Martin Breheny: Football is handpassing itself into oblivion
It can be said without fear of challenge that Martin O'Connell, Tony Davis and Liam Austin did the Gaelic football State some service.
Quite a large amount, in fact, having played senior inter-county with Meath, Cork and Down respectively for a combined total of 38 years, picking up All-Ireland titles and All-Star awards along the way.
O'Connell later earned the ultimate distinction of being chosen at left half-back on the Team of the Millennium.
I talked to the three of them last week, mainly about the decline in their native counties, but the conversations also wandered into other areas.
They have serious doubts about the direction football has taken, a feeling shared by the vast majority of people watching the game nowadays.
Both O'Connell and Austin made the same point which could provide an insight into why Meath and Down are struggling. However, it's relevant elsewhere too.
"I see club games where it's hard to pick out a county player. It's all about systems and structures, factory-football - there's hardly any room for individual skill. And when that's stifled, it's hard for players to come through and reach county standard," said Austin.
"I watch a lot of club games and I don't see fellas standing out. You should be able to spot a county player without knowing him but that's not the case in Meath. That's part of our problem," said O'Connell.
"You can have all the development squads and support structures, but if the natural talent isn't there to start with, you have a problem," said Davis.
Of course, there's the question of whether natural talent's is being discouraged because it's alien to the culture contained in the robot's manual.
"Of course individual skill is being squeezed out. How many guys can kick a ball properly? It's a sad reflection of where the game has gone," said Austin.
outspoken Lest his assessment be dismissed under the heading of 'former player says things were better in his time', he was always clear and outspoken about the game during his 15 years playing with Down.
Indeed, I recall interviewing him in 1988, when, among the points he made were: (a) high fielding should be rewarded with a 'mark'; (b) cynical fouling should be counteracted by a specific rule; (c) players should not be regarded as second-class citizens; (d) inter-county competitions for players under 16 should be scrapped.
It took a long time to happen but the 'mark' (off kick-outs) and black card are now in the rulebook, the GPA is ensuring that players are well looked after and new president John Horan has recently declared war on underage development squads.
Austin could contend that he was ahead of his time, in which case his comment now that "it's as if football is being played by robots" should be seen as a well-thought-out view, rather than someone hankering for the past.
But then, the evidence to support him is not only at a ground near you, it's increasing all the time.
Last Monday morning, I got a phone call from a loyal Kildare supporter who had been at the game with Galway in Newbridge the previous day. Since Kildare had lost their first six Allianz League games, he expected that they would have a go at Galway, who had already qualified for the league final.
More in sorrow than anger, he talked of how at one stage late in the first half, Kildare had most of the team jammed into their own half, allowing Galway to retain possession further out, criss-crossing the field. And since Galway were leading at the time, there was no urgency to find an opening.
We see that type of approach so often nowadays that it's as if we're becoming immune to its sterility. Teams can hold possession for lengthy periods, while the opposition back off into a densely-populated defensive block. It's only when the attacking team tries to move into the scoring zone that there's any risk of losing the ball. Even then, there are few head-to-head contests.
Unlimited handpassing has allowed football to become a game where fitness, strength and conditioning are more important than skill. Yes, of course there are skilful players but the numbers with the 'wow' factor are in decline, having been subjected to the robot system from the age of ten.
The proliferation of backroom 'experts', ranging across strength and conditioning, GPS providers, stats, diet, nutrition, psychology, etc has generated a lucrative circuit populated by people with a vested interest in their specific area. It's easier to peddle those lines than show a player how to be a better kicker or how to spot the 40-metre pass that can open a defence.
The failure to address the scourge of unlimited handpassing has changed football into something it was never meant to be: a sport where the player who runs long distances and gets 30 touches (receiving 15 handpasses from three metres' range and passing to a colleague a similar distance away) in a game is deemed to have done well.
For all its obviously corrosive influences, unlimited handpassing remains unchallenged by the rule-makers. Restricting it to three, after which the ball must be kicked, is an experiment well worth conducting.
Sadly, there are no plans to even discuss it, except ,of course, among the public, who are growing increasingly disillusioned by how a great game has been allowed to lose its way.