Exclusion zone can destroy blanket: Joe Brolly outlines his plan to make football a skill-based spectacle once again
It is not often you see Anthony Tohill angry. When he is, nobody speaks. They look down at their feet until he is finished.
When we were walking out onto Croke Park a few weeks ago to be presented to the crowd, he turned, looked up at the Ard Comhairle and, eyes flashing with anger, said, "there they are, Brolin (he calls me that after the Swedish striker of the 1990s), sitting in their soft seats doing fuck all as the game falls into disrepute."
President Donald Trump made a speech at the United Nations General Assembly last Tuesday where he made his standard claim, that "in less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of the country." Which caused the delegates to burst into spontaneous laughter. The GAA hierarchy has been telling Congress that things have never been better for the last decade. Only at Congress, they don't laugh. They clap. As the new director-general says, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
The Playing Rules Committee, half of which is made up of hurling folk, has until now done nothing to combat the problem. If nothing is broken, it doesn't need to be fixed. So, inevitably, the game has become increasingly unwatchable. However, with John Horan as the new president (and having already shown leadership in intervening to make sure the Liam Miller game was played at Páirc Uí Chaoimh), there are signs that an attempt to tackle the problem is brewing.
The president should not apologise for this. He will receive the support of 99 per cent of the GAA community who, like Anthony Tohill, are screaming out for something to be done. In truth, he has no choice. An average TV audience of only 449,000 tuned into the Dublin v Galway semi-final, while a mere 447,000 watched Tyrone v Monaghan the following day. Last year, in contrast, Mayo v Kerry attracted 729,600 TV viewers, with Dublin v Tyrone garnering 663,400.
This huge year-on-year drop of almost 40 per cent (the loss of 500,000 viewers) is a statistic that doesn't lie. People are switching off in huge numbers.
This doesn't just apply to the TV-watching GAA public. Croke Park on both semi-final days this year felt more like league than championship, with 'game management' replacing football. Attendance at the field of dreams was, unsurprisingly, down by just over 22 per cent since last year.
The starting point for any serious attempt to revive the game is to accurately identify the problem. That core problem is zonal or blanket defending, where players drop off their men and take up a space inside the scoring zone. This in turn leads to the problems that spectators complain bitterly about.
"There is too much hand-passing," they say. This is because the attacking team see a sweeper (or two) in front of their full-forward, perhaps five opponents strung across the 45, with perhaps 12 or 13 opponents inside the scoring zone. This makes kick-passing virtually impossible, save around the periphery of the zone. "For fuck sake, would you attack them," they say, when the team in possession hold the ball for lengthy periods rather than dash themselves off the rocks of the blanket defence.
So, when a team get a lead against a zonal defensive team, if they are smart, they will hold possession for lengthy periods, eventually (hopefully) drawing them out, before attacking through the gaps. Dublin do it. Against Galway at one point in the semi-final, they held the ball for 1 minute 47 seconds before going in for a point.
Slaughtneil, the kingpins of Ulster football, were pilloried for doing it in their recent Derry Championship match against O'Donovan Rossa Magherafelt, managed by Tyrone's Adrian Cush. Rossa scored one point from play in the whole match (after one minute), then went into the 1-14-0 formation, with all outfielders inside the 45.
As Slaughtneil edged further and further ahead, why should they have attacked bald-headed into the Magherafelt zone? Slaughtneil are a fantastic team who play with a great spirit and have given Derry folk great pride and excitement over the last five years, playing some of the most memorable games seen during that time (their Ulster Championship game against Kilcar last year was an unforgettable classic). If Slaughtneil are reduced to this, then it is the fault of the game, not theirs.
That Derry Championship match was an abomination. But abominations have become a familiar sight to any lover of Gaelic football. The Dublin senior team might be able to carve open these blanket defences, but for the rest of us it is extremely difficult. Even the Dubs, with all their firepower, have had to change the way they play. Where once they moved the ball forward with lightning speed, now they have to exercise caution and use intricate patterns of play to create scores against massed defences.
Once the problem is accurately identified, only then can we start to look at possible solutions. For some time, I have been thinking carefully about how to solve the problem without impacting on the skills and flow of the game. Obviously when teams are playing with a blanket defence, the game has no flow, so what I mean is protecting the skills of the game, and the teams who go out to play skill-based football in the right spirit.
The problem is that teams are dropping men into the scoring zone to stifle quick attacks and prevent goal chances. Almost every competitive team now do this. Galway flood the zone a la Tyrone 2017. Monaghan flood it. Derry use the 1-12-2. Carlow use the 1-14-0, Fermanagh the 1-13-1.
Dublin use a sweeper, who drops in front of the opposing full-forward as the attack develops, preventing early ball to the danger zone and making it extremely difficult to score goals against them, save for the odd penalty. Tyrone likewise. Up until August this year, they played a double sweeper system inside their 13-man zone to prevent goals. Then, for the semi-final against Monaghan, they switched to a single sweeper - Colm Cavanagh - who did the trick just as well.
Hand-passing, for example, is not the problem. Limiting hand-passing is an artificial exercise that will have no impact on zonal defending. If anything, it will encourage the blanket, since it is impossible to kick-pass your way through it.
I have heard people suggest that hand-passing should be limited to three consecutive passes. But what if the fourth hand-pass is the one that sends the forward through on goal at the end of a beautiful flowing move? Does the man who takes the third hand-pass have to turn back and kick-pass the ball backwards to a team-mate? It would drive everyone mad.
Seamus Kenny of Simonstown and Meath is a welcome addition to the Rules Committee. His club's senior team have already trialled a limitation on hand-passing and like ours, they found it was encouraging zonal defending rather than curbing it. Kerry and Dublin hand-passed throughout the golden era of the 1970s and '80s and we loved it. Couldn't get enough of it. Good hand-passing and clever runs on and off the ball are a joy to behold.
I have advocated various possible new rule trials over the past number of years. Here is one I have been working on that might avoid the need for any further change. It is simple, doesn't affect the skills of the game or its flow and, critically, makes zonal defending pointless.
I am proposing that the scoring zone around the goals becomes an exclusion zone, where a defending player can only man-mark - no one can take up a space there unless he is man-marking. We have trialled this and it looks great. So, there would be a semi-circle (marked in fluorescent yellow) from the end line, 10 metres in from each sideline, running to 35 metres at its tip.
Only man-marking would be permitted in this zone. This means that the attacking team dictates who goes in there. So, if their full-forward stations himself on the edge of the square a la Michael Murphy or Kieran Donaghy, then one defender can be there with him. If the attacking team decide to play two forwards in there on either side of the square, then there will be two defenders in there.
The other players on the defending team can only be in there if their man goes in there. This has a number of consequences: it means that an early ball can (and will) be kicked in to the danger zone. It means that coaches will be forced to work on attacking strategies to take advantage of the man-marking rule. Crucially, it means that there is no longer any point in a blanket defence since, a) a team cannot protect the scoring zone with zonal defenders or double markers and, b) an opponent will not be able to mark space and must man-mark, since an attacking player can attack into the exclusion zone at any time.
Until now, there has been no point in attacking through the centre of the zone as the player is running into dense traffic. The opposition simply surround the man in possession and either dispossess or trap him until he has over-carried. With the exclusion zone, they can no longer do this. They will instead have to be man-marking the attacking player before he reaches the zone to prevent him taking or creating an easy score inside the zone.
Say, for example, the right half-forward kicks a diagonal ball into the exclusion zone to the full-forward. The centre-forward or midfielder times his run and sprints into the zone to get off the full-forward's shoulder and take the pass. If he is not being man-marked before he reaches the exclusion zone, he will be through on goal. The opposition cannot play zonally outside the exclusion zone, since they would then be unable to track the runners.
In turn, this will force teams to tackle higher up the pitch. Otherwise, good early ball can be moved into the exclusion zone under no pressure. Basically, it will mean they must man-mark. At the moment, the defending team are unconcerned about leaving a man free on the 45. They just stand off him, making sure he can't get any closer.
Galway are a good example of this, with their five men strung across the 45. With the exclusion zone, however, they will be forced to pick up a man. Teams can no longer leave an attacking player free outside the 45 as he can easily kick accurately to the exclusion zone; even from 60 metres it is only a 30-45 metre kick-pass. Crucially, it would restore the game to a man-marking, skill-based spectacle.
The exclusion zone means there is no point any longer in marking space since it will not serve any purpose. The club trials (I appreciate these are limited and that proper, extensive trialling is required) show that it works well, and promotes very good attacking, and skilful, defensive football.
At the moment, as managers, we all want to leave our inside attacking area uncongested, so we will try to play with four or five up, perhaps with wing-forwards hugging the touchlines and the inside forwards repeatedly making runs off the ball to create space in the danger zone. This is pie in the sky when facing a zonal defence. If, however, defenders are forced to man-mark - and the exclusion zone necessarily forces them to man-mark both inside and out of the zone - then the blanket defence is redundant, and creative attacking strategies will become the norm.
It is also easy to police. At inter-county level and club championship level, there are neutral umpires and linesmen. With the exclusion zone marked in fluorescent yellow it is easy to see if there is a sweeper.
In future Cian O'Sullivan will have to mark his man. No turning and dropping into the space in front of the danger zone. If he does, the umpire or linesman will buzz the ref in his ear-piece. In future we will see if Colm Cavanagh is actually a good midfielder. We will find out whether footballers like Colm who have never played a position can actually mark a man and really play football, or are only effective when they are the free man, doubling up on an outnumbered forward. And Magherafelt will go out and play the football they are capable of, knowing good forward play will be rewarded.
It is the blanket defence that has ruined the game, both for the players and the spectators. The exclusion zone is a neat solution. It promotes attacking play and gives the initiative to the attacking team. It promotes skill-based football and will make for an excellent spectacle.
Imagine Kerry v Dublin in next year's semi-final and the first high ball is driven in for David Clifford, with Philly McMahon having to mark him without help. I'd pay to see that. Alternatively, it is kicked in and three men are hanging off him. It gets demoralising after a while, for the spectators and the kid.
The penalty for breaching the exclusion zone while not man-marking would be a 21-yard free in front of the posts. A clear, easily understood sanction that will keep defending teams on their toes.
The usual complaint is that it would be unworkable at club league level, but that is already the wild west. At club league level, the official will continue to do his best, without any help, as he does currently. Forwards getting fouled and punched off the ball in a club league game? Tough luck. In Croke Park it will be a free in and a yellow card for the offender. At club league level, when is a point a point? When the home team's umpire (father of the right half-forward) awards it? Seamus Downey once complained to the Dungiven referee Oney O'Neill that a point he had awarded against Lavey was a yard wide. (Seamus was absolutely correct about this). Oney wrote the score down in his notebook, turned to Seamus and said, "Buy The Irish News tomorrow Seamus and you'll see if it was a wide or not."
At Croke Park and Thurles we have Hawk-Eye. At club level, the referee has always had to muddle along doing his impossible best, whether it is a square ball or a penalty (when the referee is 80 yards away) or a card. It will be easy - even at club league level - for the referee to take a look and see if there is a sweeper inside the exclusion zone. At championship level, and inter-county, it will be very obvious indeed, and very easy for the two neutral umpires, two neutral linesman and referee to spot it.
The game needs to be revived, and fast. The exclusion zone might just be the defibrillator.
Sunday Indo Sport