great to see them get a favourable draw in the qualifiers as they really could go on a good run.

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Winning?

Every team in every competition in every sport wants to win. That’s what they’d say if you asked them. They go out to play their best, play hard, play well and get the result at the end of the game. Show me a player who walks out onto a field, court or gym and doesn’t do their best. Genuinely, show me, because I don’t know any.

Motivation is easy once you’re out there togged out and the whistle goes. It’s natural. You’re already on the battlefield, it’s sink or swim time. Motivation to prepare to your best ability to give you and your team the best chance of winning, well that’s a bit more difficult.

If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. In sports preparation, that’s a phrase to live by. The preparation phase is when you really find out if a team or player wants to win. The team that prepares best to win is the team that’s most likely to win. If you’re better physically, technically, tactically and mentally prepared than your opponent, you are more likely to win. There’s no getting away from that fact.

Many teams, coaches and players out there don’t want to win. What an outrageous statement that is! Let me qualify it a bit. There are many teams, coaches and players who’d LIKE to win, but aren’t willing to PREPARE to win. That’s a bit better. They would like to win, but not if it means they have to change. If you ever hear a sportsperson utter a phrase like “on our day we’re as good as any of them”, you can put your last euro on them not winning the championship they’re in that year. These performers would like to win, but only on their own terms.

There can be a multitude of reasons for that. Pride. Greed. All the deadliest sins are behind an unwillingness to change. Usually, in my experience, it’s not deliberate, but is an unconscious desire on their part to want to win ONLY if they can be coach, captain, leader, star player, whatever. A pride that “this is the way we do things here”. Yet, what good is it to you if you go out year after year to lose.

A wise lecturer recently remarked to me that for many managers in their sport, “losing is acceptable if you make the same mistakes anyone else would have made”. For example, it’s acceptable to pick the injured star player and lose, but not acceptable to drop a star player because he doesn’t fit the tactics needed in the game. There is a great example in the film Moneyball, where coach Art Howe says “I need to pick the team in a way I can explain in job interviews next year” when General Manager Billy Beane wants to make radical changes.

One way managers and coaches try to insure their careers against criticism is to copy what more successful teams do. “If we do what (insert successful team/athlete here) did, then we’ll win”. First, by the time you copy what the winner did, the innovators will have evolved past that so you still won’t win. Second, if all you do is copy others, you ignore the rule of individual difference: what works for one won’t necessarily work for another. Bringing in a Sport Psychologist because Kerry have one or having the team do pilates because Liverpool do it, is unlikely to improve the team unless there is know-how behind it, understanding of what it entails, and belief in it’s efficacy.

To be successful you must take risks. Innovate. Try things. Open your mind to possibilities. Good coaches explore sport science for help to prepare.  Sport&Performance Psychologists, Performance Analysts, Physiotherapists, Nutritionists, Physical Trainers can all offer help to prepare a team. The key is to open your mind, meet with them or try using them with the team or athlete. At worst, they give no help. At best, they improve the team by whatever percent.

Is there an acceptable way to lose? To me, there is. If you have prepared to do one’s best, to have gone out with pride to play the game hard, fair, with skill and to the best of one’s ability, then it is OK to lose. When you can look yourself in the mirror and honestly say “there is nothing more I could have done”, then there is no shame in losing to a superior opponent. That’s what any coach or player wants. To be able to look themselves and one another in the eye and know they gave it everything. No bullshit.

 

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Happiness on a Cold January Sunday

After just over an hour’s drive, I roll down the window and shout to a fella that looks like a GAA man: “Are ya parkin’ there for the match?”. Yes he says in a thick accent. I follow his lead and park halfway across a footpath facing the right way for home. A 5 minute walk and I’m inside the ground, a tenner in but a free programme so I take two. More space for writing notes. I find myself a good seat, roughly on the halfway line under the stand, a low concrete wall with a length of timber nailed to it and painted in the county colours. It’s about 3 degrees, mid January and little at stake between two counties neither of which I’m from. But this feels like home.

I have my supplies ready. Two apples (one before each half), a bottle of water, about 4 biros (just in case), my wee notebook and several sheets of printouts all are stashed in a lovely jacket a rugby club I coached at once gave me. Triple lined and plenty of pockets. Lovely. The announcer calls out the teams, I make the necessary adjustments in both programmes and stand for a minute’s silence and what I assume is a gramophone recording of the national anthem. A bit of pushing and shoving at midfield, the ball is in and the game is on.

The first ten minutes are busiest for me. What positions are the players playing, who is marking who. What are each teams attack systems and defence systems. Gaelic football has changed a lot in the last twenty years and every team is playing with all kinds of innovations. Sweepers. Double sweepers. Third midfielders. Defensive wing-forwards. Target men. Primary target men. Secondary inside forwards. Attacking corner backs. It’s all here. Goalkeepers are still goalkeepers.

I love it. Watching the game but learning from it too. I’m here to prepare a Scout Report on one team, but you can only do it if you watch both. I’m prepared- a programme and a tiny notebook take in kickout strategies, positioning and tactics. One eye on the game, one eye on what I’m writing so I don’t go past the edge of the notebook and write on my hand (again).

The best part of a GAA match is the atmosphere. Rugby matches I’ve been to the last few years can’t compare, not any more. Too many people there to be there, too few to understand what’s happening at the professional games. Not enough people to have a good atmosphere at club games. The 17 year old girl with full makeup, bad hair extensions and a club GAA tracksuit top knows what’s what here though. Especially when the hint of a row starts in front of the stand. GAA fans know their stuff. “God you’re a good one ref” one shouts when a yellow is flashed a bit harshly. “That ref’ll be grand with a few more years of experience” shouts another further down.

Analysis is great, and I love this kind of stuff. It’s good, hard, open football. The moment I crack the code on how to beat the team’s kickout plan is a good personal moment in the game. But a dirty ball right in front of me where there are three good shoulders, a huge hit which misses, 3 men from each side willing to kill for that ball until the fullback emerges, dodges one and finally is fouled to a huge roar of approval from his side, that’s when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You can’t beat GAA for atmosphere.

I watch the last minute of the game standing at the end of the stand next to a gate. A childhood of missing the last two minutes of games so we’d beat the traffic means I don’t leave before the final whistle. Too many missed last minute goals you’d hear about on the radio on the way home. But still close enough to the gate that I’m one of the first to leave, and after a wee jog to the car I’m in and on my way. A few hours re-thinking the game writing up a detailed Scout Report this evening. And local radio analysis on the game for the drive home. Love it.

Only 7 days til the next one. Lovely.

What’s that ref meant to be doing anyway?!

Whatever the game we watch and whatever the result, what we can be certain of is that we will hear on television, in the newspaper or from the coaches themselves about the performance of the referee in that game. The position of referee must be, in some ways at least, the most stressful position on the field in rugby, soccer, gaelic football and rugby. The concentration levels, attention to detail, decision making and the communication skills needed by a referee are enormous. The referees  interpretations of the rules can alter how teams can play, and their decisions can change the outcome of a game. It is essential that they have these mental skills, and are free to be neutral and as pressure-free as possible in order to make the best decisions on the field.

Something which has concerned me for a number of years now is the role many former professionals and coaches believe the referee should play. When we hear of coaches asking for the referee to “let the game flow”, or that the referee “ruined the game as a spectacle”, I believe we are in very difficult and dangerous territory. This attitude has crept into many sports, and I believe it is detrimental to each sport. Just yesterday I watched the England v New Zealand rugby league test on BBC. Jon Wilkin and Jamie Peacock at half-time both criticised the match referee for awarding 9 penalties in the first half for offences by both sides at slowing down the play of the ball. Both sides had clearly set out to slow the tempo of the opposition’s attack by being slow at ruck time. The half-time scoreline of 2-2 (one penalty each) was testiment to the intent of both sides to prevent tries and preventing the opponent to build attacks where their defence wouldn’t have time to be organised. Wilkin and Peacock made the point that the game as a spectacle was badly damaged by the referees decisions to award penalties. This sentiment can be heard all the time in gaelic football and hurling particularly, where a game full of fouling and negative tactics is generally blamed on the referee in question.

One could say that the job of a referee is to enforce the rules of the game and to impose sanctions on individuals who breach these rules. I think that would be a fair definition of a referee in any of the sports I’ve named. The rules of the game are key. I would sincerely doubt if the rulebooks for any of the sports from rugby to soccer to GAA state anywhere that a responsibility of a referee is to ensure that the game is entertaining to those who watch it, that there are lots of scores or lots of nice passes. The purpose of the referee in a sport is to know the rules, enforce those rules by giving frees (or cards) when appropriate, and to be neutral in applying those rules. A key point is that the referee should be neutral and enforce the rules, rather than being even. Even is not neutral or fair- you see this regularly where a team has a man sent off and the referee stops giving frees against them, or conversely where something happens and the referee tries to “even things up”. If we could have referees enforce the rules properly, everyone would know where they stand. Players would not be frustrated at having a decision go against them. We would not have conversations every Saturday and Sunday about consistency. Giving the free to one guy and not the other for the same offence. These things drive people mad.

Here’s a unique concept I’d love more people to embrace. Even to just try it out for a while, see how it feels:

The game as a spectacle is the responsibility of the players and management of each team, not the responsibility of the referee.

The players are the ones on the field who commit fouls. They are the ones who push the referee, seeing where he will draw a line. They will pull jerseys, push opponents, slow the ball down, neglect to retreat the required distance from free-kick, start rows and tactically foul where it is difficult to score from. It is the responsibility of a referee to punish all of these things when they happen without any pressure on them not to. If these fouls were punished each and every time they happen, and the appropriate sanctions taken for those who persist, teams would see very quickly that they would not be able to win through negative tactics as they’d be conceding scores and playing with fewer players on their team. When we see what we consider to be a “good referee”, it is easy to tell who he is. Not because he created a spectacle, but because he got his decisions correct almost all of the time. Guys like soccer’s Pierluigi Collina or rugby’s Andre Watson got the calls right, and didn’t bottle making difficult decisions or punishing serial offenders. Alain Rolland, Nigel Owens, Dickie Murphy, John Bannon and Pat McAneaney were also guys who just played the rules and let the game sort itself out.

The pressure levels on a referee at any level are huge. I don’t think many go out to favour one team and in general referees are neutral. But they are hampered or confused in many situations by issues which should be external to their performance. Deciding not to give a free or penalty because of it’s impact on the scoreboard, because you penalised that team 10 times already, because there have been 20 frees in ten minutes, because that player said or did something previously in the game make for a bad game. Good referees are the ones who ignore those things and give the decisions anyway. The game in general, we as supporters, coaches and players, and the respective organisations can help referees to do great jobs by taking the pressure off them to do anything other than blow the whistle when the rules say you should.