Wednesday 7 December 2016

Colm O'Rourke: Winds of change needed to blow away football cobwebs

The time has come for the GAA to act before the crowds turn away, writes Colm O’Rourke

Published 19/04/2015 | 02:36

The All-Ireland final last week between Chorca Dhuibhne from Dingle and Roscommon CBS was a mirror image of what is happening at county level
The All-Ireland final last week between Chorca Dhuibhne from Dingle and Roscommon CBS was a mirror image of what is happening at county level

Judging by the reaction to last Sunday’s article there appears to be a serious disquiet at the drift in football. Many different ideas have been forwarded to me but I think the general feeling is that we must tread carefully in rule changes lest the law of unintended consequences takes over. In this case we should take the Roman view: festina lente, make haste slowly.

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I was on a rules committee many years ago which trialled a mark from a clean catch off a kickout. The idea is being touted at present too but it was tried then in the secondary competitions. Instead of leading to more clean catches, it probably led to a lot fewer as midfielders were unwilling to risk a catch in case their direct opponent beat them to it. So what we got was constant breaking of the ball.

Now having rules trialled in winter football is a bad idea anyway and maybe things might be slightly different in summer, but a mark rule will not solve all problems.

There are still many who feel that the game should be left to take its natural course. This is the equivalent of letting a child or young adult decide what is best for them without any regulation. Yet for many of us who have been involved in colleges football for most of our adult lives, there comes a time to call stop when the jewel of open, free-spirited football has caught the disease of mass defence and continuous handpassing.

The All-Ireland final last week between Chorca Dhuibhne from Dingle and Roscommon CBS was a mirror image of what is happening at county level.

First of all we should congratulate the young Kerrymen on what is an incredible achievement for a small school. Winning two All-Irelands in a row with just over a couple of hundred boys in the school is just another indication that they are different in Kerry.

Coaches are entitled to play whatever way they like and Roscommon thought their best chance of winning was through a very defensive strategy. It had worked, so why change it? And winning is everything, even at that age.

However, we have been used to young players showcasing the best attacking qualities of the game and if things descend to this at colleges level then it is a plague, not a temporary disease.

Those who make the big decisions must decide first and foremost what sort of game they want Gaelic football to be. If they are happy to let it drift to a handball game, then so be it. Those who might argue that this is merely sowing the seeds of self-destruction might be better to hold fire on that one too.

In a matter of weeks, Tyrone will meet Donegal in the Ulster championship. It promises to be a stinking, rotten game but will it mean a very small crowd? Quite the opposite in fact and if it is live on TV it will draw a very big audience there too. As Dennis the Menace used to say, riddle me that.

A few other myths need to be shattered too. Curbing handpassing will not stop the blanket defence; in fact it might make it easier to perform if players have to kick the ball as some teams will just track back and wait for the ball to be kicked in. Or maybe a team keeps possession by kicking the ball backwards in a mirror image of handpassing. So two plus two does not equal four when it comes to rule changes.

Having looked at a whole host of proposals, I revert to a few which I have made consistently over the last couple of years. This must take into account as well that referees’ jobs must not be made even more impossible by adding in rules like how many players are allowed in a team’s own half of the field, or a player who receives a handpass having to kick.

Those proposals are sound in theory but completely impractical. So new rules must be simple to understand and enforce. And you must remember that any changes must apply at the lowest level of the game as well as in All-Ireland finals.

A few simple rule changes then. A goalkeeper must kick the ball out beyond a certain point: 45 metres is too far but a dotted line at 35 would suffice. A maximum of three handpasses in a row and no back passing to the goalkeeper. I would add in too that a black card in the last quarter of a game should mean no substitution as players don’t mind taking a player down to protect a lead and a fresh player comes on anyway.

The main things with trials for new rules is that they should not take place at senior county level. A lot of these managers moan too much and are only thinking of what suits their team rather looking at the greater good. So try everything with young players. They learn quicker and are more open and willing to change.

So while crowds in the short term may hold up, nothing lasts forever. Eventually crowds will be like a leaking bucket and will disappear over time. Now is the time to move.

The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything under the heavens, a time to be born and a time to die. It continues with a lot of other things too. The GAA is not included but just as surely is their time to move. That time is here.

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