Sunday 23 October 2016

High fielders get no breaks

Kerry's complaints over treatment of Donaghy are as justified as they are widespread

Published 27/04/2016 | 02:30

Kerry's Kieran Donaghy is double-teamed by Jonny Cooper and Denis Bastick at Croke Park last Sunday (SPORTSFILE)
Kerry's Kieran Donaghy is double-teamed by Jonny Cooper and Denis Bastick at Croke Park last Sunday (SPORTSFILE)

Eamonn Fitzmaurice's description of what Kieran Donaghy faced against Dublin last Sunday as 'rape and pillage' may have been a touch exaggerated but we all understand what he was saying.

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We understand too when Donegal make the same point about Michael Murphy or Mayo about Aidan O'Shea.

Big men are, it seems, supposed to be self-sufficient, protected by the rules only when it's blindingly obvious that they are being chained and manacled.

Fitzmaurice claimed that part of the reason Kerry played Donaghy out the field during the league was because he "gets a lot of treatment" when close to the opposition goal.

"It's frustrating but it is what it is. We knew it coming up (for the league final); we know that's the way it's going to be and we just have to keep going," said Fitzmaurice.


Now, before a wave of sympathy washes across Kerry in their battle against oppression, let's ask what they would do if Donaghy was wearing blue and prowling in front of their goal?

Would they opt for the 'rape and pillage' routine? You bet! In fairness to Fitzmaurice, he more or less admitted that.

"It's not Kieran; it's a thing in Gaelic football in general. The big man, the mentality is that should be able to take care of himself and give as good as he gets. Still, a free is a free."

Indeed. It's a point with which Murphy and O'Shea would whole-heartedly agree too after their experiences - including against Kerry - in recent years.

So Fitzmaurice does have a valid argument. Frees don't come easily to big men, even when they are repeatedly fouled.

It's as if referees have decided to let them take their chances on physicality's open market without interference from the regulator.

Naturally, in an era when what referees (individually and as a general group) will allow is analysed in minute detail, the speculators are becoming increasingly brazen as they spot ever-wider openings.

Smaller forwards have a better chance of protection, even if jersey-tugging to stop them making a run is still rewarded far more often than it's punished. It's quite common nowadays for a defender to spend much of his time with his back to the ball, staring intently at the target forward, waiting for him to sprint towards open space.

The aim is to block the run, while making it look as if it's mere coincidence that the defender happened to be in the way.

In last year's Donegal-Tyrone Ulster SFC game, Justin McMahon virtually lived inside Murphy's boots for the full game, frequently blocking his run, yet he escaped a booking until the 63rd minute.

No, I'm not picking on Tyrone but merely offering it as a specific example of a high-profile close-down by borderline methods. But then, Donegal themselves have majored in that too, which leaves them with a weak argument when they complain about Murphy's treatment. Of course big men can have a case to answer too. Yes, they are often left to fend for themselves under a high ball but what if they win possession and head towards goal, barrelling into defenders as they go?

Where's the line between charging and using legitimate force to get past an opponent? Is the latter, especially if he's smaller, supposed to get out of the way and facilitate the runner?

Aidan O'Shea is a typical example. Unquestionably, he does not get as many frees as he should for his treatment under a high ball, just as he's not penalised often enough for charging.


But then margins are tight, lines get blurred and referees muddle along in the uncertainty. Still, it should be fairly obvious what's happening under a high ball, which makes the lopsided balance in favour of the fouling player difficult to understand.

Another area of concern is the tackling methods used by most teams nowadays. Basically, it's blatantly illegal as it involves tugging at the ball-carrier's hand.

It's designed to disrupt his rhythm, leading to a loss of possession but is being doing so skilfully (ironic that, since it's a foul!) that referees are being conned. Either that or they don't want to intervene as it happens so frequently they could end up with over 100 frees per game if the rule were properly applied.

Basically, many of the rules are no longer fit for purpose. The video - plus other sophisticated technological aids being used nowadays - allows strategists to get around some of the regulations, leaving frustration in their wake.

It's time to re-visit the entire rulebook, examining every aspect to see how it's coping under the stresses of the modern game. After all, if football has changed so much, it's hardly surprising that some old rules no longer fit the bill.

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