Saturday 23 February 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Damaging and cowardly handpass cop-out sets football back by five years'

 

Tom Lahiff of Dublin offloads with a handpass despite the presence of Westmeath’s Noel O’Reilly, left, and Noel Mulligan last Friday night. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Tom Lahiff of Dublin offloads with a handpass despite the presence of Westmeath’s Noel O’Reilly, left, and Noel Mulligan last Friday night. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

So that's it then, Gaelic basketball is here to stay. Well, at least until it empties the grounds as the public decide that they just can't take any more dreariness.

If attendances drop in the coming season, increased ticket prices will be blamed. It will become the obvious explanation, but obvious doesn't always equal correct.

People are happy to pay for good entertainment so, in normal circumstances, admission prices would make no big difference.

The public have seen prices in every walk of life - including other sports events - rise significantly since the GAA last raised theirs in 2011 so there won't be a major outcry.

Besides, a pre-purchased ticket for Allianz League games this year will cost exactly the same (€15) as one bought on match-day last year.

A much bigger threat to football attendances emerged last Saturday when Central Council declared that unrestricted handpassing is fine and will remain part of the game.

Absent A 25-23 vote (were seven delegates absent or did they abstain?) against continuing the three-handpass trial in the league shows how divided the meeting was.

Still, democracy ruled and, within hours, it was back to handpass heaven for the Armagh and Tyrone teams and handpass hell for the spectators in the Dr McKenna Cup final.

On Sunday, Galway and Roscommon celebrated the return to the warped normality the GPA and managers demanded when producing an equally handpass-infested FBD Connacht League final.

And so it will run, right through the year and into future seasons too, since there will be no appetite at official level to take it on again for quite a long time. I can understand why, since it's pointless proposing any major rule change, because it will be rejected by players and managers.

The GPA is like a sporting version of the DUP, opposing everything, except what's in their narrow interests, while managers tend to be deeply suspicious of rule changes. Unsurprisingly, players objected to the restricted handpass because it made life more difficult, but they favoured changing the 'black card' sanction from dismissal for the remainder of game to ten minutes in the 'sin bin'.

Of course they did! No player wants to miss a sizeable part of a game when he can get away with a ten-minute ban. The 'sin bin' was opposed by players when it was trialled some years ago, but is now welcomed because it's less harsh than dismissal for the rest of the game.

That's blatant self-interest at work rather than an objective judgement on what's right for the game. But then that's not the responsibility of players or managers, whose only concern is to win games.

It is, however, the duty of Central Council who, in the case of the handpass experiment, have allowed themselves be influenced by outside lobbying. Nobody is suggesting that the restricted handpass would make football the perfect game.

Yes, of course, there were issues, but instead of continuing with the experiment in the league before making an informed judgement, Central Council zapped it on the basis of what they saw in pre-season tournaments. Counties were well below full-strength for those games; players and referees (many of them inexperienced) needed time to acclimatise, but it was all over even before the start of the official season.

It happened without Kerry or Dublin (first team) playing any competitive game under the new rules, while Mayo had just one outing, as indeed did many other counties.

Central Council made their decision off a snapshot, rather than the full picture which would have been completed at the end of the 116-game league programme on March 31.

It's well-known that Central Council delegates were canvassed by GPA county reps to oppose the continuation of the handpass trial and you can take it that managers were working quietly behind the scenes too.

Apparently, there was near-unanimity among delegates from Ulster counties that the handpass trial should be scrapped. Dublin didn't want it either but it's understood that Kerry, Mayo and Cork were among those in favour. Referees had expressed reservations on the basis that counting handpasses was not only difficult, but also interfered with other responsibilities.

It's a fair point, although they would probably have got used to it. Anyway, wasn't this the perfect opportunity to move towards having two referees, which would be good idea, with or without counting handpasses?

It's all irrelevant now and the official GAA position is that unrestricted handpassing is no problem. Players and managers have won, but the public - and the game - have lost.

Why is it that when the GAA want to change rules, the direct participants have to agree, even if their motivations are self-serving and short-sighted? It doesn't happen in international sports.

Central Council's decision last Saturday was both cowardly and damaging, setting football back for years. As for how many, let's start at five and work from there.

Irish Independent

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