Tuesday 11 December 2018

Derry club clash plumbs new depths for the game

 

A screengrab of six Slaughtneil players enjoying splendid isolation around the half-way line during their Derry league clash against Magherafelt
A screengrab of six Slaughtneil players enjoying splendid isolation around the half-way line during their Derry league clash against Magherafelt
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Every so often Gaelic football has an apocalyptic moment that gives an insight into just how bad the game can be and the extremes it can go to if two teams decide to dispense with all sense of risk and ambition.

The 2011 All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Donegal was a landmark game, the pedestrian nature of some of the early exchanges sparking a chorus of jeers just 20 minutes in when Donegal began passing the ball laterally across their own half-back line, reluctant to engage Dublin any further up the field.

It's funny to look back at that passage of play now and see so many replicas.

The jeers don't come as quick or as often because the crowds have become so accustomed to such a built-in practice of the game.

Derry's 0-8 to 0-4 2015 league defeat to Dublin in Croke Park was another one of those moments when the northerners, destroyed by Dublin in an open league final 11 months earlier, put up the sandbags and dug the trenches deeper.

Sporadically, there have been a few games in Donegal that have been just as eye-opening, slow bicycle races that can't all be blamed on strong winds.

When Glenswilly defeated St Eunan's in a league match in 2016 the scoreline was 0-3 to 0-2.

Surfaced

But maybe nothing has plumbed the depths quite like that clip of a Derry senior football match on Sunday night between reigning Ulster champions Slaughtneil and Magherafelt which surfaced online.

Slaughtneil won the game by 0-10 to 0-5 but the last minute or so before half-time was as bizarre a passage of play that you are likely to see, providing the most extreme consequence of what can go wrong when a team decide to run down the clock and their opponents decide not to resist.

In the clip Slaughtneil hold possession with one player standing in the same spot soloing unchallenged until he gets bored and hands the ball off to a colleague just inside their own half.

And so it continued at walking pace, Magherafelt, with all of their players back in their own half, opting not to give chase until, finally, the referee blew for half-time.

This, of course, was a worst-case scenario, going against every principle of competitive sport.

If it was horse racing both teams would be called before the stewards for an explanation.

A rugby team are compelled to play the ball from a ruck if a referee orders them to do so. There is no such directive in Gaelic football and nothing to prevent such passages from developing.

Slaughtneil/Magherafelt may have been a worst excess but we've seen enough variations on the theme in recent seasons to know that the game is heading down a definite path. The element of risk has been removed.

In one sense there are some unintended consequences at play. Players have become so competent in a wide range of skills, their movement has become so much better and faster, that unforced errors are much less common.

Theoretically then, the game should be better if the skills and movement are of a higher standard than before. But that just isn't the case.

All the elements are in place but the overall package isn't. The erosion of football's randomness has made it less of a spectacle.

Yes, there is some appreciation in watching a team break down a solid defensive shell, stretching them and making the necessary incisions to score.

But too often now the risk is greater than the potential reward. The ball just isn't 'in dispute' often enough to maintain the collective interest and focus of a watching crowd.

When a Dublin All-Ireland semi-final attracts just over 54,000 and there are tickets openly for sale on the streets outside Croke Park on the day of an All-Ireland final, it can't just be blamed on the dominance of Dublin.

Thus, the work of the new Standing Committee on Playing Rules will provoke much interest over the next few months. And the time to introduce some radical experiments may never be better.

This committee may opt to be bolder than the previous one which tweaked rules around the kick-out.

A restriction on the number of consecutive hand-passes, mirroring a 1994/95 league experiment which prevented back-to-back hand-passes, is on the cards. So too is a mark inside the 20-metre line as a measure in trying to encourage riskier kicks inside.

No one has the ultimate determination in how Gaelic football should be played.

But a committee like this must at least be allowed to come up with a different vision. If the game is continuously evolving then why shouldn't the playing rules evolve with it?

Slaughtneil and Magherafelt provided a timely reminder as to why a rulebook, as much as a game of football, should never stand still.

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