While I was taking a couple of weeks off there must have an annual general meeting of the County Managers' Association. That is a joke in case some of the managers don't get it as many of them seem unable to laugh at themselves or anything else and take everything too seriously. Obviously the chief recommendation to emerge from the group think was that the proposed new rules were to be shot down by everyone at each and every opportunity. So the usual suspects lined up.
Kevin Walsh of Galway blamed it on the pundits who have an undue influence on the game. Kieran McGeeney was not far behind. Again the same group were blamed by him. In my innocence I would have thought that McGeeney would have been more concerned about winning an Ulster Championship match than these unnamed pundits. Who are these guys? I have mentioned this before but this sort of random blaming of pundits always reminds me of the posse who were chasing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When the two cowboys could not shake them off, the Kid in exasperation asked Butch, "Who are those guys?"
I hope I'm one of the pundits who are causing such grief. But the accusation seems to be aimed at people who are not actively involved in football. That rules me out.
A pity Walsh and McGeeney would not put us all out of our misery and name who they are talking about. Anyway, they might be disappointed that these pundits wield less influence than they perceive, but it would also be fair to say that The Sunday Game in particular does set the agenda for discussion on many topics. This trial period on new rules, however, cannot be blamed on The Sunday Game as these changes have only emerged in the last few months.
Many more have been quick to line up in the "bash it" department. Rory Gallagher of Fermanagh and Turlough O'Brien of Carlow are two more. They, like Declan Bonner, complained loudly that the hand-pass rule in particular was the ruination of the game as it was preventing flowing hand-passing moves that were ending up in the back of the net.
Now maybe I'm a bit like Rip Van Winkle and have woken up after a long period of sleep, but I find it very difficult to remember these wonderful moves from Fermanagh and Carlow over the last few years which ended up with great goals. My memory of these teams playing is of continuous hand-passing all right, but most of it going either backwards or sideways. So the reason why new rules were called for in the first place is a direct result of the way they and many more were playing the game at inter-county level.
It was unattractive as a spectacle and while there is no direct evidence I would suspect it is one of the reasons why so many players are unwilling to commit to playing with their counties. Also, attendances at some of the big championship matches were declining and TV figures were heading south. Should the authorities in these circumstances have stood idly by?
Maybe they should have consulted the county managers on the health of the game. Based on the comments of some of this group, they seem to be at odds with the vast majority of GAA people.
The general consensus of managers is that the game of football does not need changing. They are entitled to their opinion, but it is a minority one and they cannot be allowed to jettison the new rules before they have a proper chance to be implemented and analysed. Something which this playing rules group are good at is that the rules suggested are based on analysis of statistics over the last few years. When a comparison is made with all aspects of the game after a full league campaign, only then should conclusions be drawn.
A similar restriction on hand-passing was tried in the 1989-'90 league, except it was even more penal. Meath won the league and the sky did not fall in. The status quo returned for the championship, but I can't remember the managers of the day lining up as if they owned the game to denigrate proposals which we all hope can benefit the Association.
Now you might gather from this that I am blazing the trail in favour of the proposals. It is not like that at all. I would like to have seen all frees kicked forward as well as sidelines and a ban on passing back to the goalkeeper.
I certainly want to see how the restriction on hand-passing plays out over a period of months rather than a couple of games. Maybe teams will just kick the ball backwards after two passes. Maybe opponents will swarm the man in possession on the third pass and force a turnover. Maybe teams will kick inside and try to create a mark. Maybe Carlow, Fermanagh and Donegal will kick the ball in and adopt a more spectator-friendly type of game. Their corner-forwards would be delighted. Maybe it will give rise to tactical innovation. Let's all wait and see.
What was obvious from games played with a variety of experimental rules which my school team was involved in was that the idea of zones for kick-outs for forwards or midfielders is absolutely unworkable, even if it sounds great in theory. The rules have to be the same for all levels and even with sideline officials trying their best to police movements, it became impossible.
Another group with skin in the game, so to speak, are the club players. Little or nothing has been heard from the CPA which is right and proper. It is always better to hold your counsel until the evidence is in. A judgement from them in April will be soon enough while these measures are not going to inconvenience underage players greatly as they kick the ball much more. If that continued to senior level then we would have a better game.
In all the noise and fury emanating from county team managers there has been one absent voice. I have not heard Jim Gavin making any pronouncement about these rules as daft or stupid or some derogatory remark about "that crowd in Croke Park who know nothing about football".
Perhaps in time he might make an observation but it is more likely he will try to manage the things which are within his control and leave the rest to others. He might even think that there are people on the rules committee who value the game greatly and want to make it even better. Anyway, he has decided that a closed mouth catches no flies. Others should follow suit, at least for the time being.
Sunday Indo Sport