Is there no defence for defending?

Saturday 29th January - Scottish Communities League Cup Semi Final
Ayr United 0, Kilmarnock 0
Kilmarnock win 1-0 after extra time

Jose Mourinho brought the term 'parking the bus' to British football after his Chelsea side were unable to unlock a resolute defensive display from Tottenham in September 2004 and it has subsequently entered the lexicon of football clich├ęs.  It carries entirely negative connotations, yet has contributed to some famous results: Scotland twice beating France in 2006 & 2007, Rangers' UEFA Cup run in 2007/08 and Mourinho's own Inter Milan at the Nou Camp as they beat Barcelona 3-2 on aggregate to reach to the 2010 Champions League. So some of the vitriol aimed at Brian Reid for employing the same approach against local rivals Kilmarnock in a Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final tie billed as the biggest ever Ayrshire derby has been surprise.

Ayr's semi-final tactics didn't please everyone...
A football game can be approached in two ways. You can go out to win, or you can go out not to lose. The best approach? Well, that depends primarily on the strengths and weaknesses of your side and of the opposition. Ayr's strengths during their run to the semi-final was being difficult to breakdown. Being well organised, and resolute and frustrating higher league opponents. There was no rational for changing the approach for the semi-final. Not the wide expanses of Hampden Park. Not the 25,000 crowd. Not the opposition. If first and foremost you set out not to get beat, the chances to win the game will come along. Possession, completed passes and creating goal scoring opportunities do not give a team the right to win a football match.

Ayr's only change to the starting XI that defeated St. Mirren in the quarter-final saw St. Mirren youngster Jamie McKernon come in for local lad Ross Robertson in midfield. That meant that Gareth Wardlaw came in for Mark Roberts up front with Michael Moffat withdrawn to a wide midfield spot as Ayr went 451. The formation worked against an atrocious on the night Inverness side in a gameAyr dominated. It was perhaps fortunate to work against Hearts in the next round of the League Cup as Ayr capitalised on a defensive error, questionable disallowed goal and some woeful penalty kicks from the Jambos. But it worked an absolute treat in the quarter-final at St. Mirren Park.

Back to the buses and Danny Lennon was irked by Ayr's tactics on the night: "What did they bring to the game?" asked the St. Mirren manager. "For all our dominance we couldn’t break down a parked bus and eleven traffic wardens". There was credit for sticking to the game plan, but definitely not the performance. Which grated a little. Brian Reid responded: “If parking the bus gets you the result then I’ll park the bus and take it. As the game wore on we were the better team". He was spot on. Urged on by a noisy travelling support in Paisley, Ayr finished the game strongly. Set piece after set piece was won and after 81 minutes Eddie Malone's perfect delivery into the box was met by the head of Chris Smith for the winner. It was the Honest Men's only attempt on target in a game in which they had given up 64% of possession yet it was a deserved win for a United side that grew in confidence in the face of a toothless St. Mirren attack.

This is what Ayr United tried to replicate at Hampden. They didn't come for penalties as suggested by the Telegraph's Ewing Grahame. Penalties were not Ayr's only hope as asserted by the Sunday Mail's Gordon Waddell. Brian Reid told Chick Young post-match his side had not come looking for penalties and his word should be enough. Penalties would have merely been the consolation for the game plan not quite working out. At least Waddell had the good grace to express admiration for Ayr sticking to their guns, recognising that if they had opened up Killie had the armoury to make them pay: "The Honest Men were well within their rights to play the game they needed to get the outcome they wanted". Grahame showed no understanding, to the extent that makes you wonder if he was in full possession of the facts. I certainly doubt he sees much of Ayr United. "Negative". "A staggering lack of ambition". A shoe-horned reference to Scotland's 4-6-0 experiment and even an opening gambit that Brian Reid had effectively failed his audition for a move to a bigger, full time club. Disappointing.

After the game Kenny Sheils, Killie's unorthodox manager, had a lot to say about the tactics of the Honest Men, perhaps where Grahame took his steer. The Ulsterman is after all an engaging and convincing character. Musing that Ayr had employed the same coach company used at St. Mirren, he said. "Football is about entertainment. People come and pay to be entertained and the easiest component in football, or any sport, is to defend. But anybody can do that". No, Kenny they can't. As pointed out by United's kid reporter Michael Lamont, if that were the case maybe Killie wouldn't have conceded nine goals in two games versus Inverness. And wouldn't have had to change both centre-backs for their Hampden appearance. Defending is every much as part of the game as attacking.

And Brian Reid's job wasn't to entertain. It was to win the game. In this of all games a victory was all that mattered. Had Ayr pulled off a repeat of their exploits at St Mirren Park – and they came very close at Hampden – to criticise the game plan would have entirely churlish. Describing United's approach as 'negative', 'anti-football' and lacking in ambition misses the point. It is disrespectful to Brian Reid and it is actually disrespectful to the quality possessed by Kilmarnock. Yes the game plan was to soak up pressure, to frustrate but importantly it was also to counter attack. To use Wardlaw’s ability to hold the ball up front and the pace and direct running of McGowan and Wardlaw on the flanks. The fact that Ayr were unable to implement this aspect of the strategy was not down to a negative approach. It’s not as if players were refusing to cross the half way line.

New centre-back partnership aside, a subtle alteration to Killie’s shape improved their capacity to dominate this game. Winger James Dayton supplemented the support given to loan front man Paul Heffernan by Gary Harkins and Dean Sheils, giving Killie more width than in recent weeks. With support from left-full back Ben Gordon this stretched the game and made it difficult for Ayr to break from their defensive third. When they did, too often there just weren’t enough numbers to make the ball stick – it’s difficult for the midfield to be in two places at once – when it did, well Kilmarnock were no strangers to a strategic foul to stop any momentum.

The game simply didn’t open up they way Ayr’s quarter-final against St. Mirren had. Maybe it was the big Hampden pitch. Maybe it was the occasion. Or just maybe it was because Kilmarnock have the better players. No one would argue Kilmarnock were the better side, or that they deserved to win the tie. But don’t tell me they deserved to win to because of Brian Reid’s tactics. They deserved to win because they were patient, persistent and because, eventually, they got the goal.

Kenny Sheils felt that Ayr have good players and that if they had ‘come out’ could have won the match. I can’t agree. It’s not Ayr’s strength and it would have simply left too much space for Killie’s front four to do serious damage. In a First Division campaign where Ayr have predominately been on the back foot, on the occasions where there has been an onus on the side to come out and attack they have been found wanting, notably at home to Annan Athletic in the Ramsden Cup and also versus Montrose. Indeed, United’s best attacking display of the season arguably came against Inverness, where the counter attacks became so frequent it looked like an onslaught. He may think that football is about two teams going out to win a game, and that only one side did that on Saturday butAyr did try to win the game. There should be no apologies or teeth gnashing because the approach to winning the game was not for the purists.

One thing Sheils did get right was that the Ayr players deserved enormous credit for their work rate and how much they put into the game. Ayr United fans should be immensely proud of what the side has achieved in the League Cup this season. After 45 minutes on Saturday it was ‘so far so good’. After 60 minutes ‘we’re still in it’. After 70 minutes even Kenny Sheils thought we were going to win it. The bottom line is that  Ayr's approach had them 11 minutes (and penalty kicks) away from the biggest result in the club’s history.

1 comment:

  1. Well said.