Joe Brolly: The mark won't work - Darragh ó Sé must be still suffering from PTSD (Post Tyrone Stress Disorder)
Twelve months ago, Jarlath Burns, chair of the Playing Rules Committee, said we were "witnessing the death of Gaelic football". The cause of death, according to the playing rules coroner?
The blanket defence. It was no more than a statement of the obvious, but at least we could be secure in the knowledge that the chairman of the relevant committee had identified the problem. Recently, he has been saying that his remarks were taken out of context.
Which reminds me of the classic Father Ted episode where Ted, to get himself out of a tight spot, says that Old Jim has died. As he's speaking, Father Dougal looks out the window and shouts, "Ted, it's Old Jim, he's coming up the path. He's alive Ted!" At which point Ted says, "Not that Jim. The other Jim." Maybe Jarlath was talking about ladies' Gaelic football or perhaps the word 'Gaelic' was a misprint.
Normally in a situation like this, the GAA does nothing. But at Congress, having spent the weekend crapping on the clubs from a great height, they decided that something would have to be done to breathe life into the corpse of Gaelic football. Jarlath introduced some stirring video clips of great high catches, bringing a tear to the eye of even the Tyrone delegates as they were suddenly reminded of the days before Mickey. The only thing that was missing was the soundtrack to The Quiet Man. Having been reduced to a state of emotional confusion, Congress brought in the Burnmark. No trial. Just rhetoric. In the process, as my good friend Pat Spillane is wont to say, they merely rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Influential committee member Darragh ó Sé supported it but, God knows, he is still suffering from PTSD (Post Tyrone Stress Disorder) since those days in Croke Park when Tyrone had the temerity to tackle him instead of genuflecting. I think Darragh knows it is a waste of time but he is cuter than the Healy-Rae boys when it comes to politics. I was on the Seán O'Rourke show with him on Wednesday morning to talk about it. "Will it work Darragh?" said O'Rourke.
"It will work" said Darragh, in a manner that reminded me once again of Father Ted, the one where the bishops are visiting and Ted has the idea of teaching Jack the phrase, "That would be an ecumenical matter".
Ted: "I think it might work, Dougal. I know it'll work. It will work."
Dougal: "It won't work, will it Ted?"
Ted: "It won't, no."
Which didn't stop the Kerryman waxing lyrical to Seán about the glory of high catching (cue The Quiet Man theme) knowing full well that high catching has nothing to do with it. Apart from anything else, you don't have to catch high to win the mark. You can take it on your chest. Which happens with most kick-outs nowadays.
Think Stephen Cluxton, Brendan Kealy or Paul Durcan pinging them around at waist level. Even when the ball is kicked out high, because there is no advantage in catching it, it is almost always flicked down or on, because there is little point in a man getting possession unless he is already running. Think Donegal's famous ambush of Dublin in the 2014 semi-final.
No. High catching isn't the problem. It is alive and well. At Celtic Park last weekend, the two teams put on an exhibition of the art. The Galway number 10 was awesome in this regard. As were James Kielt and Emmet Bradley. The problem, as everyone knows, is the blanket. Contrary to what Jarlath has been saying about it, the mark is irrelevant.
It is worth looking at the rule. If the player catches the ball from the kick-out, he can call for the mark. If he does so, the referee will award him a free in the normal way. He then has five seconds to take that free. If he doesn't manage to take it within the five seconds, the ball is thrown up. If on the other hand, he catches the ball and elects to play on, then he has no advantage.
It has been trialled for the last month in the Leinster Minor League. The Dublin minors found that on around 50 per cent of occasions, the player calling for the mark couldn't get the kick away in time so the ball was thrown up. They found that when the mark was taken it allowed the blanket defence more time to ready itself. They found it disrupted the flow of the game.
There is nothing to be said for it. The reality is that on 100 per cent of occasions when the short kick-out is available, the keeper will take it short. As Antrim midfielder Michael McCann said in an interview last week, "We'll take a short one every time if it's on. Possession is king." Because of the massed defences, the imperative is to retain possession at all costs. This is because the thing to be avoided at all costs is a turnover. So, Mayo were beaten last Sunday because of one turnover by Donie Vaughan in a central area. Donegal were onto it in a flash, scoring the killer goal with a training ground routine that has been rehearsed a thousand times.
Last Sunday in Celtic Park, with both teams playing a full-time sweeper, the vast majority of kick-outs went short. Against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final and replay last year, Cluxton went short with over 90 per cent of his kick-outs. Even the long ones were to the chest of a player running into space. Why take a chance?
The mark also slows the game down. The midfielder catches the ball and calls for the mark. The referee awards him a free-kick. By the time he's settled and ready to take it, the blanket is in place. Where's the advantage?
Crucially, it is ugly and disrupts the flow of the game. It doesn't look like Gaelic football. Catch, stop, free. It negates that classic catch and sprint which is the essence of great high fielding. In the era of legendary high fielders like Jim McKeever or Mick O'Connell, when they landed, they were already three metres from where they caught it.
Fundamentally, the Burnmark makes no difference. As things stand, if you take a high catch cleanly, you can be fouled to slow the game down. You can still be fouled before you take the mark. And if you do take the mark, your only reward is a free-kick. The result whether you are fouled or not is the same: a free-kick. Did no one think this through?
The real problem is that since the advent of the blanket, playing a conventional midfield game doesn't happen because winning midfield is no longer an advantage. Look no further than last weekend for the proof. In the Donegal v Mayo game there were 37 kick-outs. Of these, Mayo won a colossal 27. Donegal won only 10. Mayo won 70 per cent of the kickouts (including 10 of Donegal's 15). Donegal won the match.
Dublin minor selector Ciaran Whelan told me on Tuesday night that in the end, having carefully considered all angles, they instructed their players not to take the mark. Basically, to forget it existed. Which is what everyone else will do, except Jarlath and Darragh in their dreams.
Sunday Indo Sport