Sunday 8 December 2019

Tommy Conlon: Return to old ways may not catch on but mark rule could have gone further

Anthony Tohill
Anthony Tohill

Tommy Conlon

A casual surf through the channels on Wednesday evening brought us to a montage on TG4 of Anthony Tohill pulling down high ball in the middle of the field.

It was a tightly-edited video package for the Laochra Gael series, so it just shows the great Derry man making catch after catch in a rapid-fire sequence. We don't see the starting point for each ball that ends up in his hands but the trajectory and general circumstances suggest they came from goalkeeper kick-outs.

Tohill is arguably the best centre-field player since Jack O'Shea. Here he looks suitably imperious in the air. But this was back in the 1990s and early 2000s. The footage may not be completely representative of the era but it is notable how much space he has around him. He is jumping against just one or two opponents. The landing zone isn't packed when he comes down. He is not crowded out. He can take off with the ball. And, of course, the 'keeper is driving the ball long and direct to midfield in the first place.

It is a fine sight, this aerial prowess, and if GAA officialdom is guilty of nostalgia by trying to revive it, then it should be a willing defendant on this particular charge. The high catch is a feature of Gaelic football worth fighting for. The new 'mark' rule is therefore a valid initiative; it is a small piece of social engineering designed to preserve a handsome tradition.

But it is a nostalgic step too far to say that contemporary players are no longer capable of executing the skill. This is part of the same mixture of sentiment and insecurity which frets with worry that the modern game is itself not a patch on its glory days.

This doom-laden scenario usually lacks for persuasive evidence. Some sort of metric would help, marking that moment in time when it was at its zenith, and charting its long decline to this day. When was the golden era? What are the criteria that define it so? And what are the criteria that define its present lamentable state?

Well, one measurable argument for the prosecution is of course the handpass. In fact, they will frequently hang their hat on this one issue alone. The proliferation of this banal and low-skill transaction has become an epidemic. A game originally designed to move a ball by foot has become a game of the hand.

Last summer The Irish Times delivered a stat that should have alarmed all right-thinking, and even wrong-thinking, Gaels. 'More handpassing in Gaelic games than in rugby', blared the headline that had men with pioneer pins reaching for the whiskey.

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The drawn Connacht final between Galway and Roscommon, it reported, contained an eye-watering 474 handpasses.

It was 143 more than in the Test match between Ireland and South Africa a month earlier - and which, of course, was 10 minutes longer. The Ulster final featured 412 handpasses, the Munster final 333.

This in a nutshell is why a multitude of followers are harking back to some halcyon era when Gaelic footballers actually kicked the ball. The only problem with this amber-tinted regret is that if you venture back much further than 25 years, you will find plenty of county players who could barely kick the ball at all. Their ball skills were often chronically poor.

Their one singular quality was that they regularly turned up for training. They had stamina, they could mark a man, they could track back, they could do a fella off the ball. But in general the average county player was a fumbler: he couldn't solo the ball properly, he couldn't kick-pass to a team-mate, he couldn't carry the ball while sidestepping a tackler.

Nowadays it is the same obsession with keeping the ball that requires players to be much more comfortable with it. Handpassing, obviously, is the preferred way of keeping it. But you will routinely see a player taking a hop, a solo and a sidestep before popping it off. You will routinely see corner-backs coming upfield and kicking points. Virtually every player is making better decisions, playing with more skill and composure.

If they are not kicking the ball, it's not because they can't: they are better at kicking it, by and large, than previous generations. It's that they are being instructed not to kick it. Likewise with high fielding. There are dozens of current players who are superb in the air; we know this because we see them doing it. It's just that they are not doing it nearly as often as previously. The revolution in re-starts - the Cluxton revolution - has marginalised this aspect of the game.

The GAA may have missed a trick here. Instead of just trying to reward aerial prowess via the kick-out, they might have rewarded it in attack too. A long ball, in other words, kicked from midfield and caught by a forward inside the 20-metre line that allows the forward a mark and a free pot at the posts. It might, just might, encourage more direct football and less handpassing, in addition to a few more aerial spectaculars.

In the good old days, a high fielder was a revered figure. He had hands like shovels, a catch like a creel, "hands like Bostik". The challenge remains to get players using their hands more in the air, and less often on the ground.

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