It's the number of handpasses Donegal made on Sunday and it could have grave consequences for Gaelic football, writes Colm Keys
Published 30/08/2011 | 05:00
There is always a tendency to over-react to certain situations that develop in Gaelic games from time to time.
Last year, for the first time since the inception of qualifiers 10 seasons earlier, not one of the four provincial champions reached the All-Ireland football semi-finals as they succumbed to teams with the momentum from the 'back door.'
The general consensus was that the championship system was so unbalanced, so unfairly stacked against the counties that did their business in such orderly fashion as to win their provinces, that those provincial championships were no longer tenable.
One of the game's most prominent managers even suggested that he would be re-evaluating the merit of winning his provincial championship in 2011.
Twelve months on and the furore over the championships systems has calmed considerably.
For the first time since the system changed, all four provincial champions made it to the All-Ireland semi-finals. The silence this time has been deafening.
The officials who held their nerve in the face of last year's storm and urged consideration of results over the longer term before jumping to conclusions have been vindicated, at least for now.
Unlike last year's absence of all four provincial finalists from the All-Ireland semi-final line-up, which may not happen again for some time, we could well see a game like Sunday's semi-final between Dublin and Donegal again, sooner rather later. All the danger signs are there that we will.
What is to stop the new Galway football manager, for example, from setting up defensively in much the same way as Donegal and allowing Michael Meehan to plough a lone furrow at the other end, the way Colm McFadden did on Sunday?
If it makes them more competitive than they have been over the last few years, then why not slavishly commit the numbers as Donegal did?
Jason Ryan committed more numbers to Wexford's defence as the championship progressed this year but after watching Donegal succeed, he may be tempted to throw the whole team behind their own 45 metre line next year and see where it gets them.
The logic behind Donegal manager Jim McGuinness choosing this system for his players to adhere to is simple. In the 19 years since their last Ulster and All-Ireland triumphs, Donegal had cultivated a reputation for playing nice football in the act of losing.
So they set about developing a harder edge built on defence by numbers in much the same way that Mickey Harte set about reconstituting Tyrone when he took command there in late 2002.
The difference between Harte's Tyrone in 2003 and McGuinness' Donegal is vast, however. For sure, Tyrone packed their defence but they attacked in almost equal numbers in '03 and that is what set them apart.
The issue is not with numbers behind the ball, however, it's what happens after that and Donegal's slow, protracted movement out of defence was what infuriated not just the majority of the 82,000 crowd in Croke Park but most of a TV audience which peaked at 934,000 at one stage, according to figures released from RTE yesterday.
If they are honest with themselves, the average Donegal supporter will admit to being proud of the way their team competed on Sunday but not the way they played.
The accumulation of 242 handpasses by one team in just over 70 minutes of football has to be a serious concern for those charged with the responsibility for ensuring that the games remain open and entertaining and avoid the 'win at any cost' mentality taken on by so many 'modern' managers.
With the greater obligation to the game beyond some managers, the challenge for rule makers is to force them to come out and play more.
Dublin's execution of the footpass in their All-Ireland quarter-final against Tyrone was an example of how disciplined defence can be turned into counter-attack so effectively and it made for compelling viewing.
The new-standing playing rules committee is to come up with proposals for potential changes to the games by October, and central to their deliberations will be the abolition of the 'square ball'.
But after last Sunday, the consequences of Donegal's handpass fest has to feature on their agenda.
Curtailing the number of consecutive handpasses a team can make before a footpass must be executed is something that would be difficult to police by referees but must now be seriously considered.
But after Sunday's debacle it should attain priority status.