Less can be more
PlayingG 13-a-side could rid football of its ills and give fans an improved spectacle, writes Cian Murphy
Down's star forward Benny Coulter believes modern-day football has become an over-defensive game that is difficult and uninspiring to watch.
And he has supported the views of former GAA All Stars Peter Canavan and Martin McHugh, who argue that inter-county football teams should be reduced in size from 15 to 13-a-side to improve the game.
Coulter, Canavan and McHugh would be widely regarded as three outstanding natural talents and among the best forwards to grace Gaelic football over the last 30 years.
All three of them believe that the GAA should trial a 13-a-side game to combat the ills of modern-day football, namely foul-ridden, over-crowded matches where short handpassing is more prevalent than kicking and catching. They also insist that a reason why crowds are suffering at football matches is because the game is not enjoyable to watch.
"Something has to give -- it is a defender's game. What supporter wants to pay €13 in to watch two teams and see who defends the best? I'd rather pay a fiver in to watch a good club match," says Coulter.
"It's all about how many men can you get behind the ball and then break on the counter-attack, like soccer.
"I often watch back the clips on YouTube of the great Down teams of 1991 and 1994 and watch how Mickey Linden played and went one-on-one against defenders -- nine times out of 10, he'd beat them. But, if you put Mickey in now, I'm sure he'd have three or four out to stop him.
"I'd love to go back to the way football was played then. I think 13-a-side would make better viewing for supporters," he says.
After a career that saw him capture every award in the game, Tyrone legend Canavan has gone on to be a successful football coach at club and schools level in the O'Neill County.
And Canavan is adamant that less players would lead to a better game.
"Having 13-a-side creates more space, which requires more kicking and more catching, and more space means having to move the ball faster and that leads to more scores.
"People like going to games with scores and that's why high-scoring, free-flowing and skilful games like hurling are so popular. I feel we have the potential to move our game closer to that with this rule change," says the Errigal Ciaran man, who is also critical of previous rule-tinkering done by Croke Park.
"Some of the other rules we've tried out over the years have been ludicrous -- but this would make it easier for referees. They wouldn't need eyes in the back of their heads.
"With less players, it is not as easy to be so defensive. There'd be less bodies in the middle and the more room would lead to more high catching, and less bodies should mean less fouling.
"That's not to say that teams won't still try to be defensive, and you can still get men behind the ball, but on the big pitches it would be hard to do that.
"One simple change like this can open up the game, speed it up and favour the more skilful and more creative players," argues Tyrone's 2003 All-Ireland-winning captain.
McHugh was one of the chief architects of Donegal's breakthrough All-Ireland success of 1992 and went on to manage Cavan to their last Ulster senior title in 1997.
McHugh agrees that having only 26 instead of 30 players on a football pitch means that only the most skilful players would survive.
"The concern should be about the spectacle of the game and what people want to see. Crowds are down and it's not all about the recession -- it's because the game is not attractive to watch anymore," he says.
"Football skill is being lost and it's all about fitness now and players don't get a chance to show their skill.
"There's no doubt an average player can make himself better in the modern game by improving his fitness and that's not the way it should be -- it should be about skill, class and talent.
"Football now is all about gym programmes and physique and power and yet, ironically, the game is less physical than it ever was," adds the former Donegal star forward, who argues that current teams are already trying to create more space for inside forwards.
"Levels of fitness are so high now that your corner-back is as fit as your midfielder. Most teams are taking a corner-forward out anyway and using him as an extra defender or in midfield to leave two men inside -- so it wouldn't be that different having 13-a-side."
He also believes that preventing teams from easily dropping defenders back would lead to an increase in goals.
"Outside of Dublin, there's no one really scoring goals now.
"You can go to an inter-county game and not see one real goal chance. But I reckon in a 13-a-side game there'd be on average 10 real goal chances, and goals excite people and they want to watch that. You go to watch the likes of Benny Coulter play football and not be pulled and dragged."
The notion of playing 13-a-side games in the GAA is by no means revolutionary. Until recent times, it was standard practice for schools competitions in particular to be played by 26 players.
The history of GAA teams has also seen playing numbers reduced. Since the early days of the association the numbers involved have fallen from first 23 to 21 to 17 to finally 15-a-side.
Coulter, Canavan and McHugh have experience of playing 13-a-side and are convinced that less would mean more regarding the benefits to the game.
"I played 13-a-side football in school in Mayobridge and it was brilliant. There was more space so there was more kick-passing, there wasn't as much crowding in the middle and you didn't need to handpass the ball as much. There were lots more scores and more goals too," confirms Coulter, who works as a GAA coach.
"We used to play 13-a-side tournaments in Donegal and they were very enjoyable and it improves players," adds McHugh. "I always think that what a player does with the ball when in space is the sign of whether he is any good or not. I also played 13-a-side football in Chicago in 1986 and it was the best football I ever saw.
"I'd like to see the GAA give it a chance and take it into the January cups to look at it or even at U-21 and put the number of subs allowed up to seven to compensate if you like."
GAA director general Paraic Duffy has spoken in the past about the positives to be gained from a 13-a-side game. But it's not clear whether the association would readily embrace such a dramatic step as reducing the numbers involved in matches.
However, Coulter believes it's the views of highly regarded ex-players such as Canavan and McHugh that should be heeded.
"We've been trying out rules for the sake of it and when two great men like Peter Canavan and Martin McHugh come up with an idea like this, they should be listened to," says Coulter. "There's men in Croke Park coming up with ideas and they are put in the bin straight away. I think people in Croke Park should listen to the players."