Everywhere I turn recently, somebody somewhere is prescribing the antidote for the terminal ills of gaelic football. But I’m not so sure the sickness is as widespread and as life-threatening as has been suggested, writes Michael Quirke.
Surely anybody watching Cork’s performance against Kerry on Sunday would be hard pressed to find anything negative to say about the game, apart from Kerry’s disintegration in the second half. The first 35 minutes had it all from both teams. Long kicking, high fielding, hard tackling and plenty of skelping. This game mattered, but particularly to Cork. They were demoralised in the Munster final on home soil last year with silverware up for grabs, and those scars stay with you until such time as you get to exact some measure of revenge. It was rip-roaring stuff from the Rebels that saw Kerry clinging on by their finger nails until the break. After that, the loss of Anthony Maher - who was turning into the game’s dominant player - was a fatal blow and Kerry were unable to stay with the energy and dynamism that Cork were displaying.
Scary stuff from a Kerry point of view, but we’ve been here before. It is only March.
I was in the Mallow GAA complex for a function before Christmas and Pat Flanagan had the Cork boys working hard collectively the same night. Around then, the Kerry lads were still sipping champagne and posing for photographs with Sam Maguire. Training was not high on their agenda, and rightly so. And that was long before sampling the hospitalities of the various South African vineyards that Cape Town had to offer in January.
Cork, as you would expect, are a lot further down the line so far this year and it showed in their fitness, energy, organisation and understanding. Kerry couldn’t match that level of intensity after expending so much from an alre ady half-full tank to beat Dublin the previous week. The fuel light was on early, but Jaffa cakes and Lucozade sport at half time can’t give you the type of training the Cork boys had in their legs.
Neither team played over-defensively. Cork at times dropped Michael Shields in front of Donaghy, but for the most part, both teams tried to play straight up man for man. Colm O’Neill - who is an impeccable footballer - and Brian Hurley made Kerry look like they were running in mud. But for me, Cork’s dominance started further out the field where I thought Mark Collins was the most influential performer, playing as an uninhibited centre forward. He was given the freedom of the pitch and he exploited every last inch of it. He, along with the pace and incessant attacking of Jamie Sullivan down the wing, were the catalysts that sparked their explosion into life in the first quarter and he continued his accurate kick passing and high IQ play all afternoon. Nothing flashy, but efficient. He reminded me a lot of the under-rated Paddy Kelly in his prime.
As the game petered out to its inevitable conclusion, I wondered why this contest had been so entertaining (for at least a half) and why exactly the arm-wrestle between Dublin and Tyrone the previous night was so dour.
How could you see such a contrast in the entertainment value and consistent long foot passing within 24 hours by four top teams? And therein I found my antidote.
Instead of going down the route of restricting the number of hand passes before a team must kick, we have to take a real look at why teams aren’t kicking the ball. Tyrone played on Saturday night for spells with 13 behind the ball and at times all of them were inside their own defensive 45. It was like Times Square on New Year’s Eve back there. Why would you kick a ball into that? If we are looking to introduce a rule that will effect real change and promote kick passing, then the solution is to restrict the number of players that can enter their own defensive 65 unless their direct opponent is there also.
That means, half forwards or full forwards cannot drift back to occupy space and set up a zone unless their man makes a run down there. An additional referee would be responsible for monitoring the numbers and communicating with the players. Let’s say only 9 players (eg. 6 backs, 2 midfielders and a forward) are allowed inside their own defensive ‘65’. The players can rotate who goes back, but only nine are allowed at any one time, unless tracking a runner. My logic is that it would leave huge space for forwards to run into and make it far more advantageous for a team to kick the ball.
If they look at it again, and are serious about implementing change, I would encourage people to stop trying to think of ways to force guys into kicking the ball, and let’s really examine the reason they are not kicking it. Restrict the number of bodies back there and give forwards a chance to make a run and we’ll see plenty foot-passing.
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