Monday 16 September 2019

Dick Clerkin: 'New football rules must be given a chance to save a game losing its stars'


Kevin Cassidy of Gaoth Dobhair celebrates after the AIB Ulster GAA Football Senior Club Championship Final . Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Kevin Cassidy of Gaoth Dobhair celebrates after the AIB Ulster GAA Football Senior Club Championship Final . Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

This weekend, the curtains lift on what could turn out to be one of the most pivotal periods in Gaelic football's history.

As debate ensues around the merits of the new rules to be trialled over the coming months, I took to watching a few games from recent decades to observe the changing trends in Gaelic football.

I wanted to step back and assess how the game has evolved to the point that these contentious rule changes have been deemed necessary.

I started with the final instalment of the four-game 1991 Leinster SFC first-round saga between Dublin and Meath, referenced in some quarters recently. More specifically, Kevin Foley's memorable injury-time goal for Meath that is now etched in GAA folklore.

Coming at the end of a slick handpassing move, it has been highlighted as justification for why the proposed limit on handpassing is a retrograde move.

In that game, around 70pc of passes went through the foot, with handpassing sequences rarely extended beyond a second.

While the brutal physicality was very much of its time, it is fair to say that Foley's superbly-executed team goal was the exception rather than the norm.

Moving on to the 2005 and 2008 classic All-Ireland finals between Kerry and Tyrone, handpassing had passed the 50pc mark, but not to the extent that any red flags were raised.

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This era of football could be held up as having the perfect blend of short and long passing, at a time when Gaelic football was arguably at its peak popularity - creativity and adventure comfortably co-existed with possession and precision.

Fast-forward to this year's All-Ireland final, when less than 25pc of passes came through the foot.

A season of anti-climax, it brought an end to what many have termed the worst and least-enjoyable football championship in memory. A damning consensus.

So where did it all go wrong?

The gradual decline of what is often referred to as 'The Contest' is the source of ire for most supporters and commentators. Over the years, kick-outs have become largely uncontested.

Packed defences have rendered one-on-one duels between backs and forwards almost obsolete.

Outfield, players distribute the ball laterally with caution. Too many managers now favour safe hands over creative feet.

Anticipation of 'The Contest' between players has been drained from the terraces.


Last Sunday's Ulster club final in Healy Park provided a timely reminder of the importance of some old-school football values.

Kevin Cassidy rolled back the ages with an 'edge-of-the-square' performance rarely witnessed in top-level games anymore.

As Scotstown persisted with a short handpassing style for the most part, Gaoth Dobhair retained Cassidy as a constant outlet inside.

He dominated his marker throughout and at the ripe old age of 37 he was the most influential player on the pitch, and ultimately proved the difference between two otherwise equally matched sides.

This past week, amid Gaoth Dobhair's celebrations, we learned how Kildare's best player this season, Daniel Flynn, and Tyrone's classy attacker Mark Bradley are not making themselves available for their counties in 2019.

Flynn finished last season being sent-off in frustration after being relentlessly targeted by a suffocating Galway defence in the 'Super 8s'.

Bradley spent most of his game time deployed too far away from goal.

Having spent his formative years as a scorer-in-chief, maybe this new world has lost its appeal.

While younger players making such lifestyle choices is not uncommon nowadays, you still must wonder has the inter-county game failed to provide these two dynamic inside forwards with the experience they had hoped for growing up.

As a group, players and coaches can't be trusted to reverse the epidemic that they have created.

Their crocodile tears shed in recent weeks garner little sympathy by a support base that is growing increasingly tired of what Gaelic football has largely become at the highest level.

Operating in a self-serving bubble, players and managers are blinkered by a short-sighted pressure and a demand to win at all costs.

I lived in that bubble for nearly 20 years and during that time every new playing innovation was seen as further progress away from the unrefined catch-and-kick days of yore.

Winning is all that counts. Entertainment is not their primary concern.

However, it is the job of the much-derided rule-makers to ensure that same quest for success can be pursued while providing entertainment for everyone else. Otherwise, the merits of those successes will be devalued by a disinterested public.

No more than anyone else, I can't predict whether the new rules will be a success or not. What I am interested in seeing though, is whether they improve the entertainment value of our game.

Do they see a return of traditional values which the game of Gaelic football is founded upon?

Do they see a return of 'The Contest' that would drive the energy levels in supporters and swell the terraces?

If not, then we will go back to the drawing board, having learnt a lot, but lost little in the process. It is only a trial at the end of the day. But a trial worth pursuing.

Irish Independent

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