Tuesday 24 October 2017

Change is coming ... but can we make a fist of it?

Cork's Patrick Kelly handpasses the ball to a team-mate. The increased use of the handpass is in danger of taking the foot out of Gaelic football.
Cork's Patrick Kelly handpasses the ball to a team-mate. The increased use of the handpass is in danger of taking the foot out of Gaelic football.
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

AS part of the extensive consultation process undertaken by the Football Review Committee (FRC), a group of journalists who cover GAA affairs on a regular basis were invited to a meeting in Croke Park some weeks ago to voice their opinions on football.

In particular, they were asked to suggest rule changes which, they believe, would improve the game. The FRC undertook a similar exercise with many other interest groups while also considering ideas from the thousands of people who responded to their invitation to participate in the process online.

As expected, the FRC meeting with journalists was a lively affair. Unanimity was conspicuously absent but that probably applied to the FRC's engagement with others too. That's no bad thing, although it would have left the FRC with quite a task as they set about producing the final blueprint, which will be announced on Monday.

My big ticket item at the meeting was the handpass and the need to restrict its corrosive influence on football. It has turned the game into Gaelic basketball where players gather in large clusters, where the team in possession pass to each other at close range. It has become such an integral part of the game that much of pre-match warm-up time is devoted to close handpassing and tackling so that players get it right in match situations.


Supporters of the handpass and its widespread use in the modern game tend to denigrate critics on the basis that we want to reduce football to an aimless catch-and-kick routine. Furthermore, they like to portray that as a throwback to less sophisticated times when, of course, it's nothing of the sort.

Apart from the fact that nobody is calling for the outright banning of handpassing, why should catch-and-kick be aimless? We're led to believe that coaching and preparation techniques have never been more advanced, in which case accurate foot-passing should be second nature to players. In reality, it's not, because handpassing removes the need for use of the boot.

It remains to be seen what – if any – restriction on the handpass the FRC will propose. With opinion divided, the FRC may avoid it altogether. In my view, that would seriously devalue the whole exercise, irrespective of what other good ideas they come up with.

There's nothing as fundamental to the game as the manner in which the ball is transferred and now is the ideal time to experiment with change.

Handpass apart, the FRC have examined a whole range of suggestions, gleaned from their interaction with the public in what was a thoroughly comprehensive process. They were surprised by the level of interest right across the GAA and since submissions were taken via email it gave people a chance to offer their views.

While it was encouraging to get such a huge response, it made the FRC's task no easier. Indeed, it may have been a hindrance to radical thinking since there must have been a temptation to opt for a pragmatic approach on the basis of what has a chance of being accepted as opposed to what's right.

There's a clear distinction between the two positions. For instance, even if the FRC believed scrapping the provincial championships would help, there would be no point in proposing it because of the strength of the 'anti' lobby. Provincial councils would oppose such a move on the basis it would reduce their powers.

Scrapping the provincial championships has its drawbacks (splitting the country into north-south-east-west in groups of eight doesn't) but even if it was a good idea, it would have no chance of being accepted because of vested interests.

There's another hurdle the FRC will have to clear if they are to have their main proposals implemented. Several previous experiments with rule changes over various intervals all shared a common theme – they were opposed by many team managers.

The pattern was familiar. Managers were asked for their opinion on the rule changes immediately after games and with many happy to criticise, it meant that Monday's papers were overloaded with opposition propaganda.

Managers tend to be so suspicious of rule change that it borders on paranoia. They seem to think that proposals for change are devised with their particular squad in mind. Once a group of high-profile managers take a united stand, they become a powerful lobby group, carrying a lot of influence.

It happened in 2010 when several rule experiments were carried out in pre-season and league games. Many of them were opposed by managers and by the time they came before Congress for consideration, they were carrying so much negativity they never stood a chance. The mood had been established by suspicious managers and were, in the main, rejected.

A similar fate could await the FRC proposals. As a counter-measure, they may well include a few wildcard suggestions that have no real chance of being accepted. However, they could act as a foil for the measures the FRC really want to see implemented.

Again, there's a precedent, albeit an accidental one, for how that works. In 2000, the FRC of the time proposed a radical new structure for the All-Ireland football championship. It proved hugely controversial and was doomed from the start. However, it widened the debate on whether some change was needed.

The then GAA president Sean McCague appointed a new committee, chaired by current director general Paraic Duffy, to re-examine the format and, some months later, they proposed the introduction of the All-Ireland qualifiers. They were voted in for the 2001 championship and have remained in place ever since.

There are many who believe that if they had been proposed in the first instance, they would have been shot down, similar to the original FRC proposals. However, counties were less inclined to oppose the second set of proposals, especially since they weren't as radical as the first set.

That's why you can expect the current FRC to include some proposals that they know have no chance of being accepted. However, they will insulate the measures which the FRC are really keen on. The trick will be to spot which is which.

The FRC members

Eugene McGee (chairman):

A native of Longford, he managed Offaly to All-Ireland success in 1982. He is an Irish Independent GAA columnist.

Killian Burns (Kerry):

An All-Ireland senior medal winner in 1997 and 2000.

Declan Darcy (Leitrim and Dublin):

Captained Leitrim to their first Connacht title for 67 years in 1994 and later played for Dublin.

Paul Earley (Roscommon):

A former All Star and Connacht championship medal winner.

Tim Healy (Cork and Wicklow):

Played minor football with Cork and senior football with Wicklow.

Ciaran McBride (Tyrone):

Won three Ulster senior medals.

John Tobin (Galway):

Former Galway star, he managed both his native county and Roscommon and works as coaching and games manager with the Connacht Council.

Tony Scullion (Derry):

An All-Ireland medal winner in 1993. Works as football development officer with the Ulster Council.

Kevin Griffin (Mayo):

Secretary to the committee, he chairs the UCD Institute for Sport and Health strategic board.

Irish Independent

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