Is it really hand-pass hell?
‘Negative tactics’ top review committee agenda, but the game has evolved in many ways from the so-called golden era of ’70s and ’80s
Published 12/10/2012 | 05:00
At the end of the 1980 All-Ireland semi-final between Kerry and Offaly, the late TV commentator Micheal O'Hehir described it as "as amazing a game as I've seen for a very long, long time."
That claim was backed up afterwards by Mick O'Dwyer, who felt it was one of the greatest games ever played. Only eight points of the combined total of 8-25 came from placed balls and the free count of 28 ran at half the average.
The reality, though, was that Kerry never looked like losing. They led by 11 points with 15 minutes remaining before Offaly came with a late surge. It was a bit like a carnival.
The four hand-passed goals scored led to the practice being abolished the next year. The last three scores were goals, while only two Offaly players got on the scoresheet. Analysing that game now also serves to dispel certain myths surrounding the quality of football during that storied era.
For a start, there were 103 inaccurate passes -- five less than in the 1977 All-Ireland semi-final between Kerry and Dublin, which was regarded as the greatest game of that era.
In the 2011 All-Ireland final between Dublin and Kerry, there were just 36 inaccurate passes and nine of those were made in contact.
Although Kerry hand-passed the ball 95 times in that 1980 match, statistics now indicate that the optimum ratio of hand-passing to kicking is between three and four to one.
In that 1980 match, Offaly hand-passed the ball just 28 times, while they kicked it 97 times. Yet of those 97 foot-passes, only 39 were successful. Offaly kicked 61 foot-passes into their full-forward line, but won only 21.
That statistic alone highlights how football has gone from a predominantly ball-propelling game to a ball-possession game.
Statistics also show that there are as many scoring chances created and taken now as there were 30 years ago, when there weren't any massed defences.
In April, GAA president Liam O'Neill was criticised for acknowledging that certain aspects of modern football, particularly defensiveness and excessive use of the hand-pass, were boring.
O'Neill later clarified the intention of his comments, but, at the time, Donegal's 243 hand-passes in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin was regularly held up as an example of how excessive the practice had become.
The reality, though, was that Donegal weren't good enough to take on Dublin man-for-man last year and their game plan almost worked.
For example, Donegal's hand-passing rate in the 2011 Ulster final was a third of that number against Dublin, which underlined how fluid tactical trends are within different games.
In that context, it's not really possible to make rule changes in an attempt to make teams play differently just for aesthetic reasons. Furthermore, amateur teams and players don't have an obligation to play attractive football; like the professionals, they want results.
The fluidity of those tactical trends was also emphatically underlined this season by Donegal, whose game evolved into a far more rounded style.
They were more attack-minded and were breaking forward quicker from defence. Yet their greater fitness levels and increased conditioning had also given them far more confidence to push forward.
Confidence has been a massive factor in Donegal's journey over the last two seasons. Prior to 2011, Donegal were the one Ulster county who had never really focussed on defensive game plans and systems. As Armagh and Tyrone refined those systems, Donegal were playing what Jim McGuinness has often called "off-the-cuff football".
McGuinness focussed so heavily on defence last year, firstly to firmly establish the new template and secondly, to build confidence and a winning habit. For all the wrongful criticism McGuinness took after the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final, Donegal may have won that game if Colm McFadden had converted a prime goal-scoring opportunity just after half-time.
That Dublin-Donegal semi-final was still foremost in O'Neill's mind when he established the Football Review Committee in April.
Yet Donegal's success this season, and the manner in which they have evolved, proves how flexible teams are in terms of tactical innovation.
For example, Donegal hand-passed the ball 96 times less in this year's All-Ireland semi-final than they did in the 2011 match against Dublin.
Still, there have been consistent calls to restrict the number of hand-passes to a set number -- similar to the five-tackle count in rugby league -- before forcing teams to kick the ball.
Yet, if that was implemented, teams would just sit back further and wait for the opposition to kick the ball to them, which would make the game even more defensive.
Excessive hand-passing is unattractive, but indiscipline is a far bigger blight and both are heavily intertwined.
Challenging an opponent without committing a foul is almost impossible and the rules must be made clearer in this regard.
As things stand, the ambiguity surrounding so many technical aspects of football feeds the prevailing culture to push the limits of fairness, to see what you can get away with.
However, the disincentive to break rules must also be far stronger, because it pays teams to persistently foul now. One of the reasons teams often don't kick the ball long is that when they look up, all they see is forwards being held and dragged by defenders.
Teams are happy to just take yellow cards, but the strategic review group headed up by Eugene McGee -- who, ironically, was Offaly manager back in 1980 -- could examine one-match suspensions for players who pick up yellow cards in successive matches.
Some yellow cards now are harmless offences so the group could be even bolder by introducing an orange card, which would define an aggressive foul. A yellow and an orange would equal a red card. Two orange cards in the same match would mean you miss the next game. Two orange cards in successive matches would carry the same penalty.
In a couple of weeks, McGee and his committee will announce their findings. To date, they have been conducting an immensely thorough review of the game. Those deeply intertwined areas -- calls to restrict the number of hand-passes, discipline and rules -- are sure to feature at the top of their list of recommendations.