Monday 16 December 2019

Colm Keys: Free-kick competition shows innovation works but dead-rubber games don’t bode well for summer

Meath manager Andy McEntee Photo: Sportsfile
Meath manager Andy McEntee Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The England soccer manager Gareth Southgate admitted last November that he was considering staging a practice penalty shoot-out in Wembley later this year in advance of the World Cup finals in Russia.

Southgate has bitter experience of penalty shoot-outs, having stood up and missed a kick against Germany in the 1996 European Championships.

'The reaction has been much more positive after last Sunday’s game in Navan where Meath’s Mark McCabe wrote himself into the history books as the first player to score in such a contest' Photo: Sportsfile
'The reaction has been much more positive after last Sunday’s game in Navan where Meath’s Mark McCabe wrote himself into the history books as the first player to score in such a contest' Photo: Sportsfile

England's record of losing shoot-outs in major championships is quite acute.

Germany, by contrast, are market leaders with success in four World Cup shoot-outs between 1982 and 2006, missing just one from 18 kicks.

They put it down to 'nervenstaerke', nerves of steel. But good technique figures prominently too. And plenty of practice.

Neither Meath manager Andy McEntee nor his Longford counterpart Denis Connerton would have factored in practising for such an eventuality before last Sunday.

Why would they? It's pre-season, hardly worth devoting precious time chasing down such a small margin. And quite likely they just hadn't thought about it.

This rule, passed at last September's Special Congress, was overshadowed by the reform of the hurling championship which saw round-robin Leinster and Munster series introduced.

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The new rule states that when teams are still level after the first 20-minute period of extra-time a further 10 minutes of extra-time will be played to determine a winner.

But because of fading light that second period was shelved and the teams went straight to the novelty of a kicking competition.

Those added 10 minutes will limit the prospect of any further free-kick contests but in its first airing most present enjoyed the drama, recognising the benefit of finishing on the day rather than a replay on Wednesday night.

In such challenging winter conditions maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that just three of the 10 kicks found their target, the choice of mostly substitutes to take the kicks significant.

Is there a better way to determine a result?

A 'golden' point, where the next score would decide winners in that added 10-minute period, could be impacted by weather, opting for the team who scored more goals might encourage teams to go for more green flags but would ultimately reward a team who score fewer times, while penalty kicks do not reflect the fundamentals of Gaelic football as much as kicking a ball from the hands or the ground with distance and accuracy.

There was general derision when a 2009 European Cup rugby semi-final between Leicester Tigers and Cardiff Blues was decided by a shoot-out with Welsh flanker Martyn Williams, not a man accustomed to such situations, suffering the ignominy of missing his kick to decide the tie after they had finished level on points and tries scored after extra-time.

One commentator suggested rugby had lost its soul, that it wasn't a way to lose a game.

The reaction has been much more positive after last Sunday's game in Navan where Meath's Mark McCabe wrote himself into the history books as the first player to score in such a contest.

Only provincial and All-Ireland finals can go to replays under the new programme of games so, while it might be isolated, we can expect to see it again at some stage over the next few summers when one of those qualifier nights will provide it with its real acid test.

But right now it seems like a clever innovation to reward execution of a chief fundamental of the game.

While there is approval for one change there may be a sense of foreboding about a potential by-product of another change, or series of changes, after last weekend.

In Munster, Kerry beat Cork in a hurling match, the provincial senior league, for the first time since 1891 when club sides Ballyduff and Blackrock represented the counties and Ballyduff emerged victorious.

The fact that it was a 'dead-rubber' match, after both sides had lost their opening two games, won't dilute the sense of achievement that Kerry hurlers and management will have felt at such a milestone.

Meanwhile in Connacht, Galway and Roscommon will have to play their final-round FBD Connacht League match in Tuam this weekend - despite the fact that they have both qualified for the final after winning all three round-robin games to date.

Maybe it's just bad timing that a four-team and five-team round-robin group have ended up this way but in advance of five-team Munster and Leinster round-robin hurling championships and four-team All-Ireland quarter-final groups, it raises the spectre of the biggest problem the new formats are likely to have.

In football, the fact that two provincial champions play each other in the first game in each group should limit the damage in that respect while the prize of a play-off for a third-placed team against tier-two finalists will have a similar effect in hurling.

But round robin has rarely worked well in inter-county GAA and last weekend was a reminder of that.

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