Earley backing counties to hit record net gains
New rules and coaching trends have encouraged spring scoring tide
The 2014 Allianz Football League could be on its way to creating a record as the highest scoring spring campaign in history.
After four rounds, it's already well ahead of the average for the previous four years as the impact of rule changes and a more adventurous tactical approach by most counties has boosted scoring yields considerably. And as pitch conditions improve with the better weather, the prospects for a continuation of the entertaining scorefests are encouraging.
Among the headline trends are:
* An average increase of over seven points per Division 1 game on the previous four seasons.
* The average total score per game in Division 1 is 36.4 points, up 8.2 points on last year.
* An increase of 4.4 points per game across the top three divisions on the previous four years.
* Forty goals have been scored in 16 Division 1 games so far, 11 more than last year.
The biggest increase in overall scoring has been in Division 1 where both the goals and points yields are up substantially. Division 2 has actually dropped by a point on last year but is well ahead of the previous three seasons. It has also seen a reduction of four in the number of goals scored in 2013 but there has been an increase in points.
The goal tally in Division 3 has also dropped slightly but has been more than compensated for by a points increase.
The high-scoring trend was set in the first round of the league when Mayo found that 2-18, which usually wins most games, wasn't good enough against Kildare, who hit 2-19. The Lilywhites had a similarly frustrating experience in Round 3 when they scored 1-21, only to lose to Tyrone who posted 3-16.
Tyrone scored 7-43 in their first three games, yet dropped a point against Derry. Tyrone managed only 0-9 against Kerry last weekend, while the Kingdom finally exploded into scoring bloom when landing 3-16.
Mayo are the highest scorers in Division 1, averaging almost 21 points per game. However, they have still lost two of their four games, underlining the volatility of the campaign to date.
Somewhat surprisingly, Dublin took some time to get into the their scoring stride before locking on to the target with impressive regularity last Saturday when hitting Kildare for 1-22.
The scoring surge is being attributed, partially at least, to the introduction of the black card sanction, which results in players deemed guilty of deliberate cynical fouling being sent off and replaced.
Paul Earley, a member of the Football Review Committee which successfully steered that rule change through Congress, believes that while the black card is having a positive impact, other score-boosting factors are at work too.
"Teams tend to mirror what they see as being successful so the likes of Dublin and Mayo would have been closely looked at. Both went about their game in a very positive way last year and scored a lot in the process.
"That probably had an impact on how others thought going into this year. On top of that, we've had the black card and the advantage rule. I also think that coaches are working harder at exploiting the square ball rule which has changed in recent years," he said.
While evolving coaching trends across a range of areas may have contributed to some degree to the increase in scoring, the real significance rests with the fact that the surge has coincided with the introduction of the black card.
"No doubt it's a factor. The whole focus of the FRC report was to change the behaviour of players who thought it was okay to deliberately foul opponents. Now, they're being a lot more careful because of the black card. It's noticeable, for instance, that forwards are able to get their shots away much more often now, whereas before they might be hauled down if they were in a scoring position.
"I have also noticed that there are far fewer illegal body collisions around the middle of the field. It was quite common for a player who made a pass to be body-checked as he ran to take a return. That's not happening to anything like the same degree and is leading to a much more open game which, of course, creates more scoring chances," said Earley.
He also believes the new rule is encouraging forwards to take on their opponents with a direct run as the chances of being hauled down have decreased. The amended advantage rule is also supporting positive play and, according to Earley, could lead to a further increase in goal-scoring once players become more accustomed to it.
"If a forward is fouled as he runs in on goal and knows that a free is coming anyway, he's more likely to take a chance and shoot for goal. He had nothing to lose because even if he misses, he will get a free. I'd expect that to become more common as the season goes on," he said.
Improved skill levels and better coaching are also helping the game at a time when amended rules are encouraging creative players.
"The quality of coaching is getting better all the time. As for individual skill levels, they are very high now. Look at the number of players who are equally comfortable with both feet.
"It wasn't like that in the past. Players are working really hard so that they are comfortable off either foot. For example, look at how Kevin McManamon has developed over the last few seasons. Obviously he has worked hard at it and is reaping the benefits in a big way," said Earley.
Despite the spring scoring tide, it remains to be seen if defensive systems re-assert themselves as the season progresses.
"Naturally, teams will work at finding ways of keeping the opposition score down. That's fine once it's done within the rules and is not ruining the game as a spectacle. Deliberate fouling was doing that, which was why the FRC came up with the black card proposal. Everyone wants skill to be rewarded and the new rules are helping that," said the current International Rules manager and former Roscommon star.