BY MICHEÁL O'SULLIVAN
I RITH an cluiche idir Ciarraí agus Baile Ath Cliath sa sraith Allianz cúpla seachtain o shin ar TG4, duírt Aodain Mac Gearailt, ‘Tá na bunscileanna is fear ag na foirne is fear sa tír seo’.
For those of you who were not paying attention during Irish class at school, that translates to ‘the best teams in Ireland have the best basic skills.’
All that came into my head when Mac Gearailt said that was the red loft door (that has since been painted black) in my parents’ front yard. There were 12 steps leading up to the door where grain was stored and it fed the mill that was on the ground floor. The milled grain was used to feed the farm animals at home.
With ball in hand, any chance we got, that red door was the target. Anyone who grew up with a football in your hands have comparable memories of places where you spent hours practising the basics.
The farmhouse lies at a right angle to the face of the mill building so all the space lay directly in front and to the right of the target. As young fellas we became quite accurate at hitting that target with the straight punt kick and the outside of the right boot from the right-hand side.
As a consequence this brought both strengths and weaknesses to my game, first as a young player and then on into adult football. I was weak kicking from the left side, wrapping my right foot around the ball to get that right to left spin. This weakness manifested itself even more when I graduated to the Cork jersey. It’s that kick from the centre to the right wing where the spin is important to bring the ball into the forwards path and stop it from going out over the sideline.
One night at Cork senior training in Paírc Uí Rinn we were performing this skill as part of a drill where we were feeding the ball to the inside forwards and it was all just going haywire for me. Ball after ball went off target. Ciarán O’Sullivan, being the astute and experienced player that he was, noticed I was struggling and pulled me aside. Ciarán played right half back at the time, but he could play anywhere really such was his ability, and he had this particular skill down to a fine art. He gave me three or four simple pointers, but added: ‘To do this under pressure, practise, practise, practise.’
Having that kind of experienced figure with a willingness to give some of his own time to a younger player was a key factor in the progression of a lot of us who came onto the Cork panel back then. Simple advice, but exactly the right advice too.
Look back, too, to when Colm Collins was appointed Clare senior football manager in 2014. He inherited a Division 4 outfit, but he steered them out of Division 4 at the first attempt and guided them a step higher in 2016 when they finished as Division 3 champions. This season they have held their status as a Division 2 team for a sixth successive year and they have a chance at promotion to Division 1 when they play Mayo this weekend.
Collins was asked before the recent league game against Cork in Ennis what he attributes this rise in Clare football fortunes to. His answer: ‘When I came in our full focus was to bring the basic skills of Clare footballers to a standard where they can be competitive with the best.’ Mission accomplished. That focus of the basic skills has reaped rewards for Clare, as it will do for any team that puts an emphasis on the basics.
With the levels of preparation that all club and inter-county players are engaging in right now, it’s becoming more and more difficult to differentiate yourself from the rest and gain some kind of edge. It is easy to get pre-occupied with GPS trackers, psychologists, nutritionists, data analysis teams and all the other bells and whistles associated with running a team at the moment. All these extras only add percentages to your performance provided your basic skill-set is top notch. That’s where the best teams – like Kerry and Dublin, or locally Nemo Rangers – are getting their edge and consistently differentiating themselves from the rest.
In my playing days I always felt I needed to be doing that bit extra to give myself the confidence that I had the edge on the guy I was marking in the next championship match.
If a skill is letting you down, get a bag of balls and head to the pitch on your own. If you are struggling in the runs, get an extra running session in. If you are being blown off the ball, invest in a set of weights, get a programme and build yourself up. Take responsibility for yourself and don’t expect to be spoon-fed all the time.
The Game Development Administrators (GDA) in Cork are doing a great job promoting the game and trying to raise the skill levels of our underage players with the overall aim being to get players to the level where they can fill Cork senior jerseys. But that intrinsic motivation that you have yourself will determine how far you get as a player.
Eamon Fitzmaurice said in the Irish Examiner recently that ‘you can’t train what David Clifford has’. The Kerry forward has balance, is equally good off left and right, is equally good in the air and on the ground, and has size, strength and pace. The genetics are good, but the motivation is there. The time and practise have obviously been put in as well. Clifford has the edge. He is a naturally gifted athlete but we have all seen naturally gifted athletes within our own clubs that never graduated beyond underage football because they didn’t have the love, the passion or the drive to be the best that David Clifford has.
And that’s what you can’t train. You can lead the horse to water but you can’t make him drink. No matter what the level, the fundamentals of the game are key. The coach can do so much within the time constraints that he or she has but the extras you do as a player are what give you the edge.