Saturday 19 October 2019

Martin Breheny: Time to snap out of denial over football's identity crisis and sort it out

Powers-that-be must examine rule changes to end scourge of handpassing and lateral play

Dublin's Brian Fenton. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Dublin's Brian Fenton. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Sixty-seven games played, one remaining. And no, the All-Ireland football final is not the foregone conclusion popular opinion holds.

Of course there's a stronger case to be made for Dublin than Tyrone, but not to the degree that suggests the game will be no more than a red carpet swagger by Jim Gavin's cast on their way into the ultra-exclusive four-in-a-row club. Here are three reasons why...

1: Dublin won by a margin of just three points in Omagh last month in a game where Tyrone missed a relatively simple free late on. If scored, it would have cut the gap at the time to a point.

2: Dublin's overpowering of teams, which prevails throughout most of the season, has not extended to All-Ireland finals. Their five wins since 2011 have been by 1-1-3-1-1-point margins, while they also drew with Mayo in 2016.

3: There's no sharper strategist than Mickey Harte when it comes to planning for a game like this. Yes, his squad were blitzed by Dublin in last year's semi-final, but it had the look of a one-off malfunction more than a permanent power failure. Harte got slated for the tactical set-up, but one suspects that was down as much to the fact that he has been around for a long time - and consequently deemed guilty of not being a modern thinker - than anything else.

In contrast, Jim McGuinness is still being lauded as one of the great football brains of our time because Donegal won one All-Ireland title in circumstances where their success in the 2012 final was down more to Mayo's self-destructive streak than to the opposition's tactical masterplan.

The truth is that Harte's return to the All-Ireland final table adds an intriguing dimension to a final which needs to deliver something special to raise football's stock.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely to happen since the game has been corrupted to such a degree that a quick fix is impossible. Last weekend's semi-finals underlined the extent of the problem, which applies right across the spectrum nowadays. Endless strings of handpasses, occasionally interrupted by footpasses, are now the main components and, if that weren't unimaginative enough, many of them are directed backwards.

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Dublin do it better than anybody, which is one of the reasons they are so successful, but now everyone is on the same carousel, repeatedly circling without actually going anywhere much of the time.

The essential difference between Dublin and Galway was in how they operated in the attacking half.

Handpassing and lateral footpassing were the dominant themes, but Dublin worked the angles much better and also injected greater pace so that they were able to create more time and space for a finisher to get in his kick.

Galway were unable to match that, which left them either kicking under pressure or running out of patience and taking a hopeful shot.

Yet, when they went direct, Damien Comer's menacing presence in front of the Dublin goal yielded a goal and a penalty. Why didn't they do it more often?

On Sunday, Monaghan and Tyrone continued with the handpassing/lateral footpassing game, always against massed defences.

Galway manager Jeffrey Lynskey. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Galway manager Jeffrey Lynskey. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Sadly, it was the same in the Galway-Meath and Kerry-Monaghan minor semi-finals, but then every coach feeds off what's going on at the highest level.

Inevitably, it has spread to the club game too. And that's how it will remain unless the GAA reacts to an evolutionary process that's ruining football.

Team managers and coaches become very prickly over any criticisms of how the game is played. They are missing the point because nobody is questioning them for doing whatever it takes to win, provided it's within the rules.

So if a team wins a game using 400 handpasses against opposition that adopts a more entertaining approach, who will get the credit? The winners of course.

Man-to-man contests for possession should be an integral part of football, just as they are in rugby and Australian Rules. The latter two treat that as an article of faith and remain vigilant in ensuring that battles for possession remain central ingredients in the rules mix.

Not so in football, where the unrestricted handpass reigns supreme. Limiting it to three and banning back passes outside the opposition '45 would be an interesting experiment.

Any such proposal would probably be vehemently opposed by managers, who are notoriously suspicious of change (many of them even opposed the introduction of the 'mark' off kick-outs) but so what?

Their job is to work within the rules as they apply, not set the parameters for what they should be.

Ultimately, responsibility for what's best for the game rests with the administrators. If they can't spot that entertainment levels are dropping at an alarming degree then more than Hawk-Eye should be sponsored by Specsavers.

Surely, they can see that, yet for some reason, there seems to be no will to act.

Rouse presents timely reminder of hurling's enduring legacy

It's appropriate that as the inter-county hurling season draws to a close, a book celebrating the first All-Ireland championship and the making of the modern game should be published.

Amid all the excitement surrounding next Sunday's All-Ireland final, which will be watched by 83,200 people in Croke Park and by over one million on TV at home and abroad, it's worth reminding everyone who loves the game how close it came to extinction.

In his fascinating book, 'The Hurlers', Paul Rouse, lecturer in Irish History and Sports History in UCD, traces how hurling went from a game "played only in a few isolated rural pockets according to no fixed set of rules" in 1882/'83 to having its first All-Ireland championship five years later.

Rouse, who took over as Offaly's interim football manager following the departure of Stephen Wallace earlier this summer, provides a brilliantly researched book on hurling in the early years of the GAA, a period when several vested interests battled for control.

Ultimately, love of the game overcame every obstacle as visionaries steered it through hard times. "They set off something that has yet to end," concludes Rouse. Thank God for that.

Lopsided system more than a minor matter

Galway's arrival in this year's Leinster U-21 hurling championship leaves minor as the only significant grade closed to the Tribesmen.

Instead, they played a round robin with beaten Kilkenny and Limerick, the respective runners-up in Leinster and Munster, for a semi-final place.

Galway won both matches comfortably, leaving Jeffrey Lynskey and his starlets bidding to retain the All-Ireland title in a rematch with the young Cats on Sunday.

Here's the anomaly. Galway's third game was against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final, whereas Kilkenny's win over Tipperary was their ninth outing of the championship.

The Cats played six games in Leinster, where they lost to Dublin in the final, before heading for the round robin and resurrecting their All-Ireland ambitions.

That's the system as it stands but it's beyond lopsided that the difference in the number of games played by the All-Ireland finalists stands at 9-3.

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