Why referees must stamp out the Stopman

Michael Collins: The game’s over,Harry. Lost again.

Harry Boland: What happens nexttime?

Michael Collins: Next time, Harry, we won’t play by their rules. We’ll invent our own.

Whenever we reflect on the monumental achievement that is Jim McGuinness’s Donegal, we think of that opening sequence from Neil Jordan’s film when Collins and his surrendering colleagues emerge from the dust and the flames of the GPO.

It was precisely last weekend two years ago that Donegal became the first team to be dumped out of the 2010 championship, humiliated by an unremarkable Armagh team on national television. For over a decade, that was just the way it was: even though Donegal’s talent level was commensurable with Armagh’s, Armagh invariably beat them.

As a proud Donegal man and an intelligent football man, it sickened McGuinness, how Donegal were still playing by the old rules. He has invented their own, to the point now so must football to counter them.

There’s nothing new about some of Donegal’s tactics, of course. They picked up some of them from those bruising encounters with Armagh. In his BBC co-commentary last Saturday, Jarlath Burns noted both Donegal and Tyrone persistently employed the Stopman. It is a tactic if not a term widespread in Gaelic football and it was the Armagh team which Burns captained that coined the term and championed the practice.

Your opponent is building momentum out the field only you haul them down outside the scoring zone. Conceding the free, even taking the yellow card, is worth it. The opponent won’t score from there, while stopping the play allows you to get bodies back and cut down their options.

David Coldrick’s officiating last Saturday didn’t help matters and it’s time Pat McEnaney as National Referees chairman challenged this notion that he has assumed McEnaney’s position as the best referee in football. In the 2007 All-Ireland final, Coldrick blew for 30 first-half fouls yet yellow-carded no one. When Cork and Kerry clashed again last month in an ill-tempered affair, the first yellow card he showed was in added time in the first half. In Clones he was again far too slow to flash yellow. If he had been more stringent, two of Donegal’s most important upfield players, Rory Kavanagh and Colm McFadden, either wouldn’t have been still on the field by the 50th minute or else they simply wouldn’t have fouled so much.

Several commentators have said that Donegal-Tyrone is typical of modern football. It isn’t, but certain aspects of it are too common and Donegal tend to take them to the extreme. For years teams have been flooding men behind the ball, using the Stopman, handpassing the ball more than 200 times a game.

Donegal have just taken all those things to another level again because there’s no law or deterrent prohibiting them.

McGuinness’s Donegal could well turn out to be to football what Wilt Chamberlain was to basketball.

At 7’2’’, Chamberlain was probably the most dominant athlete to ever play a team sport. When taking free throws in college, Chamberlain would stand at the top of the key, throw the ball up towards the basket, take two steps, jump towards the rim and slam-dunk the ball through the net. It was an incredibly daring, athletic act which didn’t break any rules, only their spirit, to the point legislators specified that a player could not cross the plane of the free-throw line when taking a free throw. They’d also widen the key and rule that no offensive player could stay in for longer than three seconds to stop the towering Chamberlain camping next to the basket. He was responsible for the introduction of the goal-tending rule and remains the reason why teams can’t throw the ball over the backboard inbounding the ball.

We keep hearing in football that teams aren’t breaking any rules and there are enough rules as is. Rubbish: basketball changed four rules on account of Chamberlain alone and would thrive, as would he.

Even Mark McHugh’s own father, Martin, conceded that Donegal’s game with Tyrone highlighted the need for reform. Football is a better game than it was 20 years ago but some of the changes it has undergone haven’t been for the better. There’s a case for restricting the handpass, limiting the number of men you can have behind or around the ball, especially in underage football just as many underage basketball leagues prohibit zone defence and full-court presses. But above all it must stop the Stopman.

Maybe learn from basketball, because most top football coaches like McGuinness are learning.

Consider some form of team-foul rule. Award a penalty whenever a particularly cynical or ‘flagrant’ foul is committed, regardless of where it occurred on the field, especially since referees are loath to red-card players.

Dessie Farrell has proposed the ‘tap and go’ whereby a player can pass a free to himself as in rugby and Aussie Rules.

Football review committee chairman Eugene McGee is on record as not liking the term and sceptical of urgings “to speed up the game”.

But speeding up the game and stopping the Stopman should be the priority of his workgroup.

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