Saturday 18 November 2017

A game still called football? Martin Breheny on the handpass scourge

Marc O Se delivers a kickpass during last year’s All-Ireland final
Marc O Se delivers a kickpass during last year’s All-Ireland final
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

These are the raw facts. The ratio between handpasses and kicked passes in last weekend's Meath v Kildare and Mayo v Tyrone Allianz football League games was almost four to one.

The two games produced a total of 565 handpasses and 143 footpasses.

I chose Meath v Kildare and Mayo v Tyrone for review, simply because they were from different divisions and available for recording, thanks to the live coverage by Setanta and TG4 respectively.

The figures are worrying for Gaelic football as a spectacle. Running at almost four to one in favour of handpassing, it's an increase of 1.9 over three years.

Ratio

The Football Review Committee (FRC), chaired by Eugene McGee, carried out a survey of the 2012 championship and discovered that the handpass/kickpass ratio among the top eight counties was 2.1 to 1.

It was 2.3 to 1 in 2010; 1.8 to 1 in 2000 and 1.1 to 1 in the 1970s.

Now, two league games from last weekend cannot be taken as concrete proof that handpassing is on the increase, but spectators all over the country know that it's highly likely. After all, their eyes are not fooling them.

The FRC, which issued the first part of its report in December 2012, recommended no restriction to the handpass but noted: "We believe this is one aspect of the game that should be carefully monitored."

In deciding against proposing an adjustment, the FRC felt that the handpassing overload might be part of a short-term trend, similar to the many others that occur in the evolution of all games.

"These patterns are transient in nature," noted the FRC hopefully. It was also concerned over the extra pressure that limiting the number of permitted handpasses would place on referees.

The overall report was very progressive but members were also sufficiently pragmatic to realise that radical proposals might well scupper the entire package - including the introduction of the black card, which they regarded as vital.

A call to restrict handpassing would be met with a blitz of opposition by team managers, whose influence on rule-making is far greater than it should be.

The FRC research showed a 43pc decrease in footpasses of 30 metres or longer over ten years.

They also noted "that there are signs that many of the teams who were prime users of the handpass are now using it less."

I wonder would the FRC think the same now. There has been nothing to suggest during the 2013-14 seasons that incessant handpassing was an ephemeral trend. On the contrary, it appears to be more entrenched than ever.

Worse than that, it has become more negative, with an increasing number of handpasses now going backwards. Actually, that's happening with footpasses too, although not as often.

Handpassing would be much easier on the eye if it were done at high speed in sharp, precise interchanges, which release a player into space. Instead, it's often slow and laboured, crabbing across the field, allowing the opposition to remain very close to point of action all the time.

Contrast that with the fast hand action of the Australians in the International Rules games. It played them into open territory in a matter of seconds, an approach that appears to be alien in our game.

So what could be done to limit the negative impact of handpassing?

Restricting it to three before the ball had to be kicked would certainly be an interesting experiment, not least because of the immediate requirement for an improvement in footpassing.

Opposition voices will argue that such a big change would lead to teams losing possession much more often.

What's so bad about that? Besides, would it not result in much more work being done on improving kicking skills?

Except in the case of emergency, rule changes can only be discussed by Congress every five years so the FRC's decision on handpassing means that it will be with us in his present unrestricted form until at least 2020.

Blight

In the meantime, the handpass will remain as an unrestricted blight on the football landscape. In fact, it may even become more pronounced, which is a scary thought.

Now, here's a thing. Both of the goals in Sunday's Mayo-Tyrone game were constructed by the foot rather than the hand.

Mayo's goal resulted from a Route 1 delivery which caused panic in the visiting defence, while Tyrone's was set up by a perfectly flighted kickpass by Sean Cavanagh, which Mayo were unable to defend against.

Two of the three goals in the Cork-Monaghan game involved kicked passes. Kevin McManamon's precise footpass split the Donegal defence for Dublin's first goal, while Jack McCaffrey's direct running provided the second goal.

Goals are much less likely to be created off intricate handpassing, since a well-organised defence will clog the approach routes with their massed ramparts.

So then, it seems that the handpass, complete with all its repetitive boredom, will be with us for at least another five years.

What will the handpass to kickpass ratio be by then? Seven to one?

Nash perfectly entitled to call Rebel rousers to order

It must have been a change for Anthony Nash to be asked his opinion on something other than penalties, an aspect of hurling where he exerted a major influence through his ground-devouring run-ups.

Nash dealt with matters of a more local nature at the Allianz League launch, expressing disappointment over comments made by former colleagues after last year's big semi-final defeat by Tipperary.

He's right, of course, but he can hardly have been surprised. A Cork hurling man of my acquaintance remains convinced that some of the successful squad who were involved in various wars with the county board over several years would prefer not to see Liam MacCarthy on Leeside for quite some time, on the basis that it makes them look better.

That's surely not the case, but until the All-Ireland wait ends, the current panel can expect verbal missiles to come their way.

Nash also - and rightly so - defended manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy, pointing out that Cork reached three All-Ireland semi-finals and one final in the past three seasons as well as landing the Munster title. Granted, they didn't win the All-Ireland, but then it's a fate that befell all except Kilkenny and Clare.

Nash's honest assessment summed things up nicely, not just for Cork but for every other county too in an era when black and white are the only colours allowed in post-match analysis.

"When we won Munster, we were going to win the All-Ireland, and when we lost to Tipperary we were the worst team that Cork had ever seen," he said.

Worse still, those sentiments came from Cork.

Big bad world awaits goalkeeping 'piggies'

Whatever the nursery rhyme says, some little piggies are best advised to remain at home and avoid the market.

Goalkeepers Niall Morgan (Tyrone) and Ken O'Halloran (Cork) wandered forth into a big bad world last Sunday, only to discover they weren't ready for it.

Morgan's solo run into the Mayo half ended with his attempted pass being charged down. A Mayo counter-attack yielded a point, but it might have been a goal if the move had been quicker.

O'Halloran ran even deeper into Monaghan territory in the final minute, only to be shouldered over the sideline. As he scampered back, Monaghan's desperate break-out was halted by a foul, handing them the chance of the equaliser. However, Conor McManus kicked wide.

With many goalkeepers venturing upfield as long-range free-takers nowadays, they appear to be getting an appetite for extra travel.

But, as Morgan and O'Halloran discovered last Sunday, it's altogether different when the snarling opposition are allowed to get in tackles, as they would with an outfield player.

The moral of the story: goalkeeping piggies should 'sty' at home.

Irish Independent

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