Let us drop an egg or two...

Gaelic football, at inter-county level particularly, has changed dramatically in recent years.

Ball retention is now paramount. Incessant hand-passing and suffocating defensive strategies are now, for many, unwanted norms. But if it does need to change, how will it happen?

Freakonomics is a fascinating book and worldwide bestseller. Using economic theories along with detailed statistical analysis, the authors explore the true reasons behind changes in human nature and societal behaviours. One of their most contentious theories was the reason behind the dramatic fall in crime rates across the United States in the early 1990s. Popular political opinion put it down to improved policing and harsher sentencing. However, the authors found that the more likely reason was due to the legalisation of abortion in 1973. I won’t go into the sensitive explanation behind this, but you probably have a fair idea where they were coming from. In short, their contention is that everything happens for a reason, but that reason may not be what you initially reckon.

Listening to the now tiresome exasperation of our past masters, you certainly won’t find too many insightful remedies. No matter how much they pine for a throwback to their golden age, football will never be the open ‘catch and kick’ game it once was. Rule changes, as a solution, are one thing that get under my skin. Certainly some rules could be changed for the overall benefit of the game — and unquestionably the tackle needs to be addressed — yet these won’t have any impact on how teams and managers develop their style of play. Also, limiting the amount of hand-passes to encourage more kicking is a farcical idea to say the least. In my mind, the rules have very little to do with it, and if they are the root cause, we would see similar symptoms at all grades and levels. We don’t. Also, it is more or less the same set of rules for the last 125 years, so why have things only changed significantly in the last ten years or so?

So, using the Freakonomics approach, here’s why, in my opinion, gaelic football has changed. Ok, we have two separate egg and spoon races, with the winner of each getting €1,000. In the first race, if the egg falls off you can put it back on straight away, and continue. However, in the second race, if the egg falls off, you are eliminated. Assuming they both have a winner, which race do you think has the fastest finishing time? First race every time! Why? The cost of making a mistake in the second race inhibits the incentive to win and so a more cautious approach is taken. In the first race a much lesser penalty for the egg falling off encourages the competitors to go that bit faster.

Expanding this example to gaelic football, a plausible explanation can be found as to why the game at inter-county level has changed so significantly. Recent times have seen a dramatic increase in the time and expense spent on the preparation of teams. Similar to our egg and spoon race, the prize is the same, but with such increased investment, the pressure to deliver has heightened. Managers are now fully aware that a poor return on investment will most likely cost them their jobs. As a result, they are more inclined to impose a more cautious approach on their players. Also, modern day players, having given so much time and effort, are reluctant to play with abandon, as they are fearfully aware of the consequences of defeat.

Proving this theory, work your way back to underage and schools level football. At this age it’s all about enjoyment and learning the game. Safe in the knowledge that they have a lifetime of football still ahead of them, they play a much more carefree attacking style of football. Same rules — different mindset.

So where do we go from here? Honestly, I think we are beyond the point of return, and if anything the game of football will only continue to move in the direction it is currently steered. Yet I do think a more attacking and expressive style of play could be encouraged back into our game, but this won’t be happening the way things are shaping at present. Rule changes will have, if any, a minimal impact. I firmly believe a different competition structure, one in which a season does not revolve around the outcomes of one or two games, would be a significant step in the right direction.

If we are allowed to drop the egg every so often, we might be encouraged to go that little bit faster!