Thursday 20 June 2019

Ciarán Whelan: The rules of Gaelic football need to be reviewed now before the game suffers irrevocable damage

17 September 2017; A general view of the Sam Maguire cup prior to the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
17 September 2017; A general view of the Sam Maguire cup prior to the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Ciarán Whelan

Reflecting on last weekend’s action in Croke Park, I think it’s fair to say without too much argument that the two best teams in the country have now advanced to the showpiece that is the All-Ireland SFC final.

Dublin did what they were expected to do, and what they have become increasingly proficient in doing, by taking control of the game against Galway the longer that it progressed and in truth, the nine-point winning margin failed to reflect their control on the day.

The other semi-final last Sunday was in marked contrast to what we witnessed 24 hours earlier.

The result on Saturday was inevitable once Dublin took control in the third quarter. Sunday’s game though between Tyrone and Monaghan kept everyone on the edge of their seat.

It was refreshing and novel to witness a match that went right down to the wire and that remained in the balance until the final whistle.

The game itself got a relatively negative reaction in its immediate aftermath but I really enjoyed watching two well-matched teams playing with such intensity.

Is it because the game was so close, in contrast to Dublin’s procession, that I derived more enjoyment from that game or has the emphasis on strength, conditioning and defensive patterns brought the game to its lowest ebb that I can remember? 

Tyrone certainly possess the tools to challenge Dublin in the final and I believe it has the potential to be an absorbing decider.

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However, even should that eventuality occur, it’s plainly evident that there is a problem with Gaelic football at the moment and now is the time for the GAA and other vested parties to get together and salvage what has become a less than entertaining and enthralling spectacle.

The attendance figures last weekend would support the view that something is not quite right with Gaelic football at the highest level, and I stress the intercounty game, as football at club level and at the juvenile grades is still hugely entertaining.

I would generally take the “glass is half full” approach but it is hard to ignore the fact that the large majority of intercounty games are failing to capture the public imagination.

There is no hiding from the fact that there is a huge consensus at grassroot levels that intercounty Gaelic football has become stale as a spectacle for neutrals.   

The intercounty game has become hugely mechanical in how it is played and I understand completely that coaches will work within the framework of the game to make their teams as competitive and durable as they can possibly be.

Tyrone may have been viewed as the origin of this problem in the last decade but I don’t think that’s fair on them and I feel the issue only really came to light in 2011 when Jim McGuinness brought his own template to work on his ultimately successful Donegal team.

That success, based on defensive security to the detriment of attacking and free-spirited play, brought national glory to the north west the following year and it was obvious that other coaches would take note of his tactics and follow suit.   

That means that players are as highly conditioned as they can possibly be and possess the required athleticism and fitness to allow their managers to implement systems that are defensive in origin and that places a strong emphasis on counter-attacking football and nullifying the threat of the opposition.

I would be very reluctant to criticise any coach that follows this template as the game has become hugely science-based and it is inevitable that management teams will look for the best return from their panel as possible and play the percentage game in that regard.

However, when such an approach becomes the default setting, matches can become predictable, sterile and downright dull and I feel that the time for action is now before the game suffers irrevocable damage.

The powers that be in Croke Park, who can sometimes be sensitive when it comes to any perceived criticism, need to show a thicker skin and take a progressive rather than a reactive viewpoint on this critical subject.

The rules of the game need to be reviewed, I feel, and the best possible way of doing that is by getting current players, former players, managers, coaches and other interested parties together to formulate changes to address this current malaise.

We need to find areas that tweaks can be made and I have recently been of the opinion that there are too many players on the pitch, due to the enhanced levels of fitness that current players possess.

There may be an opportunity to decrease playing numbers from 15 to 13, something that should promote attacking football by increased use of the foot pass.

Many other suggestions have been mooted in recent times by those connected to our game such as - restricting the player numbers in each half of the field, the kickout going beyond the 45-metre line, a shot clock or limiting the number of consecutive hand passes.

All of these are viable suggestions but knowledge is no good unless all these proposals are put into practice.

There is no ‘silver bullet’ unfortunately, and any changes would have to be carefully debated and trialled as the rule changes would have to be implemented at all levels and the last thing you want to do is to destroy our game at  club level.

There is a collective responsibility to address this issue as Gaelic football as a spectacle in the modern era is running away from the GAA and strong leadership is required.

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