The history of Gaelic football is littered with disputes, controversies, and occasional pronouncements that its extinction was both imminent and welcome, writes Paul Rouse
Mostly, this is a product of the passion for football and its importance in the lives of people all across the country.
It is also a product of the national talent for hysteria.
Allowing for the capacity to overreact, from watching the provincial finals over the last few weekends, it is clear that we have reached another tipping point where change is both needed and inevitable.
Some of this change will flow from revised championship structures, but it will also come from rule changes. Are there lessons to be learned from the past that might assist in this process of renewal?
The first thing to say is that there is no golden era, no time when the game did not face the challenge of remaking itself.
Indeed, throughout the decades, Gaelic football has changed — and changed again.
Take, for example, the 1890s. In the 1891 All-Ireland Football final (played in 1892), Dublin defeated Cork by 2-1 to 1-9. It was a hugely controversial win.
At the time, a goal was worth more than any number of points. When Dublin scored two goals in the first half, their captain John Kennedy ordered every one of his players to retreat to their goals for the second half.
As it turned out Cork scored one goal and also scored 9 points, but were not able to secure a second goal (although they believed they were wrongly denied one, and the Cork newspapers regarded it as another outrage perpetrated on a perennially mistreated people and their way of life!).
Dublin didn’t register a score in the second half but were duly crowned All-Ireland champions by virtue of their two goals to the one scored by Cork.
In the aftermath of the match, as well as being condemned for their defensive tactics, the Dublin team were also denounced for “rough, treacherous and unmanly play”, including throwing Corkmen on the ground and sitting on them.
The tactics used in pursuit of victory forced the GAA to act. Over the coming months and years, the GAA changed its rules. The value of a goal was reduced to five points and then to three, and the number of players on the field continued to fall, from 21 down to 17 and then to 15.
Why did this happen?
The story of legislating for every field game in history is the story of alterations being made to achieve three basics aims:
. To make the play faster and more open.
To reduce violence on the field.
To make the game easier to referee.
That is the challenge that has repeatedly faced the administrators of the GAA as it has redrawn the rules of the game over the decades.
As things stand, it is clear that Gaelic football is not now a violent game. There is the occasional piece of thuggery but, broadly speaking, decapitations, impalings, and disembowellings have been consigned to the past. Indeed, if there is a criticism, it is that the campaign to clean up Gaelic football has resulted in the game losing too much of its physicality.
It cannot be said, however, that the game is now easier to referee. The black card was introduced with the best of intentions and it has certainly reduced the amount of cynical play, in the sense that players are more wary of simply dragging someone to the ground. Critics of the black card must take that into account when they denounce its operation.
The price of the black card, however, is that it is has heaped even more pressure on referees. The difficulty lies not just in judging the nature of the foul committed but also in judging the intent of the player. This is so subjective a matter that it is easy to see why so many controversies are arising.
For example, it is amusing that anyone who ever played Gaelic football actually believes that Mattie Donnelly did not deliberately hit Eoin McHugh last Sunday. Yet there are people out there who do believe that and have stated it with vehemence. Proof — in either direction — is impossible: So, what you’re left with is making a guess. And that is the dilemma created by the black card rules as they stand.
More than that, referees are having so much difficulty in separating what is a deliberate and cynical foul from what is inadvertent that they have entirely abandoned the aspect of the rules which says that they should issue a black card to those who use provocative language or gestures to an opponent. Also abandoned is the black card which was supposed to be issued to players who remonstrate in an aggressive manner with an official.
As well as now being more difficult to referee on foot of recent rule changes, it is also the case that the tactical changes made by teams in search of victory require legislative change.
The dispiriting sight of players handpassing the ball backwards and forwards across the field in the Ulster final, before someone finally tried a long range shot or — even more occasionally — sought to carve a route through a defence underlined the need for action.
It was dismal to see good players playing for so much of the game in a way that was so unskillful, and, ultimately, so lacking in courage. Nobody doubts the physical courage of the players, but the courage considered here is the courage to try and create scoring opportunities by doing the unorthodox. Because kicking the ball is now an unorthodox thing to do.
The three brilliant scores kicked by Tyrone in injury time and the occasional long point kicked during the game does not contradict this essential point; instead, it underlines it. For all that there were brilliant points kicked from distance, there were many more shots that sailed high and wide, or ballooned in the air.
Every Gaelic football team at every level in every era has included players who would struggle to kick the ball even into a fog. These players were on teams because of other attributes, and not for their kicking ability.
But when even the good footballers will do anything except kick the ball, it is clear there is a significant problem.
The thing is, though, it wasn’t just that players didn’t want to kick the ball, until the endgame they were even afraid to try and run with it in case they lost it in the tackle.
So, when you don’t want to kick it and you don’t want to run with it, all you’re left with is an endless series of lateral handpasses.
And just like in the children’s game of Donkey, for much of the game the main excitement came when somebody made a mistake.
A team set up to counter-attack needs an attacking team to play against, but when both teams are set upon counter-attacking, the game that ensues is invariably atrocious.
Even Dublin — the most attacking team of the modern era — if they face Tyrone later in the year will surely not be so accommodating as to pour forward and be sucked into the trap.
That game, too, would most likely be a cautious, grim stand-off punctuated by moments of brilliance, but decided by mistakes and by who cracks first.
It’s hard to imagine that this is how players wish to play. It is a fact they have no obligation to entertain, no duty to play in any particular way. It is also a fact that they crave a win above everything else: The wages of amateur sport are medals. And so players do what they can to win and the joy in Tyrone at their deserved victory makes plain just how much it meant to the team and its supporters.
The result is one thing and the match is another, however; and the nature of the match (and of other matches played this summer) means rule changes are now inevitable. The question is: What will those changes be? This is no easy matter and anyone offering glib answers should be dismissed out of sight.
Allowing for that, a limit on the number of players a team can bring back into the half they are defending, a limit on the number of players who can be between the 45s on kick outs, and a limit on the number of handpasses that a team can make consecutively are all at least worthy of consideration.
All of these options contain potential downsides, as well as holding the promise of redressing the current malaise – the devil will be in the detail.
Sports change rules all the time — sometimes the changes are big ones, and sometimes they are largely irrelevant. Sometimes the rule changes work and improve the game. On other occasions they are useless and are quietly dispensed with. This is natural and nothing to worry about — it is doing nothing that is really to be feared.
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