Wednesday 12 December 2018

Joe Brolly: 'A world where Derry never won the All-Ireland is a world I want no part of'

Kevin Foley’s goal for Meath in the dying seconds of their epic 1991 encounter with Dublin would be disallowed under the new handpass rule. Photo: Sportsfile
Kevin Foley’s goal for Meath in the dying seconds of their epic 1991 encounter with Dublin would be disallowed under the new handpass rule. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

It is perhaps the most famous goal in the history of Gaelic football. It is July 6, 1991. The third replay of the Leinster Championship match between Meath and Dublin is in injury-time, there are 90 seconds to go, and Meath are trailing by three points, 0-15 to 1-9. The roar from the crowd, transfixed after three epic draws in the previous month, is deafening.

David Beggy wins the ball out near the middle of the field on the left touchline. "It's still possible," says Ger Canning, as Beggy handpasses it to Kevin Foley, racing through from wing-back. (Handpass number 1.)

"Foley to Gillick," says Canning. (Handpass number 2.)

"Gillick to Tommy Dowd." (Handpass number 3.) "A lot of poor marking by Dublin," says Canning as Tommy Dowd tears towards the 21 and the decibel level ratchets up. Dowd gives it to Colm O'Rourke (handpass number 4), changes direction slightly and takes the return pass from O'Rourke. (Handpass number 5.)

Dowd races along the 14-yard line, wrong-footing the Dublin defenders, and handpasses it to Foley who had continued his support run and is now only a few yards from goal. (Handpass number 6). Kevin Foley has never before this moment scored a goal in his long Meath career. He hits the net. The stadium seems to jump, or maybe it is the camera man. Ger Canning's voice breaks and ends in a high-pitched squeal as he roars (long before Victor Meldrew had ever thought of it), "I don't believe it." Meath win the kick-out, and David Beggy puts it over the bar. The referee blows the whistle. Meath have won. The Dubs sink to their knees, not quite believing what has happened.

As of January, when the three handpass rule comes in, that goal would be disallowed. That Meath crew was one of the great long-kicking teams. I played against them for Trinity once in a not-so-friendly friendly and we were like dogs chasing aeroplanes as the ball was skimmed from box to box with great accuracy. But like all great teams, handpassing was part of their armoury. With Dublin swamping the scoring area and only 90 seconds to go, they would never have created this brilliant goal otherwise.

Or what about arguably the greatest goal ever scored in a club championship game? You remember it: Corofin's second goal against Nemo Rangers in last year's All-Ireland club final was perhaps the most sublime goal ever seen at HQ.

With little or no space to work in, and no opportunity for a foot pass, a bewildering sequence of six perfect handpasses sucked in the Nemo defenders and like a great conjuror's trick, Martin Farragher was suddenly clean through on goal, picking his spot in the traditional Corofin manner and ending the game.

Corofin are another superb kicking team. Against Ballintubber in the Connacht final last Sunday, they gave an overwhelming exhibition of attacking football in the third quarter, scoring 1-8 from 11 shots, and overall, ending with a typical spread of different scorers (nine). Their philosophy as a club is that every player ought to be two-footed by the age of 16. Yet when it comes to it, they can use the handpass to engineer great scores. Crucially, when they encounter a team playing a blanket defence (Ballintubber for example dropped very deep and played with two sweepers in the scoring zone), their high skill levels allow them to adapt.

The handpass rule comes about after a sort of aul lads' discussion about the state of the game in the pub.

"It's handpassing that is ruining the game lads."

"You're dead right, it should be called hand-ball."

"Sure the Dubs are the worst offenders."

"These boys can't even kick the ball any more" etc etc.

The problem is that the problem has been wrongly diagnosed. As a frustrated member of the rules committee said to me last week: "They have diagnosed the symptom, not the illness."

The illness is of course the zonal defence/blanket defence/sweeper system. Robbed of the capability to break through the defensive zone with clever handpassing, carefully timed runs, and expert shooting, the rule has the perverse effect of making it even easier for the blanket defending team.

Let us take Monaghan's breakthrough goal against Tyrone in this year's Ulster Championship: Tyrone have 13 men inside their own '45. Vinny Corey streaks down the left flank of the Tyrone zone, takes a handpass and gives a handpass. Monaghan's movement is superb. After five handpasses the zone is penetrated, Corey is put through on goal and finishes expertly to the bottom corner. Sorry lads. That's a free out. Oh well, as Mickey Harte is fond of reminding us, senior inter-county football is not about entertainment.

What about Donegal's superb opening goal against Fermanagh's ultra-defensive system in this year's Ulster final? Sorry chaps. Five handpasses. Free out to the team that has no interest in playing the game.

Let's run through another practical scenario: Dublin win possession. Carlow retreat into their 14-man zone just inside their own 45-metre line. Dublin come forward. Coming through the middle third they can either foot-pass or handpass, but they do not have the option of kick-passing to a forward inside the scoring zone so it must be short passing, whether by the hand or foot. Now they reach the defensive cordon. Instead of several handpasses and clever movement designed to open up that zone and create a scoring opportunity that must be taken quickly before the pack descends, they must now kick-pass sideways and backwards. After three handpasses, they will be forced to kick it either back or laterally since even if a team-mate has broken through in a good position, the ball can only be kicked to him and that is just not possible. Will we be even more bored? Will we be howling in frustration?

Say the fourth handpass would put the forward in on goal? Tough. His team-mate will have to turn, kick-pass it back and start all over again. The new rule (which is doomed to failure) will encourage the blanket defence and make goalscoring virtually impossible.

John McEntee - Armagh's greatest player ever and six-time All-Ireland club winner with the club team that causes the aul' lads on the Rules Committee to weep with nostalgia - thinks the proposal is ridiculous, because it severely limits the attacking team's ability to score goals. That's coming from the greatest player in the greatest kicking team the game has seen.

The philosophy behind the rule is confusing. If it is to return us to the glory days of Gaelic football, then let's pick the Kerry/Dublin golden years as a starting point. We loved that era. Couldn't get enough of it. Yet not only was intricate handpassing at the heart of almost every goal, they could even handpass the ball to the net. When the great Down team of the early '90s put Meath to the sword in the '91 final, they mixed it up beautifully, but the killer goal came after four handpasses. Without that goal, there would have been no Ulster breakthrough.

In the end, the problem with the rule is that it creates a very artificial situation, prevents imaginative interplay and works against the attacking team. If a team is three behind with five minutes to go, how are they going to break through a 14-man zone?

The most important score in the history of Derry football was Johnny McGurk's immortal point to beat the Dubs with the last kick of the game in the 1993 semi-final. That point would have been disallowed (four handpasses in the lead-up), and a free out awarded. A world where Derry never won an All-Ireland is a world I want no part of.

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