Sunday 21 July 2019

Joe Brolly: 'Treat the disease, not the symptoms'

Football rule changes typify GAA's lack of imagination in dealing with its key problems

‘On Wednesday night, Fermanagh and Tyrone duly played keep ball endlessly, with Fermanagh playing the ball back to their ‘keeper 21 times. It was an appalling spectacle.’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘On Wednesday night, Fermanagh and Tyrone duly played keep ball endlessly, with Fermanagh playing the ball back to their ‘keeper 21 times. It was an appalling spectacle.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

The new football playing rules typify the sheer incompetence of the central GAA. The centrepiece of the package is the three handpass rule, which has been trialled already . . . in the 1989 National League. A disaster then, it was quickly abandoned. In 1989, the game was played man to man. The first instinct of players was to kick the ball. When Tony Scullion won possession in the full-back area, I needed get my sorry ass up that right wing asap. In 1989, kicking was king. Yet the hand-pass experiment was a complete flop, with players and spectators hating it.

The fact that David Hassan's Playing Rules Committee blindly decided to trot it out again, 30 years later - ignoring the root causes of the problem and ignoring the myriad of good, logical ideas for change - typifies the lack of imagination, conservatism and don't-rock-the-boat mentality that has left the GAA in such a mess.

It was Hassan, after all, who had the casting vote in the selection of the new director-general. This was a critical decision, being made at a crucial juncture for the GAA, an organisation that had previously been run by schoolteachers and insiders. These were good people. They were simply out of their depth. What other corporation with an annual turnover of €50 million would even invite applications from the sector?

Faced with Liam Sheedy, a well-known, highly respected, dynamic, idealistic candidate with a serious, logical programme for dealing with the big problems (a strategy to balance club/county, fixtures, reduction of the county season, curbing rampant commercialism, serious reform of championship structures, review of broadcast rights with the principle of promotion of the games replacing the principle of highest bidder, rebalancing the GAA/GPA relationship, etc etc) and Tom Ryan, an unknown insider from Level 5 in Croke Park whose platform was "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" Hassan, inevitably, chose the Invisible Man.

It is no surprise that since then the GAA hierarchy has lurched from crisis to crisis (The Liam Miller fiasco, the black hole in the Páirc Uí Chaoimh finances, the Galway County Board financial scandal, the Newbridge humiliation, the Waterford venue embarrassment), with the director-general M.I.A. One would not be surprised to hear that he had been kidnapped shortly after his appointment and is being held prisoner at a secret location. If Tom Ryan were the CEO of any comparable organisation, questions would have been asked. Even the Invisible Man appears now and again.

The culture of Croke Park - because of the discouragement of high-capacity people - is that everyone outside is an enemy, to be distrusted (like the Church). This is why there is such terrible condescension towards outsiders, hysterical resistance to change, dismissal of good ideas, and, crucially, zero accountability.

Inter-county players' welfare was the GAA's job. Instead, those players were eventually forced into forming their own union because for years the GAA treated them with contempt, ignored them and hoped they would go away. Now, they are out of control and the central GAA is paying them over €7 million a year for reasons that are not easy to explain.

Next up, the club players. If you stand back and think about it, how incredible is it that club players have had to form their own association to lobby for a modern, workable fixtures calendar? Until now, they have been treated with the same contempt and loathing as the GPA were. The GAA - if we had any leadership - should be jumping at the opportunity to let such a high-calibre collection of individuals solve the fixtures problem.

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After all, the CPA's executive includes: chairman Michael Briody (St Brigid's Meath), CEO of Silver Hill Foods with 1,500 employees and subcontractors and an annual turnover of €35 million; Joan Kehoe (Kilmacud Crokes), JP Morgan Head of Global Services; Anthony Moyles (ex Meath and Ireland), renowned stockbroker; Liam Griffin, CEO of the Griffin Hotel Group, with over 500 employees and an annual turnover of circa €40 million. I could go on. All superb GAA people who have painstakingly produced an excellent blueprint for change. 'Change' being the word that causes the problem.

Instead of jumping at this opportunity, the GAA have so far treated them contemptuously, most recently at Congress where these high-capacity volunteers were subjected to utter humiliation. Make no mistake, if this continues, there is a revolution coming down the tracks.

We see the GAA hierarchy's back-scratching, back-patting culture very clearly in the workings of the Hassan Playing Rules Committee. The only impact of these rules (inevitably) has been to make the problems that have so damaged the integrity and spectacle of the game even worse.

Staggeringly, the new rules do not deal with the root cause of the problem, rather the symptoms. Blanket defending, placing a sweeper in front of the danger man at full-forward, running down the clock and cynical fouling to deprive the opposition of a scoring opportunity are the root problems.

The symptoms are a glut of handpassing, a full-forward left with no room inside to show his ability and a serious deterioration in the quality of the contest. As a result of the failure to rigorously deal with these problems, the philosophy of the game has now become "game management", a euphemism for killing the contest.

The three handpass rule penalises the attacking team, rewards blanket defending/sweeping and actively reduces the quality of the game. A snapshot: Tyrone played Fermanagh in the McKenna Cup last week. Both put out strong teams. Fermanagh went into their customary 1-14-1 formation, with three lines of zonal defenders inside the '45. Tyrone tried to attack, but deprived of the ability to handpass their way through the massed defence (which is how Donegal broke Fermanagh down in the Ulster final), they ground to a standstill. By half-time, the score was 0-2 to 0-2 with Tyrone not managing a single score from play.

Problem: blanket defending. Hassan Committee Solution: reward blanket defending. Problem: killing the game by retaining possession. Hassan Committee solution: reward retention of possession.

I advocated a number of simple rules, including a ban on sweepers, no passing to the 'keeper and no back-passes across the halfway line. These were not even considered. On Wednesday night, Fermanagh and Tyrone duly played keep ball endlessly, with Fermanagh playing the ball back to their 'keeper 21 times. It was an appalling spectacle, with Tyrone finally getting their first point from play in the 45th minute. As respected commentator and diehard Tyrone supporter Seán McAliskey tweeted: "This is brutal."

I advocated an exclusion zone 30 metres out from the goals in a semi-circle, ending 10 metres from the sidelines, inside which only man-marking was allowed, with a separate official (ideally a second referee as in Aussie Rules) to police that zone.

Damien Cassidy from Bellaghy, the manager of the current Ulster minor club champions, advocates a simple ban on a sweeper dropping back into that area. His suggestion is that where a player drops back into that area to patrol it before the ball has been kicked in, it should immediately be called as a free from the 30-metre line.

This would not outlaw scramble defending, where a defender is turning and running back into that area as the play advances. Everyone knows that a sweeper is in when we see it. This would not be a problem for officials. No one can disagree that outlawing the cursed sweeper would immediately reinvigorate the contest, the skills and the excitement of the game. Problem: it would require a little imagination.

There are other linked problems. For example, everybody knows it is impossible for one man to referee an inter-county game and this inevitably poses a massive problem when it comes to any suggested rule change. In basketball here, which operates on a minuscule budget, there are two referees, a timekeeper and a sideline official. We already have three inter-county panel referees officiating at inter-county games, with two wasted on deciding the complex issue of whether the ball has crossed the sideline. Why not jig this around a little? Instead have two referees with equal power, one in each half, with two volunteer sideline officials, like umpires. Basic stuff. Not even considered.

The video referee is another easy, inexpensive measure that I have been advocating for several years. Wouldn't this be precisely the spot for that third wasted referee? Crowds love the drama of it, and it is worth getting it right on big calls, like red cards, penalties, cynical fouling etc. It would be an invaluable assistant to the referee and would give the GAA community confidence in the fairness of the officiating.

The bottom line is that high-capacity people with real ideas, such as Pat Gilroy, or Liam Sheedy, or the girls and boys in the CPA, are dangerous to the status quo, since those ideas and strategies would require real work. So, we are left with David Hassan and his committee, an undemanding forum where everyone agrees that the real problem is too many handpasses.

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