Keepers praying for square deal
Some experts fear chaos while others predict thrills as new rule comes into force, writes Dermot Crowe
IT won't be the centre of the Gaelic football universe today, Silverbridge in County Armagh, but the hosts' league match with St Michael's, Newtownhamilton will be watched with added interest by Jarlath Burns. As a member of the playing rules review committee that formulated a new version of the square ball rule, he gets to see in practice what he has already widely preached. He believes it is the right step, but only test conditions like this will bear out his conviction.
In venues across all four provinces, the 2012 All-Ireland senior football championship, launched at distant remove two weeks ago in New York, breaks into a gallop and those fears of a cavalry charge on the nation's goalkeepers will be seen for what they are -- well-founded reservations, or alarmist nonsense born of a recidivist aversion to reform.
Reform is ongoing as the games continue to evolve and adapt to changing environments and trends, but quibbles over some issues like the tackle and the handpass have been there for generations. The square ball refinement agreed at Congress this year is a comparatively mild reform in light of past fiddling with the playing rules. And, as often seems the case with Congress decisions, interest in the rule change appears greater after its introduction than before, when there was scope for opponents to make themselves heard.
In 1974, it was agreed to abolish the third man tackle and the old licence to charge the goalkeeper was revoked. Players were denied entry to the small square ahead of the ball. That brought hope at the time that the games would become more interesting from an attacking point of view, less about blunt force essentially, with reduced reliance on pounding the goal and more time spent devising clever forward strategies.
For a goalkeeper at the time, those changes must have brought undreamt of comforts and added security by keeping marauding, and sometimes malevolent, forwards at bay. The recent moderation of the old rule, which enables players to enter in advance of the ball arriving into the small square from open play, has been met with plenty of scepticism, not just from goalkeepers. But they ought to think of the brave netminders who faced the music before 1975.
On Monday, a month after the Congress decision was taken, the revised rule came into effect. Too late for the first match of the football championship, Sligo's trip to New York, but in plenty of time for today's five matches, adding an extra layer of appeal and interest. Much of the discussion leading up to these games has been dominated by the rule and its likely implications.
"There is always debate over a new rule," Burns says in response to recent reservations expressed by various concerned figures like Mickey Harte and Colm Cooper. "People have short memories. The goal Graham Geraghty scored in the championship in 2011 could, if it had been allowed as it should have been, have changed the course of Meath's year. Then there was Benny Coulter's goal against Kildare that stood when it shouldn't have.
"We needed clarification. I do umpiring at a lot of underage games and I can tell you it is virtually impossible to tell when the ball is in flight whether a player is in the square at the right time. Next to impossible. So I think the new rule offers clarification; as soon as the ball leaves the player's foot you can enter the small square. The goalkeeper still has protection under the rules. And I don't think players will be interested in cluttering the square.
"The stakes were so high at that part of the field; it's different out the field -- was it a free, wasn't it a free? But at the business end, everything has serious consequences. You will hear managers always talking about the injustice done to his team. And what we need to do is to cut down on the opportunities for injustice."
Expanding live television coverage invariably exposed poor adjudication of rules like the square ball. All it took were a few high-profile samples in close succession. Kildare's manager Kieran McGeeney sat on the same committee as Burns -- it is no reflection on McGeeney to say that the appointment of vested interests on a rules committee is questionable. But the square ball rule was an issue the committee has equanimity on. They felt to a man it had to be reformed.
Burns believes that goalkeepers are treated with excessive delicacy and isn't envisaging blatant infringements of their basic rights.
"The whole idea of protecting the goalkeeper is one of the great unquestioned absolutes in the GAA. Now I spent my entire life in the middle of the field. Nobody ever cared about my protection. It was my job to go off and catch the ball. I would have had half-backs and half-forwards coming in on me whose only job was to stop me catching the ball, using whatever methods they needed to use, and I never heard that catchers needed to be a protected species. It was open season.
"Or how about the wee corner-forward whose job it is to turn and score -- if he is getting close treatment off a corner-back, what special protection does he have? Why should the goalkeeper have any more protection? What is wrong with having a man standing beside him and having to stand up . . . if he is fouled it is a free out."
But it's hard to change the habits of a lifetime, and how goalkeepers who are territorial and unused to such trespassing on a large scale react remains to be seen. Teams may be inclined to test the goalkeeper and unsettle him. The former Down footballer, Joe Lennon, who has written extensively on playing rules, believes the change could lead to more penalty awards, with backs trying to deal with greater forward traffic.
"I think there will be a bit of crowding in there at times, it depends on the tactics of the teams. Obviously they are going to put big strong men in there and now there is nothing to stop them, even up to the goal-line."
Lennon feels it wasn't necessary and that some high-profile incidents should not have been allowed determine the change. But in the same breath, he accepts it was notoriously difficult for referees and umpires to judge. "You will see tall players going in there. I think teams will try and exploit it, that's for sure. But try it for a year and see how it pans out."
Issues around cynical fouling and the handpass still permeate Gaelic football. Donegal open their Ulster title defence against Cavan this afternoon, having earned admiration for last year's extended run but less praise for their style of play, shovelling men behind the ball and heavily addicted to the handpass. In the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin, their handpass count almost hit the 250 mark.
Lennon doesn't see the answer here resting in legislation, but in coaching. Previous experiments where the number of consecutive handpasses was limited did not last beyond experimental trials. But over-use of the handpass cost Kerry an All-Ireland last year. It isn't always the most judicious course.
In 1950, the open handpass was abolished by Congress and remained outlawed until 1975. In 1981, handpassed goals in Gaelic football were jettisoned at a special Congress where 26 motions dealing with the handpass were heard. In 1990, hurling took the same line. The same year saw frees from the hand being introduced and Gaelic football has benefited greatly as a result. Now Burns and others feel there is a need to give the tap-and-go option serious consideration to reduce cynical fouling.
Burns says Gaelic football is the only sport where it pays to foul. "A fella is coming out of defence, he is stopped and has to take his free. No one to hit it to. And it has been proven -- it is an advantage to foul. That is intolerable. Dessie Farrell was on about using the tap-and-go idea -- it was brought in in hockey.
"The player fouled can tap the free and continue on and if the other player tries to delay him, the ball is moved forward. That could in some situations give the attacking player a scoreable free."
That's for another day. This afternoon his focus will be on the square and how players react to the change, now that the talking is over and the action can begin. "It's the GAA you are dealing with, any change will create reservations, there will always be reservations," says Burns. "It is a conservative and traditional organisation, that is why we brought in a two-thirds majority for voting in change. I enjoy change, seeing what change brings to us -- anybody who thinks that this is going to bring in congestion hasn't a clue how forward play works.
"In a congested goal it won't suit three or four forwards to bunch in a square because they just won't score. It is naïve analysis to say it will be open season. It won't be like that, it will give us more direct football, people getting the ball quicker into the square which we should say 'hurray' to.
"What we always do in the GAA is we look at the worst-case scenario. That did not happen when we trialled it, we had fantastic examples of people flicking the ball into the net. I can't wait for it to come in and I'm very excited by the prospect of it coming in."
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