Sunday 16 December 2018

Martin Breheny: Football has bigger issues than last-minute fouling

Where's the strategy to balance standards and maximise opportunities for all players?

Dublin’s Ciaran Kilkenny is shown a black card during the closing stages of the All-Ireland final against Mayo. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Dublin’s Ciaran Kilkenny is shown a black card during the closing stages of the All-Ireland final against Mayo. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Can we leave the All-Ireland football final behind us, allowing Dublin to celebrate the county's best achievement for 94 years and Mayo to analyse why the wait for an All-Ireland title is heading for 67 years?

Most of all, can we zap the hysteria which gathered momentum amid allegations that the methods used by Dublin to protect their one-point lead in the final minute besmirched their reputations as one of the best sides in football history?

It has even led to daft suggestions that cynical fouling should be punished with a close-in free to the opposition, irrespective of where the offence occurred.

Would that apply throughout an entire game or merely in the final minutes? If it's the latter, how many? Would it apply for 'black-card' offences only?

What happens when a player commits a nasty, red-card offence? Would it be punished by dismissal and a free from where the incident occurred, while a borderline 'black-card' foul results in a score after the ball is moved forward to within comfortable kicking range?

And from where would frees for yellow-card offences be taken? Apart from changing football to a massive degree, tinkering with free-kick locations would add yet another heavy responsibility to already-overloaded referees.

The truth about the All-Ireland final is simple: Dublin exploited openings better than Mayo on a few fronts.

Mayo had a big chance to draw level and have an extra man for nearly 30 minutes when John Small committed a second yellow-card offence.

It looked like a match-deciding moment in Mayo's favour but the advantage was blown when Donal Vaughan's rashness got him sent off on a straight red card.

Despite that, it was level in stoppage time when the tale of two free-takers settled the game. One (Dean Rock) pointed his chance, another (Cillian O'Connor) missed. Such are the tight margins that sway games.

In fairness to the Mayo camp, they didn't complain about the methods Dublin used to defend their one-point lead but plenty of others have rushed in on their behalf, citing blatant cynicism and pondering the ethical dimensions of fouling close to the Mayo goal so as to keep the action a long way from their end.

It's the ultimate waste of time. Things happen in contact sports which, by their nature, cannot always be precisely governed.

In certain circumstances, players have to fend for themselves within a general framework. Rules cannot cater for every eventuality, except in ensuring the safety of the participants.


If they want to be nannied beyond that, then they might be minded to heed Roy Keane's advice and play chess. Portraying Mayo as victims in the All-Ireland final does them no favours.

The last thing they need - and indeed the last thing the camp sought - is sympathy or a debate on whether Dublin negotiated their way cynically to the three-in-a-row.

It's an issue that won't have greatly interested players or supporters from most counties, who haven't - or are unlikely to - experience the thrill of participation on All-Ireland final day, let alone the difficulties of rescuing a game off your own kick-out in the final minute.

There's no need to worry about Mayo. They ranked second in four of the last six seasons (2012-13-16-17), third in 2015 and fourth in 2014 and there's no reason why their attempts to end the All-Ireland drought won't remain equally concerted over the coming years. Indeed, they might even be successful.

Of more concern is the wider picture in football where inequality is not only rampant but growing all the time. It was always there but quite not to the same degree as nowadays.

Where is it all leading? How long will players from so-called weaker counties continue to put in so much effort, knowing that Croke Park and the 'Super 8' will always be for others?

The vast differential in earning power - at home and abroad - between the successful counties and the rest is widening the divide all the time, yet there's no coherent plan in place to address it.

It's a complex issue but that should push it to the top of the agenda, rather than allowing a drift which, in the mid to long-term, is unsustainable.

When the GAA's top brass called for a look at football championship structures two years ago, they got a mis-mash of ideas from various counties.

Some had potential, others were ridiculous but, in the end, it didn't really matter since a plan from one individual county was never going to be accepted.

That was followed by the emergence from Croke Park of the 'Super 8' proposal to replace the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Ironically, when the Leinster Council sought permission a few years ago to run the early stages of their football championship on a 'round robin' basis, they were shot down by Congress amid claims that it would impact negatively on the club scene.

Yet, Congress later agreed on a 'round robin' for the top eight counties. Where's the logic in that thought process?

The draw for the 2018 football championships will take place on Thursday week, complete with all the in-built inequalities that are inevitable in four provinces with different numbers of counties.

Reconfiguring the four provinces into four groups of eight wouldn't solve the varying standards dilemma but it would certainly make for more streamlined scheduling which, in turn, might create a more favourable climate to encourage less successful counties to enter a secondary championship after elimination from the regional championships.

As things stand, U-17s (the new minor age limit from next year) from strong counties will experience Croke Park on All-Ireland semi-final and final days, yet many excellent senior players will never get a chance to play there.

Players from weaker counties have rejected the secondary competition concept in the past but then it was so poorly presented to them that it looked exactly what it was - a sop to which they never warmed.


As things stand, there are no plans to make any changes to the championship, other than for the four provincial champions and four qualifier survivors.

That can't be allowed to continue. Why not ask all the counties in Divisions 3 and 4 what they want? Granted, the responses would be mixed but at least it would start a much-needed process.

Incoming president John Horan is expected to launch a strategic review of the entire organisation when he takes office next February and while there are many areas that need to be reviewed none is more important than working out a way of bringing greater fairness and equality to the football world.

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