Monday 18 December 2017

Change or die: It's a stark choice

Last May, Colm Cooper sat down for an interview with the Sunday Independent and found it hard to contain his frustration at the path Gaelic football is taking.

"I know I'm being naive here, but I would just love to go out this morning and play on one man," he said. "You take him on, he marks you. Have six backs against six forwards and see who comes out on top. It would be great just to get out on the field and play your natural game but I know I'm being innocent in talking like that.

"The fact is that modern Gaelic football is all about mass defence. We even play it ourselves at times without realising it. Most teams are playing that zonal style. They spend so many hours on preparation that they feel they have to go operate this system to almost guarantee a low concession of scores."

Cooper, the top forward in the game, proposed moving to a 13-a-side game. Nine months later, Páraic Duffy highlighted unacceptable levels of "systematic fouling" in his annual report. If such high-profile figures are speaking out something must be wrong with Gaelic football.

"I don't actually agree with that," says Tipperary minor manager David Power, who led his side to last year's All-Ireland title. "There have been plenty of recent statements about the state of the game, but while there are issues with fielding in the middle of the field and certainly handpassing, I think it's in an otherwise healthy enough state. The biggest challenge is to drop the cynical element in underage coaching -- lads will only play with what they grew up with so what do we expect at senior level?"

Mickey Harte is in agreement with Power. "There are lots of very, very attractive games played, lots of very attack-minded teams out there, and teams do want to score, do want to entertain. But they'll entertain in a way that is relevant in today's game. We shouldn't be harking back to this catch and kick mentality, which really bores me to tears. Go take a look at the TG4 Gold series, and it's not that exciting. It was the best there was at that time but now we have something of a different era that I find equally exciting."

Yet, this year, we've had poor football across the National League. Even a quality side like Kerry, after moving five points clear of Down, spent the next 10 minutes passing either across the field or backwards. It was shocking to watch. "Gaelic football now is essentially basketball, 12 men behind the ball and a couple up front," says Seán Cavanagh. "Positions mean very little and it is more important now to be a tackler than it is to be a scorer."

Liam O'Neill clearly feels action is needed. The new president's choice to lead his football review committee was Eugene McGee, a vocal critic of the modern game. It was a pointed selection.

"If you want things done properly you either go for people who are brave and independent and will take the thing in a different direction or else you stagnate," O'Neill says. "I want new ideas, I want fresh ideas and I want this organisation to open up its mind and listen to people."

McGee has always been critical but constructive in his newspaper columns and now leads a committee that will provoke the biggest debate on the state of football in 12 years, since the Football Development Committee of 2000 paved the way for the back-door system which allowed teams like Fermanagh, Wexford, Sligo and Wicklow accumulate championship game-time they would otherwise never see.

Here are 10 pointers for McGee's committee:

1 LIMIT THE HANDPASS

There have been calls to allow only two, or perhaps three, consecutive handpasses before the ball must be played with the boot. Retaining possession, through handpassing, has damaged kicking skills and nowadays the handpass is king. Donegal made 243 last year against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. But Kerry are right up there with the best of them. Last summer they had 179 against Limerick in the Munster semi-final, 194 against the same opposition in the All-Ireland quarter-final and 188 against Mayo in the semi-final.

Limiting consecutive handpassing might inject more direction and urgency into the game, although Dublin under 21 manager Jim Gavin has a different theory. "I don't think it really matters how many handpasses you make because it's up to the other managers and mentors to break down that system. I would actually say that from an academic level, it's fascinating."

2 the SIN-BIN

Cynical fouling is the biggest problem facing the game and, with managers demanding a win at all costs it's little wonder, thanks to third-man tackles, off-the-ball clashes, frontal charges, and so on.

The sin-bin may still have a role to play. When first trialled seven years ago there was uproar but when the chaos died down there were signs the experiment was working; fewer players went to the line and the games were cleaner and less cynical.

In 2008, the sin-bin was back, this time mirroring the rugby version of the rule where no replacement was allowed, but again it was not fully embraced and narrowly failed to get voted into law. The GAA want to give it another shot so it should feature on the list of recommendations from McGee's group. Don't forget when it was last tried, scores and playing time increased while systematic fouling fell.

3 THE MARK

The motion to introduce the mark into Gaelic football failed two years ago. People were worried that its arrival could rob the game of the speed and fluidity that make it such a spectacle. But what's the alternative? A guy lands after a catch and is swarmed by three opponents, mauled to the ground and penalised for not letting go.

"The mark is one change that could definitely help the game," says David Power. "Even at underage level you see it -- your top midfielder gains primary possession but by the time his feet land he is surrounded and there's no outlet. Where's the advantage?"

A mark could be initially confined to kick-outs that clear the 45-metre line to encourage and reward clean high fielding and might stop the ugly scrums that break out. High-fielding is one aspect of the game that crowds really love, so it wouldn't harm attendances either.

4 THE PICK OFF THE GROUND

Banishing this rule should happen sooner rather than later and we should look to ladies' football to see how well it works. In the heat of the championship it's annoying to see a free called against a player for not getting his boot under the ball and many of these calls are wrong anyway -- remember Eoin Brosnan being wrongly punished in the All-Ireland final?

A direct pick-up from the ground should be considered. It can be very difficult to execute the traditional toe-pick at speed and it has led to increased fouling from behind which looks dreadful. A direct pick would speed the game up.

5 THREE PLAYERS TO BE KEPT IN THE OPPOSITION HALF

Positioning extra players in defence has been around for about 40 years in various forms.

"That was happening as far back as the 1990s -- I saw that under Pat O'Neill," states Jim Gavin. "I dropped back as a defensive half-forward back then even if people haven't picked up on it. It's more obvious now but it's always been there."

Still, with up to 14 men cramming their defences it's surely gone too far now. It might take an extra official to police, but wouldn't it be great to see three players compelled to stay in their opponents' half at any given time. The players could rotate and use the ruling to open up more space, offering their side an immediate attacking option. With three players in the half, at least three defenders would be required to keep an eye on them, therefore seven players in total have now been taken away from behind the ball. It might never happen, but it's worth considering.

6 INTRODUCE A PROPERLY DEFINED TACKLE

Some would say the current tackle is already defined but just not coached or enforced properly. The Australian Rules-style tackle, meanwhile, looks ugly, but at least everyone knows where they stand with it.

If players ask a referee what they want from a tackle the response is usually 'hand in, hand out' but if an opponent is running straight at you that simply won't suffice. The only two forms of tackling that are straightforward are the block and the shoulder-to-shoulder.

Instead, players are sometimes subjected to 30 minutes of drills on tackling in training as they try to get to grips with what referees want. A lot of the time these sessions just turn into stopping-your-rival-at-all-costs affairs. Meanwhile, no one is quite sure what they'll get away with. Refereeing interpretations differ, much to the frustration of managers.

7 ALLOW QUICK KICK-OUTS TO BE TAKEN WITHOUT A TEE

"I'd love if goalkeepers were allowed to take quick kick-outs without the tee," former Armagh goalkeeper Paul Hearty told this paper last week. "The tee has been great for 'keepers who didn't have long kicks, but it's also kind of slowed things down. Short kick-outs are exciting and opponents can be caught unawares, but sadly they are a thing of the past when the tee is involved. Instead, most of the time you lump it down, maybe your midfielder catches it cleanly and God help him if he does because he'll be surrounded straight away."

It wouldn't take a huge infrastructural change to give this suggestion a shot during next year's league.

8 THE TAP-AND-GO FREE

This often works very well for teams in rugby, provided the right player takes off at the right time. It's something tailor-made for Gaelic football too. A player who is fouled should be allowed to play on, provided opponents are five metres away. Critics argue that such a change would mean that one of the greatest skills, free-kicks taken off the ground, would be practically eliminated, but that is slowly waning anyway.

9 LINK the LEAGUE TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP

In 1991, 48,000 people turned out for the National Football League final. In 2007, there were roughly 35,000 present. Last Sunday, the figure was down to 22,000.

The path Gaelic football has taken, and the league format itself, where four teams from eight qualify for semi-finals, rewards mediocrity in many ways.

If the GAA ever opt for an open draw they could definitely find a way to link league performance with championship seeding or a guarantee of a place in the All-Ireland series. Maybe a reward of two home championship games might encourage teams to address the league more stringently, therefore playing better football and enticing more supporters to turn out.

10 TRAINING

An overall change in the culture of training needs to be engineered -- and quickly.

"From underage all the way up to under 21, the emphasis is solely on winning. Primarily it should be on player development," says David Power. "It shouldn't all be about winning. The way things are going young lads will be under so much pressure to perform at underage level that they'll have fallen out of love with the game by the time they reach senior. Last year I would have been devastated if Tipp lost during the minor championship but I would have gotten over it too. The bottom line is that we were playing until September and that was a huge boost in itself."

It would be great to see teams train like Crossmaglen -- kicking the ball, shooting practice. Open games on a full-size pitch instead of a typical session which consists mostly of tackling drills, small-sided games played on even smaller pitches with fist-passing only allowed.

The ball should be moved from defence to attack as quickly as possible and players should duly be coached to kick the ball. There's no need for mass defence -- man-marking will do fine. With six All-Ireland titles achieved using these methods, Cross must be doing something right.

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