Friday 2 December 2016

Colm O'Rourke: A good week for football tempered by Congress debacle

Published 06/03/2016 | 16:30

Paraic Duffy: looking to drive change Photo: Sportsfile
Paraic Duffy: looking to drive change Photo: Sportsfile

A delegate once told me the only problem with Congress is the voting and the debating. It's a bit like the Cavan man who was in the Antarctic and his only complaint was the cold.

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Last weekend's Congress had a lot in common with the general election: there was no definite pattern and plenty of decisions which ran contrary to each other. The proposals on changing age limits passed through the checkpoints and are very welcome, but expected alterations to the dates for the All-Ireland finals did not materialise. It was good to see Paraic Duffy driving change, yet it must be frustrating for him on many fronts. Like the Chinese proverb, though, the longest journey starts with a single step.

With 66 per cent needed to pass some motions, many got close but there was no cigar. Whose idea was it to have a Communist type of democracy where two-third support is needed to make changes? I always thought that a simple majority should be enough. Not on planet GAA. Will someone put in a motion to clear up this obvious anomaly? Hopefully it would get the two-thirds.

The big change in football was the adoption of the mark. Some people still dream of long kick-outs dropping in the middle of the field and a cluster of players going for the catch and one man coming down with it to the roar of the crowd. The only problem is that did not happen too often in the past and will be seen less often now, even with a free-kick for the catcher. The man who can take most of the credit for ending the midfield melee is Stephen Cluxton. Does anyone seriously think he will change his kicking style because of the mark?

The whole goalkeeping scene at county level is full of Cluxton lookalikes. They see the kick-out as a means of starting an attack rather than creating a lottery. So county teams won't be putting a couple of giraffes in midfield. The game has become much more fluid and if you look at any county match now you will see very few catches in the middle of the field. The mark won't turn back the tide but at the same time will do no harm and if a player makes a great catch in a ruck then he deserves to get a good lash of a kick at it.

Marks will have minimal impact on the game at county level but maybe more so for clubs, even if goalkeepers are going the way of their county counterparts. In many respects attempts to change the course of football is doomed as each change is subject to the law of unintended consequences. This iron law was brought forcefully home to me on a few occasions. There were times when I felt an opponent deserved a good dig but on handing out a little punishment I forgot about his team-mates, wife or girlfriend, parish priest, selectors and supporters. Sometimes you can bite off more than you can chew by playing God.

Anyway I was keen to see how changes to the rules in a recent match in the Leinster Minor League might impact on the game. The rules being trialled are a restriction of three consecutive handpasses, no pass back to the goalkeeper and a mark. It was hard to judge on a bad day and wet pitch. There were hardly any clean catches, as a downside of the mark is often everyone went to punch the ball rather than risk giving away a mark. The back pass was not an issue but three handpasses led to lots of confusion. The referee seemed to rely on the players shouting at him when there was more than three and there were several cases of more than three going unchecked. Imagine if the winning score in a big game came after four handpasses? The referee's competency at maths would be the first thing to be questioned. Is it that hard to figure out three passes?

Another obvious downside to this rule is that players, instead of a short handpass, will use a short kick, and so can start the whole process all over again. So sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for in case it comes true.

This is not an acceptance that football is ungovernable and that fundamental skills cannot be protected. The mark is one attempt, even if time and circumstances have passed it by to an extent, but any move which would restrict hand-passing is worth considering. It will not make the game more open as a result, indeed there is an argument that if teams have to kick then players will just retreat more into their own half and wait for the opposition to kick it up to them. The law of unintended consequences again.

Then along came two games at the weekend and you wondered why anyone like myself would ever suggest changes to the rules. The one between Dublin and Monaghan last Saturday night was played at a frantic pace, with Monaghan giving just as good as they got for all the game. They were a bit unfortunate that they did not get a draw.

What this game proved too is that Croke Park helps create a different kind of game than anywhere else. The ball travels faster and the quality of the pitch is so good that pace is the biggest factor of all. Hopefully when Bruce Springsteen is finished kicking points into the Hill 16 end, the ground will be as good as usual.

The match between Mayo and Donegal was even better, as apart from being played at 100 miles an hour there was also a bit of an edge to it. A man needed to be in the full of his health to survive in this atmosphere, where any dwelling on the ball meant being surrounded by three or four opponents. The most obvious thing to take out of the game is how much Donegal seem to be enjoying their football. All their experienced players look to have reached a point where there is a great rapport among them.

I don't know what their fitness regime is like but they look like a team who are training less rather than more. It takes a confident manager to take a pull on the training front, particularly with a side who were used to being drilled, but a fresh team is much better than a fit team, and you can have both at the same time. There is a bit of pace about Donegal, and Ryan McHugh gives them so many options. In fact a few more McHughs would be good for the team as they still have all the old power to complement the new speed models.

Mayo will take some heart from this full-blooded contest and could easily have earned a draw. When they got home and looked coldly at the match there would have been questions asked of the player who instead of coming across to cut out Leo McLoone when he was gliding in to score the decisive goal, decided to shepherd his man away from goal with his back to the ball. A real case of 'my man is not scoring'. Good teams don't do that. I could not see either of the McGee brothers allowing that to happen if a player was bearing down on the Donegal goal. No matter what rules are changed the law of the jungle still applies when the goal is in danger!

So overall a good week for football even if Congress is behind the curve.

Paraic Duffy: looking to drive change

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