Tuesday 16 July 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Lads, don't pass the ball on football rules trial'

Central Council delegates must stand up to moaning managers after concerted attack on experiments and have the courage to stick with them for the league

Referee Anthony Nolan awards a free for four consecutive hand passes during the O’Byrne Cup clash between Carlow and Westmeath – the experimental rule is in danger of being shelved for the league on the back of opposition from managers. Photo: Sportsfile
Referee Anthony Nolan awards a free for four consecutive hand passes during the O’Byrne Cup clash between Carlow and Westmeath – the experimental rule is in danger of being shelved for the league on the back of opposition from managers. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

If reports are true and Central Council delegates are being lobbied through various channels to vote against having the restriction on the handpass applied in the national football league, we will discover on Saturday if they have any courage or conviction.

Using the pre-season competitions as the initial opinion-former, the experimental rules will be reviewed, as per the decision taken in November. If a majority of Central Council members want any - or indeed all five - of the changes to be scrapped, they can make it happen with a wave of their hands, effectively zapping the experiments without properly trialling them.

Restricting successive handpasses to three, after which the ball must be kicked, is by far the most contentious.

Predictably, managers have been especially vociferous, with many behaving as if the change were designed either as a spiteful swipe at them or a sinister plot to ruin Gaelic football.

Complain Pure rubbish, of course, but when enough managers and players complain about rule changes, history shows that they usually get their way.

And when they work on the Central Council delegates within their own counties, which I'm told has been going on regarding the handpass, the mood in the meeting room can be very different to a few months earlier.

That's why there's no certainty that the handpass experiment will survive into the league, despite the obvious need to give it a fair trial.

Nobody ever claimed that restricting it would remove football's less attractive aspects, but to judge it on the basis of a relatively small number of pre-season games is an insult to intelligent analysis.

GAA Newsletter

Expert GAA analysis straight to your inbox.

Cobwebs are still being removed from dressing-rooms, none of which have seen full-strength squads so far. The season has been at the crawling stage so to make an important decision based on warm-up games would be ridiculous.

Unfortunately, in an era when rushing to instant judgement off minimal evidence is the norm, the loudest voices tend to wield disproportionate influence. Well, initially at least, until it becomes apparent that it was all noisy nonsense.

One of the arguments being put forward by managers and players against continuing with the restricted handpass experiment is that it will lead to a reduction in goalscoring.

It is even backed up by statistics from pre-season games, which show that fewer goals were scored than last year. We are being told of numerous situations when clear goal chances would have been created if only a team were allowed to continue handpassing.

It's a clever approach by the anti-experiment lobby, since nobody wants to see less goalscoring. If that argument is put forward at Saturday's gathering in Croke Park, here's the obvious response.

Firstly, a measured decision cannot be made on the basis of pre-season games, involving below-strength teams. Also, are we being asked to believe that football was a goalscoring delight before the current experiments applied? No, it wasn't.

Forty of last year's 68 championship games produced no more than two goals, while 77 of 110 Allianz league games did the same. Of the 29 Division 1 games, 23 had two or fewer goals; nine had one goal and eight had no goals.

So where were the flowing moves, all linked by intricate handpassing, that left finishers eyeballing goalkeepers? We're now being told that nets would have bulged far more regularly this month if only a few more handpasses were allowed. That's pure propaganda, always a helpful weapon against the truth.

If there were real concerns about goalscoring - and there should be - increasing the value to four points would be an interesting experiment, but it has never even been seriously considered.

The restriction on the handpass may not turn out to have the intended beneficial consequences, in which case it will be scrapped. However, a decision on its real impact can only be made after a fair trial period, which the league offers.

It features 116 games, all involving teams of similar standards playing against each other - after which a proper scientific analysis can be undertaken.

If the drawbacks - which have been articulated loudly in recent weeks - are indeed real, they will become more obvious in the league, in which case the experiment goes no further.

That's a sensible, evidence-based way to proceed, rather than panic into a bad decision next Saturday. As for the argument that it's wrong to run the league under experimental rules before reverting to the status quo for the championship, it's the same for every county.

That appears to be ignored by those who are claiming it's unfair. How can it be unfair when the same rules apply to everybody, something that certainly doesn't apply to the championship which is jammed with inequalities?

Saturday's decision is important in deciding who makes the rules and, by extension, shapes the entertainment value of football. Central Council needs to do its duty for the game, irrespective of the vested interests whispering in their ears.

O'Donovan hot on 'throwing' trail

Former Tipperary All-Ireland winning full-back Conor O'Donovan was on Tipp FM on Monday night, reinforcing a view he articulated in these pages a few months ago about illegal handpassing in hurling going unpunished.

He accepts that it's very difficult for referees to consistently apply the rule in such a fast-moving game and suggests that the solution is to make it compulsory for a player to make the pass with the hand not holding the ball.

Illegal handpassing (plus too many steps) is a subject close to this column's heart and we even drew a 'give it a rest' rebuke from a top referee last year for regularly commenting on 'throwing' in our 'Ref Watch' slot on match reports.

O'Donovan is dismayed by the failure of the authorities to react to illegal handpassing and is hoping that others will come aboard in a campaign to continue highlighting it until the growing problem is addressed.

It deserves to be supported because, as things stand, the rule is a neglected ass.

Penalty parade the way to go

The penalty kick drama in the Mayo v Leitrim and Mayo v Galway FBD Connacht League games and the Dublin-Meath O'Byrne Cup semi-final over the last two weekends has sparked debate on whether championship games should be decided that way if still level after extra-time.

Personally, I think it's a great idea. The counter-argument is that it would be tough to lose a championship game - perhaps even the one that leads to elimination - on penalty kicks but aren't many games often decided on the closest of calls, including borderline decisions by referees late on?

It's part of the game, however harsh the implications might be.

A penalty shoot-out is much more satisfactory than firing '45s or '65s at an unguarded goal as it involves a genuine contest, requiring no little skill by goalkeeper and taker.

And since both sides are guaranteed a minimum of five penalties, it allows some leeway for misses. From an excitement perspective too, the penalty shoot-out certainty scores well ahead of '45s and '65s.

Irish Independent

The Throw-In: Kerry back to their best, Connolly’s return and Cork’s baffling inconsistency

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport