Thursday 21 November 2019

Martin Breheny: People who don't think there is a problem in football are deluded

Ominous signs that defensive shut-outs will dominate the tactical scene

Ryan McAnespie of Monaghan tries to thread his way through the Donegal challenges of, from left, Neil Gallagher, Daniel McLaughlin, and Paddy McGrath during last Sunday’s Allianz NFL Division 1 clash – a game that produced only 14 scores
Ryan McAnespie of Monaghan tries to thread his way through the Donegal challenges of, from left, Neil Gallagher, Daniel McLaughlin, and Paddy McGrath during last Sunday’s Allianz NFL Division 1 clash – a game that produced only 14 scores
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

In a week for the horses, let's give those who insist that there's nothing wrong with how Gaelic football has developed a reason to mount some high ones.

If they genuinely believe that there's no problem when a game featuring Monaghan and 2012 All-Ireland champions Donegal, who between them have won the last four Ulster titles, produces a 0-9 to 1-4 scoreline, they are deluded.

Of the 1-13 total accumulated in Letterkenny, 0-9 came from frees and 1-4 from open play. This was from two teams that featured three 2014 All Stars and 13 nominees.

If anyone thinks that the Dublin v Tyrone tie in Croke Park last Saturday was a genuine reflection of the creative capacity among such talented players, they are in denial.

And if they recall last year's All-Ireland final as anything other than a joyless grind (except for Kerry, of course), their enjoyment threshold must be extremely low.

The reality is that Gaelic football hasn't so much lost its way but been led astray. It's all about preventing the opposition from scoring and while there's nothing wrong with that, the balance has become disproportionately skewed in favour of the defensive approach.

Inexplicable

It is being facilitated by the inexplicable tolerance of incessant handpassing. That's despite claims by former All-Ireland referee Paddy Collins that as many as 25 per cent of handpasses are throws and another 50 per cent are borderline.

With handpasses running at a 4:1 ratio to foot passes, that's an awful lot of illegality. And since retaining possession through handpassing is now regarded as essential, it means that illegality is underpinning a core principle of the game.

GAA Newsletter

Expert GAA analysis straight to your inbox.

Yet, the Football Review Committee (FRC) backed off from the handpass issue when they reported in late 2012 that it might be a passing phase. They advised the GAA to carry out ongoing monitoring.

The last two seasons - and the start of the current one - suggests that handpassing has become embedded even more deeply. Yet, even a modest proposal to require a goalkeeper, who receives the ball from a handpass to play it away with the boot, was beaten on a 64-36 per cent vote at Congress.

Since the next rule-changing Congress won't take place until 2020, the game will remain in its current format for at least the next five years.

That's a victory for those who see packing the defensive channels with as many bodies as possible as the starting point for their game plan.

7 March 2015; Referee David Gough explains his decision to award a free kick to Tyrone to Rory O'Carroll, Dublin. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Round 4, Dublin v Tyrone, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
7 March 2015; Referee David Gough explains his decision to award a free kick to Tyrone to Rory O'Carroll, Dublin. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Round 4, Dublin v Tyrone, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

And when it's challenged, the standard response is that good defensive work is as entertaining as inventive attacking play.

Nobody is disputing that watching clever defenders at work is fascinating but that's altogether different from merely clogging space, making it all but impossible to open up the channels. Then, it becomes no more than defence by numbers. It's like asking Lewis Hamilton to show his driving skills on the M50 at peak time.

No blame should be attached to managers for using the rules in any way they want to achieve their aims. Their prime objective is to produce the game plan that gives the team the best chance of winning. If that delivers a 0-2 to 0-1 victory, so be it.

But, when managers tell us that we should enjoy what we see - irrespective of how negatively-based it is - they need to be challenged. Worse still, when they try to convince us that we should appreciate that type of game for the efficient manner in which it's executed.

Apart from the handpassing scourge, there are other examples of how basic skills have been eroded by bad rules. The ability to kick the ball accurately off the ground was a long-held requirement, prior to the introduction of the rule which allowed frees to be taken from the hand.

Gradually, the standard of free-taking from long range declined because it was no longer necessary for players to practise it.

That was accompanied by a drop in the scoring-rate so managers turned to goalkeepers, the only player who needed to work on ground kicks.

Now, many counties use goalkeepers for long-range duties, often with very mixed results.

Meanwhile, the skill of kicking the ball off the ground has disappeared for the majority of players.

At this rate, no skill is safe in Gaelic football. Is that where the great game is heading?

Irish Independent

The Throw-In: 'Jim Gavin has achieved what Mick O'Dwyer and Brian Cody couldn't do'

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport