Thursday 22 February 2018

Martin Breheny: Gaelic Handball

Cork's Fiachra Lynch in action against Derry's Kevin McGuckin during their NFL clash in Celtic Park last month. OLIVER MCVEIGH / SPORTSFILE
Cork's Fiachra Lynch in action against Derry's Kevin McGuckin during their NFL clash in Celtic Park last month. OLIVER MCVEIGH / SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

IT was, they claimed, impossible to differentiate between legal and illicit. It had turned Gaelic football into Gaelic basketball, removed the primacy of boot from the sport and promoted running more than kicking.

Having vilified the hand pass for 30 minutes, they voted to retain it anyway.

Sounds like an account of the debate on the hand pass v the fist pass at next weekend's GAA Congress. Not so. Actually, it's a report from the 1980 Congress!

The irony is completed by the venue for that Congress which, same as this year, was the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, Down. I haven't been back in the hotel since then but I certainly never thought at the end of the 1980 session that if it returned to the Slieve Donard 30 years later the hand pass would still be problematical for Gaelic football.

Actually, it's far worse now, having corrupted the game to a degree where calling it Gaelic football violates the Trades Description Act. Tinkering with the pass in the experimental rules so that a player has to use a closed fist as opposed to an open hand has done nothing to reduce the number of dodgy transfers or make life easier for referees.

And it most certainly hasn't led to an increase in foot passes. Former All-Ireland referee PJ McGrath (Mayo) has carried out detailed studies of NFL games this season and reports that the fist-to-kick pass ratio is four to one in favour of the fist. And they call it Gaelic football!

Delegates at Congress will vote on whether to retain the fist pass on a permanent basis or return to the open hand pass, either of which will do nothing to promote kicking. In fact, this debate will be about as relevant as arguing over whether to apply a sticking plaster or a bandage to a wound when the patient's main problem is a heart condition.


The real challenge is how to correct the imbalance between hand and boot but since it's not on the agenda it won't be discussed. Never mind, sure it can be addressed in 30 years' time!

The hand pass isn't the only issue to remain unresolved since 1980. There was unease over championship formats back then too -- indeed a few motions appeared on the Congress agenda calling for the replacement of the provincial championships with an open draw All-Ireland series.

Down and Dublin drove the open draw idea but it met with road rage from many counties and was supported by less than 20 delegates. The main opposition was led by Peter Quinn (Fermanagh), who would later become GAA President and Frank Murphy (Cork) who spoke trenchantly against "gambling with something we know nothing of".

Quinn opposed it on the basis that since Fermanagh had never won the Ulster senior title, or even qualified for the final since 1945, they wanted to continue with their pursuit of the great dream. Thirty years on, Fermanagh are still waiting for a first Ulster crown.

Still, some things have changed since 1980. Rather remarkably for a county with a reputation as free spirits, Wexford wanted any GAA member who criticised Congress decisions or the Association's leadership to be expelled.

Steady on, folks, wasn't that a bit drastic? No, argued Wexford, claiming it would control those "who liked the sound of their own voices".

Roscommon and Mayo led the opposition and Wexford eventually withdrew the proposal but demanded that the authorities take stern action against its critics. Having championed free speech, Mayo then wanted players who didn't give their first allegiance to the GAA to be penalised.

It seemed remarkably like a call for a limited reintroduction of the famous 'Ban', which had been removed nine years earlier but GAA President, Down man Paddy McFlynn -- who is still in fine fettle and will be present next weekend -- skilfully manoeuvred the debate in a less contentious direction.

Sligo proposed the deletion of the rule preventing British Army and RUC personnel from joining the GAA but it had no chance of being passed in those far more troubled times.

Mind you, there was no great mood for change in any sphere with only 31 of the 145 motions being passed. Thirty years on, will the strike rate from the 123 motions be much higher next Saturday? Probably, but Congress still won't have addressed the curse of the hand/fist pass.

Irish Independent

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