I don’t like jump-shooting teams. I don’t think you can make enough jumpers to win four series in a row.
That quote came from Charles Barkley following a regular season win for the Golden State Warriors. It was 2015 and Barkley was speaking on the TNT basketball post-game show he's made an institution on American television. A few months later, the Warriors were NBA Champions and a new sporting dynasty was born. While the statement itself seems suspect with the advantage of hindsight; the motivation behind it easily traceable to an established school of thought. And it's a school of thought that should be eerily familiar to GAA fans.
Barkley, a 6”4 power forward who made his living regularly out-muscling men 6 to 8 inches taller than him for rebounds, was drafted in 1984. The same year as Michael Jordan. The same year as Hakeem Olajuwon. The same year as John Stockton. He played in a hard-nosed NBA during a golden era for basketball, the greatest talent pool the league had seen in years.
The NBA in those days was dominated by big men and hard defence. Slowly but surely the legends of the game began to age and fade out of the game, but the erosion of talent left behind a slow, physical style of play. Without being buoyed by transcendent talent, and with scoring totals falling precipitously year on year, the NBA decided to take action.
In 2003 hand-checking rules were implemented, the upshot of which was an exponential increase in scoring, pace of play and emphasis on smaller, quicker guards. This, coupled with the analytics movement telling teams that three-pointers and layups should be the cornerstones of their offence led to a massive shift in style of play, culminating in Steph Curry’s gunslinging Warriors team becoming the most devastating force in the NBA, breaking the Jordan’s ‘96 Bulls single-season wins record in 2016, and winning two of the last three NBA Championships.
Barkley, a member of the old guard, believed that teams couldn’t win this way and that “analytics don't work at all. It's just some crap that people who were really smart made up to try to get in the game because they had no talent”. He, as a distinguished member of the basketball establishment believed the old ways were best, attaching himself to the greatness of a bygone era. It can be hard to accept evolution in sport as it forces you to confront your own athletic insecurities.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) October 28, 2015
This is a story we know very well here at home. As we have been told ad nauseam for the past fifteen years, Gaelic football is in turmoil. Defensive structures have destroyed the game, and the demands placed on players are unreasonable and unsustainable. While this much may be true, a certain cynicism has developed around all types of innovation in our game.
Carlow football, fresh from their greatest summer in living memory, have opened up in Division four with three wins from three games. Optimism surrounds the county for the first time since the sugar factory closed. While all credit must be given to the work of long-suffering players, the addition of one of the defensive football cognoscenti’s favourite sons, Steven Poacher, is notable.
Speaking on Balls' “So Called Weaker Podcast" recently, Carlow defender Daniel St. Ledger described that Carlow’s main goal entering the year was promotion from the doldrums of Division Four. In previous years, the team’s Achilles' heel had been their defence, with St Ledger claiming that Carlow had the league’s worst scoring defence for the two preceding seasons.
Poacher’s methods rankle somewhat with the intelligentsia of quite a staid football establishment. His conditioned training games come with monikers like “triple transition scoring game”, “blast off transition game” and of course, the most famous of the lot, “drop down and drive”. The Down native preaches “role acceptance”. His teams play with a very structured defence, much to the chagrin of pundits such a Joe Brolly, who recently described Poacher’s methods as “gobbledegook”. His players describe themselves as “lucky with the management [they] have in place”. So what’s going on?
Brolly, much like Barkley, is the product of a glorious era within their respective sports. Football saw eight separate counties win the All Ireland during the '90s, a kind of parity not likely to be matched any time soon. The game, still embryonic in terms of tactical density despite being over one hundred years old, had not experienced the introduction of the blanket defence and the baptism of “puke football”. Perhaps Brolly is correct to cling to this postcard perfect view of football, but for teams at the coalfaces of the attritional Divisions Three and Four, this notion holds little solace.
Carlow face Waterford this Saturday with a chance to win their fourth game in as many matches in this year’s league. For a team like Carlow, staying the same means going backwards, as football’s top tier surges forward ahead of a desperate chasing pack. To address the talent gap, teams will have to become more and more creative in how they play.
Football played fifteen on fifteen in baggy jerseys is a distant memory. Innovation, coupled with subtle rule changes such as the recent mark and short kickout rules may lead to the development of a style of play more palatable to watch than what’s served on a weekly basis at present.
We should encourage maverick thinking from our coaches, not stifle it. Not everyone is comfortable with change, but with some luck, we may find the GAA’s version of Steph Curry and the Warriors.
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