Colm O'Rourke: Radical rules overhaul must begin with the handpass
Major surgery is needed in football, says Colm O'Rourke, who outlines what needs to be done
The announcement recently of a new rules committee to make recommendations for next year gave me a little hope that maybe, just maybe, enough people were beginning to realise that the game of football needs urgent and radical overhaul.
However, when Páraic Duffy said that we should not expect anything too dramatic, it filled me with a sense of foreboding because to me there is no point in having a look at the way things are going without being able to implement root and branch reform.
The starting point for looking at any game is having a vision of what sort of game you want it to be. By then moving from general principles to specific change, there is a chance of it actually working. On the other hand, if you start tinkering with rules without a concept of what you want to achieve, the likely result is a mess. This is what happens in most committees which end up as mules or mongrels -- a cross between everything but no overall philosophy.
In this case there are very eminent people involved. Their terms of reference should be to redesign the game of football as football. Otherwise, there is an acceptance that the present situation of handpassing and the occasional kick is the game of the future. If that is the case then it is not the game I want and I suspect not what the general public wants either.
So the starting point is the game and the rule changes have to centre on the importance of kicking the ball. Now no rule can do that, but unless the issue of handpassing and kicking is tackled by rule, then the committee members are wasting their time. No other changes are going to make any fundamental difference to the game as it now stands.
This year, depending on the teams involved, the ratio of handpassing to kicking was four, five or six to one. Of course I am reminded by plenty of people that what happened this year is all part of the evolution of the game. Well, if that is the case then I am going back to live in a cave with a black and white telly which only shows The Flintstones. Naturally games evolve, but the people in charge are supposed to direct them in a certain way and not to undermine their basic principles.
So what changes should we make? The first thing has to be some restriction on the handpass. Three passes should be enough before a kick is compulsory. Maybe this would lead to short kicks, the ball being kicked backwards instead of forwards and other variations, and I am not so naive to think it will lead to a situation where the ball is kicked in high with the traditional man-to-man combat.
However, not doing something about this will lead to a decline in attendances. There is only so much loyalty from GAA crowds. The sort of rubbish we witnessed this year will kill the game at county level. Change would also force coaches to do something other than having any amount of handpassing drills in training.
This sort of inter-county handball is driving me daft and if Donegal is the way forward in football then I'd be quite happy watching underage or club football which has yet to be polluted.
When a restriction on han passing is mooted the usual response is that it would be impossible to referee. Now most refs I know are able to count to three quite easily and it would make the refs' jobs a lot easier because it would ensure fewer rucks which are a direct result of continuous handpassing.
To supplement this major change, there are a few others which would make a big difference too. One is to allow the ball to be picked up cleanly off the ground. There is as much skill in that as the present pick-up which leads to a huge amount of frees. The one-handed pick-up at speed would then become a feature of the game. Of course a player would have to be standing or, as it said in the old compromise rules, "on at least one leg". Presumably, this was not to discriminate against one-legged midfielders.
The punched pass should also be introduced. It's a harder skill than the handpass but it's a better skill and there are no grey areas. Look at the way the Aussies punch the ball, crisp and direct. To make it easier for young players, the handpass could be retained up to juvenile level.
Another change that makes perfect sense is getting rid of the square ball rule. It has caused more annoyance than any other rule and should have been dumped for good a few years ago but some of the old sages wanted it retained as "it had worked well for a long time so why change it". God be between us and all harm.
During the recent experimentation period, the absence of that rule led to more goalmouth thrills than ever before. It would also indirectly lead to more kicking, the overweight full-forward might make a comeback, and "let it in high" would make a reappearance in the lexicon of supporters.
We should also get rid of the exclusion zone for penalties. What genius came up with this? All it leads to is scuffles at the nearest point of the semi-circle. A straight line 30 metres out would solve the problem without the orgy of pushing and elbowing that goes on at the moment.
And we should get rid of the rule which says that if a forward is inside the 20-metre line a kick-out cannot be taken. All a forward has to do is lodge inside to stop a quick kick-out. Rather perverse that you should have to wait for the opposition to play on.
We should also try a mark for kick-outs that are caught cleanly between the two 45-metre lines with an option to play on if the player wants to. The last attempt at this had the right idea but the implementation was a bit messy. Of course it might lead to more ball being broken as players don't want to risk catching but anything that encourages fielding is more than worth doing, it is a necessity.
And forget about technology. It is just a costly gimmick. It's only going to adjudicate on scores, not mistakes by referees. Put up higher goalposts. There are better ways to spend scarce resources.
This committee has the future of the game in their hands. I hope they are brave enough to make big proposals. Fast or slow, in its present form, football has no future. The position of these men reminds me of the old Progressive Democrats' party slogan -- radical or redundant. And we all know what happened to them.
Sunday Indo Sport