Joe Brolly: One simple rule can rescue Gaelic football from 'The Clonoe Conundrum' . . .
Unfortunately there is no chance of a voluntary return to Olympian values, writes Joe Brolly
A manager of a Division 2 club team sent me a text a few weeks ago. 'First round league game last night Joe. Opponents played with 13 men behind the ball at all times. Score was 0-4 to 0-1 at half-time. Ended up 0-6 to 0-4. I give up!'
Clonoe are the senior championship favourites in Tyrone. They played Carrickmore a fortnight ago in an away league game. Coalisland, their first-round championship opponents, had sent spies. With 15 minutes to go, Clonoe got a goal to put them 1-10 to 0-6 ahead. Instantly, the entire Clonoe team retreated behind the 45-metre line. For the remainder of the game, they stayed there, inviting Carrickmore on. Clonoe defended, kicked the ball back out, then defended again. As Clonoe practised their blanket defence, Carrickmore, one of the proud old clubs of Tyrone, dashed themselves against the rocks. In that 15 minutes of attacking, they managed just one further point. Final score 1-10 to 0-7.
Outside Dungannon court a few days later, a young man approached me and said hello. He plays in the half-forward line for an intermediate club in Tyrone. He told me that he'd been pulled aside by the manager before the first league game and told he wouldn't be starting as "we are going with two forwards". The manager consoled him by saying, "It's nothing personal."
Which is precisely the problem with the modern game. It's no longer personal. It's strictly business.
It is said by some that this new defensive game is a fad and that in due course, imaginative strategies will overtake it. Sadly, the laws of physics are permanent. So, as Jimmy McGuinness said last week, Donegal will beat Tyrone, because Tyrone's only real option is a running game and there is no space in Donegal's defence for that. The alternative is to kick long and quickly but as Dublin illustrated last year, there is no space for that either.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice understands physics which is why he simply copied Donegal in the final and hoped for the best. The reward for his shrewdness was a soul-destroying spectacle and another All-Ireland, courtesy of a fluke kick-out from the country's best 'keeper. If highly professionalised county set-ups do not have the resources and strategies to combat the blanket defence, what chance have clubs who train twice a week?
It is beginning to sweep through underage football as well. Recently, our under 14s encountered three sweepers in a Féile game. The sports editor of this paper coaches his ladies' under 16s. They played an early-season game against an opponent that played 10 girls behind the 45. It is, as Tyrone's victorious under 21 manager Feargal Logan said last weekend, "all about getting over the line". The win-at-all-costs philosophy is now so firmly embedded that there is no chance of a voluntary return to Olympian values. The question is whether a workable solution can be imposed.
I believe there is such a solution. One simple rule change, that applies only on the kick-out. The goalkeeper must kick the ball out beyond the 45-metre line. For the kick-out, only the four midfielders can be in the zone between the 45s. The rest of the players must line up as per the throw-in, with six-versus-six inside each 45. They do not have to be in their starting positions, so long as there are six from each team inside each 45. From the kick-out, the ball is not in play until it is touched by one of the midfielders. Until then, the rest must stay inside their 45. I do not advocate for any other playing rule change.
There are around 35-55 kick-outs per game. That means that in future, a coach would have to develop his defensive and attacking strategies from the starting point of a midfielder in possession in the middle of the pitch on 35-55 occasions per game. The rule will provide space and time for long-kicking from the midfield area into the forwards, or for great attacking half-back lines to surge upfield without hitting a 13-man wall. It will also give the art of midfield high-catching its proper place, avoiding the artificial solution of a mark.
Critically, forming a blanket defence will be impossible from the kick-outs.
As Tomás Ó Sé said on RTé last year, he was bewildered when they played Donegal in 2012 and from the kick-outs, his man Rory Kavanagh had already disappeared into the Donegal defence leaving him entirely unmarked. With this rule change, that will no longer be an option. Nor will short kick-outs, one of the pillars of boring football.
It will also be a very potent antidote to what I will now call 'The Clonoe Conundrum', the widespread foul practice of killing a game by whatever means necessary to protect a last-quarter lead. Instead of keeping 12 men inside the 45 at all times and retaining possession with short kick-outs, a team three points up will be forced to have only six defenders inside their own half, kick long into the midfield zone, and let the dice fall where they may. Think of the excitement!
The proposed rule is also easy to police. One linesman will go to each 45 to ensure there is no breaking the line, just like the throw-in. There will be a penalty for infringement, say a 30-metre free in. At club level, it will work in championship games with neutral linesmen. In club league games, the referee will do his best, keeping an eye left and right as he already does for the throw-in. It is a fact of life that club games can never, and have never been, officiated to the same standard as inter-county.
Another crucial point is that there is nothing artificial about the solution. We know it can work, since it is what we did until less than a decade ago. Nor will there be any delay in kicking out because of this. The current average time between a ball going dead and a long kick-out is 20-25 seconds, which gives adequate time to form up. The referee will signal to the goalie when to kick out. This could be clocked at say 25 seconds maximum, with infringements being penalised by a 30-metre free in.
I dismiss the other potential playing rule changes as unworkable and damaging to the flow of the game. Limiting the number of handpasses is artificial. Likewise the notion that four players, for example, must remain in the attacking half. What if their men attack? How can a zonal defensive system be spotted and penalised? How can a man v man rule be applied. What if the full-forward goes past his full-back. Must the other defenders let him go?
The beauty of this solution is that it is entirely natural. It gives primacy to the skills of the game, affords players time and space to express their ability and is a tangible reward for both players and spectators.
My view is that Gaelic footballers have never been more skilful. After all, they are unpaid professionals nowadays. Forwards used to shooting under pressure against blanket defences have honed their skills to an amazing level. Players are used to executing skills under the most extreme pressure.
I believe this simple, easily enforceable measure will revitalise Gaelic football and remind us that the game is not business at all, but strictly personal.
Sunday Indo Sport