Championship football is a volatile game. Thirty players all moving with purpose, all the time.
When the final whistle goes, it’s the spectacular plays that stick in the mind – the great goal, the high catch, the brilliant save. But very often, the winning and losing of the game is in the smaller, more subtle moments.
Let’s take a couple of examples from last weekend’s games. Across 10 matches, the cumulative total came to 16-154. That’s 170 scores.
I want to focus on two of them – Damien Comer’s goal for Galway against Roscommon and Liam Jackson’s goal for Louth against Westmeath. But even though both were well-taken, it wasn’t the goalscorers themselves that caught my attention.
We’ll start with Jackson’s goal in Páirc Tailteann. Louth were trailing by 1-10 to 1-7 at the time, with 55 minutes gone. They had been eight points down at half-time. Now they entered the crucial period of the game, striving to reach a Leinster semi-final.
Jackson timed his run perfectly, coming late and unmarked on to a pass from Sam Mulroy (see above from 1.00) and shooting from the 14-metre line. It brought Louth level and they kicked on from there to win the game.
But in all the excitement, the question has to be asked – how was Jackson able to find space in the middle of the goal with a small but clear lane and time to shoot?
The answer lies with the Louth number 4, corner-back Donal McKenny. As play was developing down the left side of the Louth attack, a full five seconds before Jackson came onto the ball, McKenny made a cutting 40-yard run from right to left across the face of the Westmeath goal. He ran directly across the eyeline of Westmeath centre-back Ronan Wallace, who was positioned in the centre in front of the goal, on the 20-metre line.
It was an unselfish run. McKenny wasn’t directly involved in the play but his run couldn’t be ignored. He raised an arm as if calling for a pass. He didn’t want the ball – he wanted Wallace to think he wanted the ball.
Wallace honoured McKenny’s run and followed him across and out of the square. By the time he turned back, Jackson was running in at speed. Wallace chased back over to try and get a block in but arrived milliseconds too late.
Jackson’s finish was composed and precise to the bottom right corner. The skills of the game are crucial and he executed when his team needed it.
But the creation of the chance came down to a subtle run by a corner-back, off camera, that might not have resulted in anything. McKenny sprinted 40 yards to create a two-yard lane in a critical area in front of goal. Partly because he did that, Louth are back in Croke Park tomorrow with a chance to make their first Leinster final in 13 years.
Another example came in the Galway game and it was even more subtle again. In the 52nd minute, there was only a point between the teams. Dylan McHugh went for a mid-range shot that unexpectedly hit the post. It dropped down into the six-yard box and Comer collected to prod the ball home.
His marker was David Murray, the Roscommon number 4. Watch it again and you’ll see that as the ball is in the air and seemingly going over for a point, Murray is marking him perfectly. He is stationed between Comer and the goal. He has his hands on him, in contact without fouling. He is doing his job.
What happens next? Literally as you hear the leather striking the post, Murray’s body has already turned to anticipate the set-up for the Roscommon kick-out six seconds later. He is in the initial stage to go and be a kick-out option, so that he can help his team retain possession and to set up the next attack.
Forty-nine times out of 50, this is perfect. This play is that one occasion out of 50 when it doesn’t work out. It’s a tiny movement – maybe six inches at most. But it means that he is side-by-side now, instead of goalside. Murray’s proactive thinking meant Comer can collect the ball as it comes back down off the post. Comer finishes to the net. Momentum with Galway. Ultimately, they see it out and win by four.
What interests me here and beyond these two examples is how players make these decisions. When under pressure, people make decisions quicker, based largely on intuition. Gut feeling, basically. The biggest factor in that intuition is experience. This happened before, therefore I will make Decision A or B based on that. Some decisions are right, some aren’t.
Right decisions don’t always produce the right outcome either. That is the great thing about high-performance environments. Every day players are always on a quest to increase their all-around competence. Different outcomes are attached to each decision.
What does Liam Jackson do next? Mentally how does David Murray respond? What impact has it on Damien Comer? My point is that subtlety happens all over a pitch. It’s not always picked up in real time, but it so often makes a meaningful impact.
How do players get better at the subtle things? The same way they get better at all the other aspects of the game. Quality practice. Meticulous attention to detail. Matches. Performance is about adding layers, consistently and constantly.
In the military, snipers are skilled in precision shooting. Drawing comparisons for a GAA player, they too are asked to perform in the most volatile of environments. Their role is to perform tasks that help their team carry out a mission. They will prepare diligently and intelligently. Subtle behaviours matter. Millimetres matter.
They need a constant feed of the live context around them – the wind, the pressure, the light, the temperature, the distance, the target. Just like players, snipers look through the scope towards a target. An essential part of what they do is to ensure they have a ‘soft gaze’. Which means they don’t stare. Otherwise, they miss key information around them. GAA players also benefit from the context of the environment around them.
As another four football games take place across this weekend, players are laser-focused. But not staring so hard they miss the live context close by. It makes the difference.