Colm O'Rourke: Football has handpassed itself into a rotten shambles
The State of the Union is the annual address of the President of the United States to a joint session of the houses of Congress where he outlines the condition of the union and his legislative agenda. It would be very interesting if a similar situation prevailed in the GAA where the president set out what his views were on the games and what remedial measures are needed. Maybe I inhabit a different planet or just talk to people of like mind, but I cannot find anyone who thinks football is in a healthy condition or enjoys it very much either.
When I looked at some of the opening games in the Allianz League over the last two weekends, either live matches or the ones on TV, I could not help but think that football is a fairly rotten, stinking game as currently played by a number of counties. Not all though - and there is a striking difference between football at adult and underage levels.
My perception of the drift in the game was reinforced by statistics Martin Breheny highlighted in the Irish Independent which pointed out that handpassing has reached a new level. When the Football Review Committee looked at this a couple of years ago, they decided it should be monitored, hoping the epidemic of handpassing was a trend in football's evolution.
Smart coaches are supposed to develop the game and some of them suggest that they should be allowed to take it whatever way they fancy. Well, if that way is what we saw in Derry v Donegal and Tyrone v Monaghan, on the first weekend, and Meath v Kildare last Saturday, then somebody needs to intervene to save football.
It would be unfair to blame it all on Ulster teams, even if the style, if that is what it is called, is a very small step from rugby league and basketball. Certainly having fewer Ulster teams meeting each other in the League would be a positive move, if only to get rid of the macho man exhibitions that take place in almost all these games. The real hard men of football don't need to have their faces stuck in opponents or feel the urge to snarl and get involved in every incident.
When Kildare descend to the level of all-out defence, it means the plague has become all-consuming. Naturally, they must have had concerns about conceding late goals as they did against Down in their first game, but to see all the Kildare team in their own half at times against Meath was really throwing in the towel. It was a horrible style played horribly. Maybe they don't have the class of previous teams; they certainly don't have incisive forwards like John Doyle, Tadhg Fennin or Eddie McCormack to take on their men. Now they all look the same, play the same and the suspicion that Kildare have a soft centre becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Teams put on more and more pressure and they fold so everyone else sees that and copies it. The flight-or-fight syndrome was first developed by Walter Cannon, an American physiologist in the 1920s. Kildare need to stand their ground in big games and start winning tight matches, otherwise the soft-touch tag will persist. Perception is reality and the players are the only ones who can change that.
Of course it is also strange that most of these local spats in Ulster continue to attract big crowds. The possibility of a row was what made the GAA popular in the beginning and that possibility was usually reality until recently. Now we have shapers, the 'hold me back in case I might have to hit' type. Players should get on with playing. There is still plenty of room for the tough player, mentally and physically. You never have to be afraid of talkers, but beware the silent assassins.
Management groups and players have only one agenda - winning - and that has never changed. Yet it does not mean that those at the highest level of coaching should have a veto on changes to rules which might make the game a more attractive spectacle. The starting point is a national consensus on the type of game the public and players at all levels want Gaelic football to be. The only certainty to me is that nobody would want what we have now.
The elephant in the room is always handpassing and nobody has had a brief to tackle it. Who is it up to? The last football review committee should be called back to get a statistical analysis and set out the guiding principles of what football should be like for the future. Without any pre-judgement of that, it would not take a genius to see that disillusionment with continuous handpassing has become a dominant theme. Not just with old farmers, cranky school principals, fans with typewriters or frustrated supporters shouting from the terrace, "Will you kick the f***ing thing". Young players and younger supporters now hate the trend of defensive handpassing, even to the extent of working it back to the goalkeeper.
The solution is to limit the number of handpasses. Three should be enough. There are those who feel referees have enough problems without counting, but counting to three should not be too taxing. All handpasses in your own half of the field should have to be forward and no passes back to the goalkeeper should be allowed.
And have all experimentation at underage level where they will pick things up quickly and won't go around with sour heads like some adults when they are asked to do something different. And don't bother too much with the opinions of inter-county managers. They have self-interest at heart which does not always match with the welfare of the game.
These measures will not stop blanket defence, they may perhaps exaggerate the problem so other measures may be necessary. But football is football is football. Those who run the GAA need to ensure the old basic skills are not made redundant. If a player cannot kick the ball then the rules of the game should expose, not protect, him. Maybe we will get a State of the Union speech at Congress and with Liam O'Neill leaving office it would not cost him anything to say that while hurling has preserved a constant identity, football has degenerated into a rotten shambles.
A few good matches during the summer does not alter the present mess, but there is potential to create a beautiful game.
Sunday Indo Sport