Monday 26 September 2016

Let handpass change rock the cradle first

Published 25/10/2015 | 17:00

Donegal’s Neil Gallagher gets his handpass away against Galway last summer
Donegal’s Neil Gallagher gets his handpass away against Galway last summer

This month 40 years ago, I played my first competitive game for Meath, in the league against Mayo. There was no sponsor's name on our jerseys, players kicked the ball off the ground for frees and sideline kicks, there was far less handpassing and there was no such thing as yellow or red cards, never mind black. There were three subs, who were only put on when the game was lost or somebody got a terrible injury and the corner-forward was always taken off, even if the midfielder was getting a roasting.

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At that time, a rule change proposal with any sort of association to soccer was guaranteed to fail. Training was nowhere near as intensive and football was not a dreadful sacrifice. Players even smiled and talked about the enjoyment of games. After training and matches there were quite a few who replenished fluids in the local tavern. They survived and sometimes prospered.

When frees and sidelines were kicked off the ground, it meant many more contests in the air for the ball, so the fundamental nature of the game and the type of player that's now needed has also changed. Kicks are now predominantly short so runners are needed. Nobody noticed that this one change would spell the end for certain types of players. Progress?

In the meantime, there has been a lot of genuine progress. Some of it is questionable in the same way as modern communication is progress until you see so many teenagers with their faces stuck in mobile phones all day and unable to hold a conversation about anything that is not on some website. That's the virtual world of today.

Anyway, football has moved on and has got better in a lot of ways, especially the dramatic improvement in facilities and fitness levels.

The mantra in these last 40 years has often been about ways of speeding up the game of football. Every rule change had that as close to prime importance. Not only have there been major changes to the style of football played, but the rule changes over four decades have altered the type of player who can play football at the highest level. The small, stocky corner-back, (it is not politically correct to call them fat now) has disappeared. Even at club level they are a rare commodity.

Rule changes now mean body shape determines if you have any chance of making a county footballer. There will soon be a test for ten-year-olds to establish what sport they should concentrate on. An adult footballer must now be able to run continually as the first requirement. After that skill becomes important. It is the cart before the horse.

So now Jarlath Burns and his committee have the latest go at making rules to try and improve the game, whatever that means. Without a vision of what the game should be there is no chance of squaring that circle. And of course any changes will run the wrath of Mickey Harte and some other managers who think that the rules are just fine and the game should simply go the way that innovative coaches bring it.

If you rewound those views to the early years of the GAA those people would still want 21 players on the pitch, a goal being worth any number of points and the ball being thrown in for a sideline. When does progress start and stop? The answer I suppose is that change is and must be continuous. Every field game has to have a guiding hand but I go back to the basic issue and that is a vision of the future.

Michael McDowell said of the Progressive Democrat party when it was founded that it had to be radical or redundant, and to me, this body must be like that.

The PDs are not around anymore and the rules committee will only capture the attention of the public if they look for radical change.

If they fiddle around with things like marks on kick-outs, the kick-out going a certain distance and so on, then they are wasting their own time and energy and the report won't be worth the paper it is written on.

Unless they are willing to tackle handpassing they should not bother with a report. Everything else is window dressing.

The game of football must be returned to foot-ball and the issue has been dodged for too long. Now the statistics are there for all to see. Many players never even kick the ball. The rate of handpassing is running at four or five times the number of kicks and the problem is getting even worse - which most would not have thought possible.

Reducing the number of consecutive handpasses to three would not cure the epidemic, but it would at least restore one of the fundamental principles of the game and mean that players who are good kickers of the ball would be more valuable in a team.

It could even mean that you don't have to be an Olympic athlete to have a chance of getting on the county side. This in itself will not stop blanket defences or sweeper systems - it could make it worse - and if the committee want to add in a few other ideas to improve things then either a ban on passing back to the goalkeeper altogether, or that he must play the ball away by foot, is one to consider.

A mark for kick-outs is worth trying and maybe a ban on passing back into your own half as in basketball, but where these rule changes are tried is of vital importance. Do not even consider bringing them in at county senior level. Many managers only think of what suits them rather than the bigger picture and generally they do not want change. Try rules out at underage level. Young players enjoy and embrace change and want a more enjoyable game.

So the rules committee have all the data now and if they wanted any more, all they would need to do is survey a thousand supporters on whether they enjoy watching most inter-county matches.

That is different to being a team supporter. I believe most would say that continuous handpassing holds no attraction. Therefore, I do think this committee won't bottle the big decision.

Hopefully a return to a form of football is on the way and if it takes a few years of progression from underage to senior level it would be worth the wait. If handpassing is not tackled then all other recommendations will be more or less worthless.

In reality, it is not even radical to limit handpassing but sometimes there are none so blind as those who will not see. Handpassing has desensitised people over a decade, some even think it is a great skill. It still has a place in the game but not one of total dominance.

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