Sunday 21 January 2018

Tomás Ó Sé: Dublin and Kerry didn't see Donegal as a boil on the backside of Gaelic football

Kevin McManamon in action for Dublin. Photo credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Kevin McManamon in action for Dublin. Photo credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Tomás Ó Sé

There was a big song and dance in February about Congress approving the introduction of a mark as if it was the answer to all our prayers.

A lot of people seemed very pleased with themselves, you'd swear it was sport's equivalent of discovering penicillin. So from next year, apparently, we'll be treated to glorious exhibitions of high-fetching that'll be a throwback to the days of Mick O'Connell and Willie Bryan.

Believe that and you'll believe anything.

My prediction is that you won't see two marks in a game. And I don't think you'll see any great personality shift in how the big teams go about their business either. Why? Because they're tackling the symptom here, not the cause. The absence of high-fetching is intrinsically linked to the absence of long kicking in Gaelic football. You can't have one without the other.

But we are living through a defensive era for the game and maybe just need to get over that.

You're certainly not going to rewrite how the modern managers think, but I do feel we should be trying to do things differently at underage. I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that the idea of children being schooled in a game of relentless hand-passing and mass defence leaves me absolutely cold.


Maybe a solution here might be limiting the consecutive number of handpasses allowed to three up to minor grade.

But, trust me, the senior inter-county game won't be changing any time soon, so expect the grumbling to continue.

The game is 'gone to Hell', we hear. There's no high fielding anymore. No kicking of long-distance points. No free-flowing moves. If I could add something to that list myself, I'd say too much of the physicality is being rinsed out.

So we have this mongrel of a sport with mass defending and slow, lateral passing from most teams in possession, right?

I'm kind of getting sick of all the negativity. Because every sport evolves and there's nothing to be gained in pining for the old ways. That's just a recipe for being left behind. Look at Dublin and Kerry's reaction to how Donegal changed the terms of engagement in recent years.

They didn't see Donegal as some kind of boil on the backside of Gaelic football. They saw a team that executed a specific game-plan brilliantly and they embraced the tactical challenge of dismantling that game-plan.

I never bought into this notion that what Jim McGuinness brought to Croke Park for that infamous All-Ireland semi-final against the Dubs in 2011 was any kind of attack on the game. I thought it was fantastic in its innovation. The idea of a coach completely changing how things are done to turn a group of perpetual underachievers into one of the most coldly ruthless teams in the land was phenomenal.

But the copycat syndrome that runs through just about every sport meant that other counties tried aping Donegal's style without having all of the ingredients to do so. Of, say, the four necessary qualities - talent, speed, fitness, hunger - they might have had one or two. But, usually, the quality most blatantly lacking has been that first one - talent.

If you don't have the players to begin with, forget about it. You're just going to make yourself look pathetic.

My biggest problem with the game today is that over-reliance on handpassing. In the old days, momentum was always forward. Now it's sideways and backwards with stats gurus in the stand putting more and more pressure on players not to give away possession. This has virtually trebled the amount of tackling in the game and, given we have never had a truly defined tackle in Gaelic football... well maybe you get my drift. The referee's job is a nightmare.

Ostensibly, the introduction of the black card was meant to help him, but it's actually done the opposite.

As I see it, it was almost a kneejerk reaction to Joe Brolly going ballistic in an RTE studio over Sean Cavanagh pulling down Conor McManus. A bit like the Anthony Nash situation in hurling. Suddenly lives were at risk because of how well the Cork goalkeeper struck a sliotar and the very rules of the game had to be changed.

A joke

Listen, if I could have got to Kevin McManamon in our games against Dublin in 2011 or 2013, I'd happily have taken his head off if it helped us win. Now maybe this says something about me that I shouldn't be proud of. But those are the terms on which football has always been played in my view. This Mills and Boon alternative is just fantasy.

Look down the All-Ireland roll of honour and find me a team that wasn't utterly ruthless about how they played the game.

The black card reminds me a lot of the sin-bin. When it was brought in for the second time in 2009, I was the first Kerry player to fall victim to it. We were playing under lights in Tralee and I remember walking off the field past Jack O'Connor with a face of thunder, but I was only putting on act. I just thought the whole thing was a farce.

Once inside the dugout, the subs were practically snorting, trying to hold the laughter in. And what could I do but join them? I was full sure that, soon enough, the sin bin would be binned for ever more which, of course, it was.

But the black card is still with us and I hate the thing. One phrase missing from the rule-book is 'common sense' and more's the pity. The black card highlights why.

David Coldrick reffed Tyrone v Derry last Sunday week and, to my mind, did a terrific job. Why? Because, mostly, he used his discretion. He applied the rules without being a slave to them. Now I'm pretty certain that that means there'll be a few critical remarks about him on the ref assessor's report.

But the game would be far better off with more referees like Coldrick.

I've said before that the black card is watering down the physicality of Gaelic football, but its application is also just driving frustration levels through the roof. Look at the farcical end to the Kildare-Wexford contest a couple of weeks ago. A one-point game in injury-time and a Kildare player does precisely what his manager would want him to do in the circumstances.

He commits a foul outside the scoring zone to stop Wexford's momentum. It takes the referee maybe 40 seconds to dispense the black card and have a replacement player come in. What happens then? Wexford take their free and he blows up immediately. Where was the advantage to them?

I'm not ripping into any individual here, just trying to make the point that, if anything, the black card is simply confusing things for referees, putting them under unfair pressure. In this instance, the referee did things to the letter of the law. And, in doing so, he proved the law is an ass.

I would also make the point that black cards only seem to apply when the recipient of a bad tackle goes to ground. If he stays on his feet? No black card. If ever there was an open invitation for people to start diving then here it is. Now, in fairness, I don't think diving is really in the GAA ethos, but let's not issue an open invitation.


Equally, there is virtually no application of the black card at club level, so players are essentially being asked to play a game to two different sets of rules here.

Maybe it has taken the third-man tackle out of things and, if so, that's a good thing.

But I'd prefer sticking to yellow and red and, maybe, adopting the system they have in soccer where, if a player accumulates a certain number of yellows (three?), they miss a game. A blatantly cynical foul? Bring the ball forward 40 yards.

Just don't punish the genuine, hard, fair tackler. There's a balance to be struck for every team, a balance between being physical and crossing the line. But it can't be struck at the price of a game that has served us well through generations.

FóGRA: The greatest manager in Gaelic football celebrates his 80th birthday next weekend and there's going to be some influx of legends to Waterville to recognise it.

Mick O'Dwyer is a man I would dearly love to have played for because I suspect the drive and energy he brought to the job would have suited my personality perfectly. I don't think people fully appreciate what he achieved in Kerry, particularly the 'second coming' that drew a three-in-a-row between 1984 and '86. And Micko had a positive influence everywhere he subsequently went, whether that was with Kildare, Laois or Wicklow.

He's an inspirational man and I'm delighted that a huge party in his honour has been organised for this special milestone in his life. It'll be based at The Sea Lodge, Waterville (now run by a certain Maurice Fitzgerald and his wife Sharon) and will carry through from Friday to Sunday.

There's a legends' game down for Friday night, Billy Morgan managing the Rest-of-Ireland team, Micko managing Kerry. I had hoped to get a run but will be on intermediate championship duty the same evening with Nemo.

No matter, I'll be down for Saturday night's banquet where we'll raise a toast to one of the greatest men the GAA has given us.

Irish Independent

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