REFLECTIONS on the 2015 championships have been under-whelming to say the least. I mightn’t altogether agree with that downbeat assessment, but one has to take the majority view on board and debate what needs to change to improve matters.
It’s odd when the time, effort and dare I say, sacrifice of all involved - officials, management, back-room staff or players - was never higher that the product isn’t matching it. The demands on players is enormous - we’ve heard of players giving up work, changing jobs, not to mention curtailing social life - all in pursuit of a place on the starting 15 and an All-Ireland medal. We are told the bar keeps rising but the entertainment and enjoyment is not following suit.
If this were a business, we would be asking questions. Investment in a business has to bring results - otherwise the model changes and investment dries up or goes elsewhere. So what’s wrong with the GAA Championship? Well, there are two obvious reasons for the “mediocrity” of entertainment - first, there are too many one-sided games and the other is the style of football (perhaps hurling too).
Unless you are completely partisan and a bit of a sadist, there is little entertainment or enjoyment in seeing teams being hammered into the ground. We had far too many one-sided games and this is a shame as the losing team also will have met back in October, laying out a plan for the year, bringing in professional back-up staff etc.; all the things we hear all too often from the winning sides.
As things stand this is going to get worse, not better. Not only are the “weaker” counties limited by small populations but they also can’t attract the sponsorship and resources needed to match the Dublins and Kerrys of this world. Success begets success and failure begets failure. Because of these reasons many counties are falling further behind despite their best efforts and the trend is set to continue unless they are given more resources and above all, hope.
For three years now, I have offered a solution to this lopsidedness. We need two championships at All-Ireland level. If counties want to play (and they do) in the provincial championship, let them but after that have two tiers - a Sam Maguire for the top 16 and say, a Páidí Ó Sé or Tommy Murphy Cup for the remaining 17 (London and New York minus Kilkenny).
Marketing and promotion is crucial here for the ‘Páidí Ó Sé Cup’ but the best marketing and promotion is simple - play the final either on the same day as the All-Ireland Final or as part of the All-Ireland semi-final bill. It would work and former greats like Dara Ó Cinnéide, Jim McGuinness, Joe Brolly agree.
That would help the competition aspect. What about the game itself? In recent years a whole new lexicon has emerged about swarming, sweeping, spilling and of course like the old 70s song “every man will stand behind, the man behind the ball.” Some people blame Jim McGuinness for all of this. Is he really to blame? Jim merely looked at the rules and said “How do we play within the scope of these rules to win an All-Ireland?” And he did. Was it pretty? Perhaps not, but...
So can we now change the rules to make what we desire more rewarding. High-fielding, long accurate kicking and sporting play should be rewarded. We should look at our rules and see how this can be achieved and act accordingly. If Jim McGuinness had a different set of rules, he would come up with a different plan. The GAA needs to seriously analyse the way the game has gone and change the rules to make it more attractive and rewarding.
To play offensively rather than defensively, to kick rather than hand-pass, to catch rather than break. Then we’d have a hugely entertaining game far more often.
We also need to look at the card system. We have made life very difficult - near impossible indeed - for referees with yellow, red and now black cards.
Having said that, the refereeing this year was very good overall considering the difficulties and pressures they are under. We need to look again at the sin bin. It works in rugby, it works in Ladies Football, why wouldn’t it work in Gaelic Football? It would be fairer, easier to understand and take some pressure off referees. I regret very much that when I was Uachtarán, we didn’t persevere more with the sin bin experiment. It’s time to go at it again.
Two other points on refereeing; It’s time to completely ban interference with referees, especially the plámásy carry-on of players putting their hands on the referees shoulder when he is speaking or booking them. This should be an immediate red card offence. It’s a subtle form of undermining the referee. Ban it. Lay a hand on the referee and you’re off.
The other interference is verbal. On the field of play, the referee has to make a judgement call himself but the most sinister type usually takes place where players, manager and officials fire broad-sides at the referee, often in the anonymity of the tunnel. One solution is to ensure referee does not exit the field at the same time as the players and where possible, his dressing room should be in a different part of the ground altogether. This certainly could be done in Croke Park and other major grounds.
One other rule we need to look at is the penalty. The penalty is really meant as an award when a real goal chance is prevented by fouling. It’s always a big call and not easy for a referee to get right.
The Munster Final penalty to Kerry in Killarney almost certainly cost Cork the game and was a very dubious one at that. But I think we should re-look at the penalty rule - i.e. was there a foul on a player who was about to score a goal or not? If yes, a penalty; if not, maybe a 14-yard free.
Referees, too, need to know they have the backing of officialdom and in fairness, they nearly always do.
That’s why the decision to let Diarmuid Connolly off by the DRA was so baffling. Quite clearly, the referee was right to issue a red card. Connolly did not serve his match suspension on grounds most people - including one of the three panel members - find difficult to understand.
As Uachtarán when the whole new disciplinary system was introduced, this decision baffles me also. But, having said that, the disciplinary system introduced 10 years ago has worked really well and the DRA, per se, has been a shining success. So one decision doesn’t spoil a system. Nevertheless, the GAA will have to take this decision on board and deal with its consequences.
Are we going back to players getting off on technicalities? Are we embedding in our ethos that some players are more equal than others, some indeed “elite”? And if the time constraints are such that six days is not enough time for “due process” to be afforded a player, can we not fix replays or any other games for successive weeks anymore?
This is actually a very serious complication. So, I hope the GAA takes this on board and issues solutions to the dilemmas posed by Connollygate.
Meanwhile, onto Mayo. After the All-Ireland this year I tweeted “Mayo won the All-Ireland for Kerry in 2014, Mayo won the All-Ireland for Dublin in 2015. Who will they win it for in 2016? Themselves?”
The point being that the replays in 2014 and 2015 against Mayo were crucial for Kerry and Dublin in their All-Ireland wins. So what for 2016?
Well, Mayo will have new management. While I hate to see managers being forced out, especially after one year and in this instance where they lost to the champions after a replay, are Mayo players creating a rod to beat their own backs?
I don’t think so. It’s the calculated action of a group of players who have been frustratingly close to Heaven’s Gate but never got beyond it.
It’s obvious now this group of players realise that time is running out.
If they don’t win in a year or two they could be back to square one.
They obviously haven’t lost the ambition, their actions in ousting their management team shows that.
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