Monday 17 June 2019

Martin Breheny: How to save football - Radical rule overhaul needed with greater entertainment at its core


Dublin work their way through the massed ranks of the Tyrone defence to allow Brian Fenton to score a second-half point in the All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin work their way through the massed ranks of the Tyrone defence to allow Brian Fenton to score a second-half point in the All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

In September 1981, the GAA had two concerns over Gaelic football: All-Ireland monopoly by Kerry and rules that weren't maximising the game's potential as a spectacle.

In September 2018, the GAA have the same two concerns except Kerry are replaced by Dublin as the new all-conquering empire.

In fairness, there's no way to legislate to counteract domination by any one team. It's simply a fact of sporting life that happens from time to time. Monopolies are not good, but they always end, as they will with Dublin.

The task for other counties is to raise their standards to a level where they are capable of challenging Dublin. Some are making progress but others are not, certainly in Leinster.

Meath and Kildare are the two biggest disappointments, with both mere specks in Dublin's rear-view mirrors. Responsibility to change that rests solely with two counties that should be doing better. That plays into Dublin's hands, allowing them to time their season so they hit peak fitness in July, whereas counties from other provinces have to be ready much earlier.

Galway and Mayo met on May 13 this year, with Monaghan and Tyrone in action a week later. Dublin began their campaign in late May against Wicklow, who finished bottom of Division 4.

Even then, the game was played in Portlaoise, rather than Aughrim. OK, so it might not make much difference to bring Dublin to Aughrim, but that's not the point. As things stand, Dublin are given preferential treatment in Leinster by not having to play at any opponents' home ground. And guess what? When the 'Super 8s' format was introduced, it too bestowed special favours on Dublin by staging two of their three round-robin games in Croke Park.

Despite Dublin's awesome strength, counties handed them another sizeable advantage and it was only when the practical impact of that decision became apparent that the sleeping wonders reacted.

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An even bigger issue that need needs to be addressed is rule change. Football has so much to offer, but is being choked by the manipulation of rules to create a certain type of game.

It's perfectly legal, but it's also dreadfully boring. Monotonous handpassing, teams lining up in massed defensive formation around their 45-metre line, back-passing by hand or foot and short kick-outs are all combining to suck the entertainment out of the game. Counties were recently invited to submit proposals for rule change, but a whole lot more than that needs to happen.

History shows that rule change submissions from counties tend to be poorly thought out so whatever is proposed can only be a small part of the process. There needs to be a wider and more scientific approach, starting with an assessment of what type of game football should be.

The Football Review Committee, which reported in late 2012, stopped short of proposing a restriction on handpassing but warned that if it became more prevalent, then action should be taken.

Six years on, it's clear that handpassing has increased and needs to be curbed. So too with back-passing, especially in a team's defensive half. It's time too to make it compulsory for all kick-outs to pass the '45'.

And how about increasing the value of a goal to four points? In 1981, the GAA amended the handpass rule to eradicate throws. They aren't a problem not but the handpass is a bigger problem than ever. Football needs to be re-directed towards the wonderful game it should be, rather than having the entertainment value squeezed from it. That's more important than worrying about Dublin's dominance.

Earlier finals a promotional own goal

The first season of early All-Ireland finals has passed, leaving us with four months without any inter-county action before the manic programmes get under way in the new year.

We’re told it will be a big boost to the club scene, although that argument was probably oversold in the drive to win support for earlier finals. It will be even tighter next year when the finals are played on the last two Sundays in August.

From a promotional viewpoint, it’s waste of the highest order to dispense with September as All-Ireland final month. It’s compounded by playing the two finals on successive Sundays, which will impact on media coverage and general exposure.

Analysis and comment on the hurling final usually runs for a few days, but it will be interrupted next year by the build-up to the football final.

It makes no sense for the GAA to have its two biggest occasions in the space of week in late August. Surely it’s not too late for a re-think.

Referees’ running stats make a case for doubling up

According to the match programmes for the All-Ireland finals, inter-county referees run almost 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) per game.

It’s virtually the same for hurling (9.8km) as football (9.7km) but football referees reached a higher maximum speed – 28.3 kmh as opposed to 26.9kmh in hurling. Hurling referees have an average of 49 sprints per game.

Conor Lane did a good job in keeping up with play last Sunday, as indeed did James Owens in the hurling final, but here’s the question – is it reasonable to ask one man to control a game played on an area covering almost three acres.

It’s especially difficult for hurling referees, with the demands being blamed for the lack of vigilance with illegal handpassing.

Referees are well behind the play almost all the time, making it very difficult to adjudicate on whether the ball has been thrown. It makes a strong case for two referees, similar to what applies in International Rules where the double up has worked well.

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