Thursday, October 11, 2007

Howzee Ref ?

The undulations of any football match are best parsed in a stark light; unfortunately this sometimes means the insomniac glow of eL Weekly. Whilst there was plenty that I didn't need to see or hear, but did, it was essential that I got to view Darren Mansaram's goal against Pats again to confirm my suspicions.

An aside, it was interesting to note the clothing of choice for two high profile managers. Earlier in the season we bathed in the ridicule of Sean Connor's red pantaloons; in general he was adopting tracksuit manager chic, but with a rare twist. John McDonnell too was fond of the tracksuit, but both bosses opted for a more sober suited style on the night. It loaned an air of gravitas to the proceedings; suggesting that we were dealing with two thinkers - the 'h' is important - men who could select the right wine for every occasion, deliver a post-match interview in several languages and mix the perfect Martini. I must get myself a suit.

Again and time we are reminded of the significance of the minutiae of football; the tiny moments that, like molecules, form the fabric of games. Incidents that win finals, end title dreams and condemn sides to relegation. Professional football offers its privileged protagonists the opportunity to eradicate the bad habits which can lead to these errors; the rest of us have to endure the lazy-arse shrug of the shoulders from a teammate. Professional football endows upon the gifted the opportunity to hone their talents to a degree which allows them to produce special moments; moments which can result in similarly significant outcomes. Moments which cause other professional footballers to shrug their shoulders in helpless disbelief.

Stephen Brennan is an honest and dependable footballer, yet his action last Friday cost his side a precious three point haul, thereby heaping pressure on his manager's already perilous position.

The aforementioned defender was outside his own 18-yard box, facing the play. His direct opponent - Mansaram - was within eyeshot and heading towards the Pats' left. The defender was almost as comfortable as he could have been. He had a clear view of the player in possession, who was shaping up to deliver a pass along the inside of the right back berth.

At this point, the defender knew where the ball would be delivered and for whom it was intended. He was tracking the striker's run from left to right and was actually in advance of Mansaram poised to meet the ball ahead of his opponent. No danger then, a searching ball cut out; headed to the right touchline for safety. His centre half partner was inside him, John Frost was taking up a covering position as would be expected.

Brennan's decision not to take a step back- not being in the Clive Delaney stratosphere of central defenders - in order to achieve a comfortable contact with the ball was his downfall. Who is to blame for his decision? The player? The coaching staff?

To willingly relinquish control of any situation on a football pitch is a cardinal error. To submit the destiny of your team to the whims and observational powers of the referee and his assistants is tantamount to deliberately scoring into your own goal. Stephen Brennan chose the latter by refusing to challenge for the ball. Instead he opted for my pet hate - the offside trap - bolthole of cowardly and lazy defenders the world over.

Your job as a defender is to defend your goal. Stepping up with your hand in the air while calling out 'HOWZEE REF' is not football. I am the vehicle for a Gilesean rant on the art of defending. What is wrong with a defender defending? Standing there with your arm in the air, looking to the linesman while a striker bears down on goal is not defending; it's an abdication of responsibility. Inevitably, the realisation that there will be no flag creeps across the consciousness of a near stationary mind. The margins needed to score in these situations are often dictated by speed of thought and anticipation - by the time the waving defender has resumed his defensive duties it is to late. Maybe another less indolent colleague has covered - in Pats' case Dave Rogers had not given up the chase, but was too far removed from the crisis point to effect an intervention.

Defending is as fine a footballing art as finishing, passing and goalkeeping. Not always to the forefront, but no less important than any other skill the game has to offer. A well-organised backline is a masterpiece of communication and teamwork. There are five people involved here, more than in any other area of the pitch and properly organised they can be moulded into an impermeable force.

From such rock are successful sides fashioned. The well-timed tackle; the masterfully anticipated interception, both followed up with a simple pass to a well-placed colleague. It looks simple but enlists the paddlework of a speeding duck beneath the line of vision.
The offside rule was introduced in an effort to prevent what the English call 'goalhanging'; Irelanders of a certain vintage would refer to it as 'hatching'. In other words, to prevent strikers from seeking to gain an unfair advantage by not adhering to the spirit of the game. It seems our ancestors couldn't give a flying funk about the spirit of the game if it became necessary to inflict the offside law on football.

Since the imposition of the law it has been defenders who have neglected the spirit of the game; abusing and exploiting the law to make their jobs easier. Tinkering with the rules has yielded some gain for attackers. The 'interfering with play' aspect has been watered down and the attacking player is now supposedly to be given the benefit of the doubt. Resultantly, it is now harder than ever to get a positive decision from the officials if you are a defender.

In the 20th century if a player was offside he was offside. Simple as. Tony Adams and Dermot Keely played much of the game with one arm in the air. Then it was decided that the referee would make a decision based on his opinion. Not a rule, an opinion. And we all have strong views on referees' opinions don't we. To further complicate a defender's world, the rules relating to passing the ball back to the 'keeper were given a welcome upgrade.

This is why the Italian's make the world's greatest defenders. Excuse me while I drool over the ability of Paolo Maldini. Every player needs to be able to play; understand that a defender must chase, tackle, anticipate and read. Be first to the ball and there is no tackle to make. Drop off and pick your moment to tackle. Stand shoulder to shoulder, run side by side battling for space and pick your moment to block.

Or stand there with your hand in the air and wait for a decision from the official; then berate that official for a wrong call. It is physically impossible for the human eye to detect where a player is at the precise moment in which another player strikes the ball - so all is chance at best.
It is possible to defend, if the official detects an offside the whistle will blow and the game will be halted temporarily. But the defender will have been in a position to effect the situation.

Brennan stepped out, offering Mansaram a free run on goal; Murphy turned and raised his arm - looking for offside; Rogers raced in vain, then turned to berate the linesman for disagreeing with Brennan's vista; Ryan raced to deny Mansaram but was exposed. Frost was even further away than Rogers. Mansaram scored; Bohs won; Pats lost.

View the winning goal here

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