Eugene McGee: GAA must move quickly to accentuate the positive
Published 05/09/2011 | 05:00
The best that can be said about the reaction to last week's Dublin-Donegal game is that it shows that there is colossal interest in Gaelic football and violently opposing views as to how the game should be played, monitored and covered by the laws of the game.
As with every big controversy in the GAA, the reactions have varied from the ridiculous to the sublime and, as always, more heat than light was generated.
The previous similar controversy, in which the actual style of play was at the core of the argument, was in 2003 when Tyrone played Kerry in the semi-final and kept them to one of their lowest-ever scores -- 0-6 -- in the 70 minutes.
This was the first real introduction of the so-called packed defence when Tyrone often funnelled back three or four extra players, thereby preventing Kerry from making any headway when attacking.
There was that iconic photograph next day, which showed an isolated Eoin Brosnan on his knees surrounded by eight Tyrone players and with nowhere to go.
What we saw last week from Donegal -- and also to a lesser extent from Dublin -- was a variation on the Tyrone theme, but with a more negative approach.
At least Tyrone, when they won the ball back in that crowded backline, were willing and able to sweep down field in droves and create overlapping attacks with good results -- they scored 13 times that day.
And it was the near total failure of Donegal last week to produce any real attacking initiatives which has upset so many GAA followers. Because of that, the charge of negative play from Donegal is justified.
But one week later, it is time to stop the hysterics. The fact that we have no television football 'experts' on duty this week to tell the rest of us how Gaelic football should be played -- or not played -- will allow the ordinary person to reflect on what they have seen and heard and maybe analyse things with calmer minds.
The debate, if we can call it that, is not about Jim McGuinness (below) per se, because no one person will change the face of Gaelic football. Playing extra players in defence has been around for 50 years in various guises. Equally, playing four or five in the forward-line has been used by numerous teams from time to time.
All these innovations are a natural development as managers and coaches apply themselves to varying the strictly traditional style of play based on lines of 1, 3, 3, 2, 3, 3. Such developments should be seen as stimulating and have often been influenced by the advancement in fitness training or adaptations drawn from other football codes.
The Donegal experiments all this year are welcome, in principle, as a basis of innovation, but there are limits if the ventures are to work.
As an indigenous national sport largely confined to the island of Ireland, Gaelic football must retain many of the basic components of the game that have worked so well for nearly 130 years. High catching, kicking as a pivotal skill of the game, scoring points while on the run, intelligent tackling aimed at dispossessing or frustrating an opponent in possession -- a skill perfected by Donegal players last week -- are just some of the core components of football.
However, accepting the need for the basic skills to be retained, numerous deviations are constantly developing, which augment the overall skill level and improve the game of football. One has only to see how different rugby union is played nowadays compared to 25 years ago and how the game has thrived as a result.
This should be the guiding principle, too, for the many changes in style and skill that have affected Gaelic football over roughly the same period. Add-ons to the basic structures of the game should actually strengthen the original product. Sadly, that is not always the case in regard to Gaelic football.
One of the most critical changes in modern football was the reintroduction of the handpass in the 1970s. At first this was greeted with acclaim because it seemed to speed up the game and this suited the recently arrived television coverage. Kerry and Dublin perfected the handpass at that time, but then abuses crept in and forwards were able to run almost to the goal line and handpass the ball into the net.
Unfortunately, club teams and their managers began to imitate the Dublin/Kerry handpassing and made a total mess of it because the club players did not have the fitness necessary to properly utilise the new skill. We have paid a very high price for that to this day.
Unlike most other sports, the GAA up to now has had no rational method of monitoring football on an ongoing basis or no mechanism to adjust playing rules, when necessary, in an orderly manner. Up to recently, playing rules could only be changed every five years, thereby allowing bad practices to continue far too long so that they almost became permanent.
The massed defence is the latest example of this and the overuse, not the use of the handpass, is still one of the main negatives about modern football.
If recent history is any guide then the packed defence will spread like wildfire into club games from now on and we will see county championship games ending up in scorelines like 0-6 to 0-5 to the extreme annoyance of spectators.
The GAA recently set up a new committee to review the way the games are played and propose changes in any year if they feel it will be for the betterment of the games. That is long overdue.
Based on what we saw from Donegal and Dublin last week, it is important that some degree of control is applied with regard to the sort of defensive play we saw in that match.
The basic principle that McGuinness has practised could remain, if that's what he thinks is right for his team, but restraints must be applied to prevent the negative aspect which dominated last week.
To improve any football code, the changes must be based on positivity not negativity. Sadly that was not the case in Croke Park a week yesterday. That should be the kernel of this debate -- not hysterical ranting from either side like we saw all last week.