The reigning All-Ireland champions were denied a chance to make it three-in-a-row as Crossmaglen fell to St Brigid’s in Mullingar. Emmet Ryan looks at how the Connacht champions used Basketball strategy to pull off the upset.
It’s not about Olivia Newton John
This match-up was physical but what game involving Crossmaglen isn’t? Many of the Armagh goliath’s opponents have tried to bruise them into submission but St Brigid’s became the first to succeed in three years. The difference was how and where the Kiltoom team got tough. Kevin McStay never played* Basketball at a high level but when your brother played internationally and your brother-in-law and second in command, Liam McHale, did too it’s not a surprise if you adopt some strategy from the hardwood. Looking first at the physical play St Brigid’s used, fouling and hard tackling was deliberately positioned far out from goal. The Kiltoom club wanted to slow down Crossmaglen’s movement and distribution from the off and it worked. Passing from defence in particular was a nightmare for Crossmaglen as Brigid’s had time to set up their cover.
*Although I still imagine he would destroy this 31 year old with bad ankles in a one-on-one game.
This led to the second part of the Connacht champions’ game plan: making the field smaller. Crossmaglen love to spread the ball from side-to-side and skipping lines with kick passing. Brigid’s were able to box out players, crowding them into corners. This removed the opportunity from Cross to spread the ball quickly, slowing them considerable. To bring the analogy even that little bit further, there was even a clear deliberate foul. With Jamie Clarke taking possession and about to get through on goal, Peter Domican stuck his leg out to trip Clarke on 42 minutes. Better to force a free than risk a goal.
By taking this approach at the back, St Brigid’s could control three things: the size of the field, the clock, and the pace of play. Boxing out players gave Crossmaglen less room to operate and the persistent physical play not only killed time but it allowed St Brigid’s to slow the tempo considerably. Crossmaglen fouled plenty too but they didn’t yield the same kind of strategic benefit.
The Basketball mind-set was also clear in how Brigid’s sought to attack. When Crossmaglen had any kind of numbers advantage at the back, they generally prevailed. The Kiltoom club simply couldn’t deal with heavy coverage. Everything Brigid’s did was to try an eliminate this and force favourable situations. Senan Kilbride and Darren Dolan were their primary targets for creating one-on-one match-ups, using the duo to either get around their men or draw fouls. Two Crossmaglen defenders in particular struggled against the strategy as James Morgan and Danny O’Callaghan either lost out in the battle for possession or fouled in favourable shooting range, or both. Despite some success early, with their 1-3 in the opening period all coming from forcing advantageous match-ups, Brigid’s failed to turn this advantage into scores from dead balls in the first half. Three straight missed frees to end the period turned what could have been a one-point advantage into a two-point deficit at the break.
Strategically however Brigid’s were making all the right moves in open play. Their opening goal came from a free forced by crowding their defence around Clarke. Shane Curran sent it forward and then three Dolans took over. Garvan Dolan sent it to Darren Dolan who was isolated, he found Frankie Dolan open and his deflected shot found the net. The best move of the half for Brigid’s however didn’t result in a score. Darren Dolan took possession to the right of the large rectangle on 11 minutes. He ran away from goal while Senan Kilbride ran outside to Dolan’s left. This allowed Dolan to screen two Cross defenders and pass to an open Kilbride whose shot from short-range hit the post.
After the break Brigid’s continued with this approach up front and got a little more for it. Within seven minutes of the re-start the Kiltoom club had drawn two fouls from one-on-one match-ups, the second of which saw Morgan lose out to Kilbride again, and both were converted to level the game. Cathal McHugh then beat O’Callaghan in a one-on-one and opted to fist a point while a goal chance was on in the 48th minute. While Morgan and O’Callaghan struggled, their problems were as much an issue with Crossmaglen’s failure to adapt as their individual play. Errigal Chiarain had found Crossmaglen struggled in one-on-ones defensively; Brigid’s expanded on this by making it the central focus of their attack. Even the move Brigid’s used to close out the game, when the focus was on killing the clock rather than padding the score, exploited Morgan. Karol Mannion played a long ball forward towards Kilbride and he got in front of Morgan to win possession and offload to an open Eoin Sheehy. While the subsequent shot went wide, the seconds had been killed and full-time was called on the re-start.
Clarke creates while covered
Losing Oisin McConville through injury early was never going to be helpful to Crossmaglen. This placed a greater burden on Jamie Clarke in the front-line and he struggled for much of the game. Once again it was the system as much as Clarke’s own performance that was at the heart of matters. With Brigid’s crowding players out, Clarke received particularly heavy cover and had no room to attack early. Where Das Phantom succeeded however was in using the bodies around him to create space for others.
Take Crossmaglen’s first goal. With the Ulster champions having won possession from a kick-out, the ball was quickly sent forward towards Clarke to the left of goal. With his back to goal and covered, Clarke split the defence with a pass to the on-rushing Paul Hughes and he found the net on 12 minutes. Clarke was also involved in Crossmaglen’s best chance to add a second major. After a bungled clearance by the Brigid’s defence, Clarke again got possession with his back to goal on 31 minutes. This time he only had Shane Curran in the Kiltoom club’s goal behind him however, with no real way of knowing how Curran was positioned Clarke went for the best option he could see. Kyle Brennan was open and running straight at goal, Clarke passed to him but Brennan’s effort was blasted wide. It was no accident that Crossmaglen’s two best chances came from turnovers. With Brigid’s shape broken, the Ulster champions were able to create at speed. The problem was they simply couldn’t force enough of these to hurt Brigid’s with regularity.
Breaking down the second Brigid’s goal
Having fallen a point behind late, the Kiltoom club won a line ball on the right from the 20 metre line. Kilbride took it quickly, spotting a 2-on-2 situation inside. Frankie Dolan moved to take possession.
With both Crossmaglen players down Dolan now had the inside edge and as he turned this became a 2-on-none.
Stephen Kernan got back to offer some late defensive support but once Dolan got his boot to the ball, Conor McHugh had an open net to finish.
Again this was all about match-ups. To borrow from Basketball again, Kilbride got the ball in-bounds quickly and exploited a favourable match-up to create the chance. Dolan moved around the outside, putting Brigid’s in an even better position and McHugh got off the turf in time to finish.
This was a classic case of applying strategy to the situation. McStay and McHale already had proven they had a well-organised side in preceding rounds but in this game they applied extra layers to their strategy. Using typical European style Basketball philosophies they succeeded in gaining fundamental advantages, hampering Crossmaglen’s strengths and exploiting their weaknesses. Beating Ballymun will require a massive change in tactics, largely because the Dublin club plays such a different game to Crossmaglen, but the strategic mind-set will have the same over-arching goals.
For Crossmaglen it’s the end of three years of unparalleled dominance. Rarely putting together a consistent 60 minutes this season, the Ulster champions rode their strengths to the All-Ireland series. Brigid’s found a way to turn Crossmaglen’s inconsistency to their advantage, securing a place in Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day in the process.
Read more Tactics not Passion columns here.
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