Joe Brolly: 'Referees feeling wrath but inept rules committee - chosen by GAA inner circle - created this mess'
Here are a few phrases you'll be familiar with. "I prefer watching the rugby now." "I prefer playing the soccer, I get a game every week." These problems were vividly described in every single one of Páraic Duffy's annual reports during his decade-long tenure as the GAA's director general. Yet nothing has been done about them. In fact, the situation has worsened.
The new playing rules were a measure of the almost unbelievable incompetence of the Playing Rules Committee, the members of whom are chosen by the GAA's inner circle, and the abandoning of the hand-pass experiment was inevitable. At last weekend's low-scoring and defensive McKenna Cup game between Derry and Tyrone, the crowd was seething with frustration as the game unfolded.
The referee's job is already impossible. Because he has been cut adrift by the rule makers and left to muddle through as best he can, this in turn explains why referees are hated by the GAA public. The poor referee cannot get it right, so the GAA community is inevitably left with a fuming sense of injustice.
On top of having eyes in the back of his head, better endurance than James McCarthy and instantaneous judgment superior to the Supreme Court, he was also expected to count consecutive hand-passes. The referee's efforts to do that in the Derry-Tyrone match drove the crowd wild. The game was filmed, and I have watched it, and heard the comments of those who were near the camera. There were several instances where the referee miscounted the hand-passes. Here are a few examples:
There are two hand-passes by Derry, then a kick-pass to the corner-forward. He comes out, gathers it and hand-passes to a team-mate. The referee - who didn't compute the kick-pass - blows for a fourth hand-pass. The crowd groans and roars at him as he signals the free out. You can hear voices over the crowd as follows:
"Ah no, no way."
"He missed the kick."
"Ah for fuck sake, you bollocks"
"Fucking bollocks ye."
Shortly afterwards, he makes exactly the same mistake, missing a foot-pass in the middle of a fast-moving sequence of play, blowing a rule infringement when in fact it was only hand-pass number one.
"What? Are you fucking joking, ref?"
"Can you fucking count?"
"Jesus, boys that's a load of shite."
"Ya stupid bastard"
Problem: No one man can referee a game of Gaelic football.
Committee solution: Make his job even more difficult.
Here is a sample package that (together) would prevent game management, restore the spectacle, protect the spirit of the game, ensure fairness, and enhance the skills:
• No pass to the goalkeeper. This would prevent keep-ball and encourage teams to press up man to man on the opposition.
• No back pass over the half-way line. (see above)
• Teams must form into their throw-in formation for the kick-out, with the ref giving, say, 30 seconds for that to be done. The kick-out must go beyond the 45, and other outfielders cannot break either 45 until it is kicked by the goalkeeper. This will turn kick-outs into a contest, greatly enhancing the excitement of the game, and encouraging attacking football. The days of Stephen Cluxton winning 90 per cent of his own kick-outs would be gone.
• No sweeper in front of the full-forward area. This is the fundamental problem. We all know a sweeper when we see it. This spoils great players and deprives us of seeing them showing their skills. Flooding that area slows the game down, leaves no room for great attacking, and ruins the spectacle. This rule would prevent, for example, a Colm Cavanagh or Cian O'Sullivan situation, where the best players are double-marked and stymied. Infringement would result in a 30-metre free in front of goal.
• Black card rule should be discarded. Instead there should be three categories of cynical offending, all easily policed:
a) Depriving a team of a clear goal-scoring opportunity - red card and penalty kick.
b) Depriving a team of a clear point-scoring opportunity inside the 45 - ten-minute sin-bin and 30-metre free in front of the posts.
c) Cynical foul elsewhere on the pitch (trip, body check, pull-down) - ten-minute sin bin.
• Two referees for inter-county games, one in each half, with equal powers. We already have three inter-county refs, two of whom are wasted deciding if the ball has crossed the sideline. This would reduce the number by one, freeing up a referee. With two referees, the rules would be easily enforced and the illegal sweeper would be easy to spot. We would instead have two volunteer sideline officials, just as we have volunteer umpires.
• TMO for big inter-county games. This would help officials to get big calls right. As they have found in rugby, this ensures fairness, transparency and public confidence. Also, as they have found in rugby (and as we have found with Hawk-Eye) it is highly dramatic.
• Introduce a tiered championship. It is unfair to ask Leitrim to play in the same championship as Mayo, or Carlow in the same championship as the Dubs. This ridiculous imbalance partly explains why teams like Fermanagh or Carlow play such negative, boring football. It is unfair on everyone, has caused a sense of hopelessness, and increased the perception (which is actually a reality) that the football championship is for Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone and a few others.
Instead, the GAA community has been left with a general sense of anger. The recent Fermanagh-Tyrone McKenna Cup game typifies what is happening to the beautiful game. Matches involving Fermanagh should be banned under the Geneva Convention until further notice. I'm thinking of the one that states: "It is an offence, punishable by the laws of each of the contracting states in accordance with this convention, to subject the civilian population or any section thereof of any of those states to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, including serious psychological distress."
A decent crowd went to see Tyrone v Fermanagh in the McKenna Cup. This is what psychologists refer to as a triumph of hope over reality. After the whistle, Fermanagh immediately went into the Rory Gallagher formation, with 13, and at times 14 (sometimes, 13 just isn't enough) outfielders dropping back inside their defensive half. Both managers had picked good, strong teams, but that is rendered redundant when the rules of the game have allowed zonal defending and sweepers to flourish, a situation worsened by the new rules. Tyrone duly tried to attack, but the committee's three hand-pass rule has further rewarded the team that doesn't want to play and deprived their opposition of the one tool that could potentially break down that defence: hand-passes.
It was inevitable that the TV audiences for big games would collapse. In 2018, they were down over 25 per cent. The Ulster final used to be the jewel in our crown up here (pardon the phrase). Last year's version was another dire spectacle, the only positive for the GAA community being that Arlene Foster was forced to sit through the entire pride-swallowing 78 minutes. The critter must have been dying to leave early, particularly when the Fermanagh supporters were flooding out at half-time to go for a pile of pints in Packie Willies. But with the eyes of the world on her, she just had to suffer on, fake smiling to the cameras and pretending she was supporting Fermanagh. If you thought they were bad then, you should get a load of them now, armed with the new rules.
A fortnight ago, Tyrone immediately ground to a standstill against their massed defence, and the crowd was subjected to the usual misery. Gallagher was looking positively buoyant by half-time, striding off, swigging from his water bottle, like Hannibal Smith of the A-Team when he puffed on his cigar and said, 'I love it when a plan comes together'. By that half-time whistle, the score was 0-2 to 0-2, with Tyrone not managing a single score from play and a generation of supporters wondering if there wasn't a better way to spend their Wednesday evenings.
Problem - blanket defending. Committee solution - reward blanket defending. Also in that first half, Fermanagh played the ball back to the goalkeeper 11 times. Problem - killing the game by retaining possession. Committee solution - reward retention of possession.
I advocated a number of simple rules, including a ban on sweepers, no pass to the goalkeeper and no back-pass across the half-way line. These were not even considered.
So, Fermanagh and Tyrone duly played keep-ball endlessly, with Fermanagh playing the ball back to their goalkeeper 21 times. It was an appalling spectacle, with Tyrone finally getting their first point from play in the 45th minute. It is worth reminding ourselves that Tyrone are supposedly one of the game's top teams.
Central Council delegates heard yesterday yesterday that kick passing has significantly increased in the pre-season competitions. However, what this statistic doesn't show is that these kick passes were sideways, backwards and nothing more than substitute hand-passes.
The experimental rules will be swiftly abandoned. What a waste of time. What a wasted opportunity. What a disappointment for football lovers, at a critical juncture for the game. David Hassan and his committee should be disbanded and a new one formed. This is what would happen in the real world after such a humiliating effort, but instead I'm sure the committee will remain just as it is. The outside world, after all, is not a place GAA committees are familiar with.
Sunday Indo Sport