Brendan O’Brien


Football rule changes will take the game backwards not forward

You can’t say that the GAA isn’t on trend, writes Brendan O’Brien

Football rule changes will take the game backwards not forward

Donald Trump has given us ‘Make America Great Again’. In Britain, those pushing the lunacy that is Brexit lean more and more on the legend of a proud and stubborn island nation standing up, and putting it up, to Johnny Foreigner for time immemorial. Both are twisted fallacies built on sepia-tinted versions of distorted histories.

The plans to shake up Gaelic football announced this week fall neatly into that category.

It’s been argued in this column before that one of the main problems with Gaelic football is the insistence on harking back to what too many perceive to have been a glorious history of clean catching and cleaner kicking. To a game of 15-on-15 that was undeniably simpler and, it must be conceded, more appealing to the heart and gut than today’s considered theatre.

What the proposed rule changes revealed in recent days tell us is that the standing playing rules committee — and many of the people they canvassed for opinions — is wedded to the very same nostalgia.

Brian Cuthbert, a member of the committee and a former Cork manager, said as much when speaking to this newspaper’s Gaelic games correspondent John Fogarty.

“Some people at the coalface of Gaelic football have thought hugely about how you can play the game as it was played in the past and like in many other sports, not just Gaelic football, defences become paramount. Because of that, the game as a spectacle has suffered and you can’t argue with that.”

The italics for emphasis are ours, not Cuthbert’s.

It’s one thing to reminisce about the days of night trains to Dublin and the smell of Woodbines on the terraces but what does it say about a sport when the starting point for changes designed to move it on as a spectacle are harvested in an era that is, at the most liberal of estimations, a good 15 to 20 years dead and gone?

Very few people would argue the game does not need some help right now but the introduction of sweeping changes that include the ‘attacking mark’, the restriction on handpasses and the curbing of short kickouts amounts to a needlessly heavy legislative hand rather than the sort of light touch that could make a far more fundamental difference.

Rugby has probably made more rule changes than any other major sport and yet the process is never ending. Compare that with soccer which decreed that goalkeepers could no longer pick up a pass from teammates in the 1990s: that one tweak revolutionised the global game. Surely the GAA can and should strive for something similar?

Cuthbert said this week the five proposed changes should not be viewed in isolation, rather as a suite of furniture they intend to move into the premises en bloc. Has any field sport ever faced such a profound shift to its DNA overnight? And all with the regressive principle that is to return it to a bastardised version of the game played decades ago.

Dozens and dozens of alternatives have already been suggested on various media platforms this week.

Here’s one: how about a rule stating that a number of players must remain in the opposition half at all times? Simple to comprehend and easy to officiate, it could combat blanket defences by changing a light bulb rather than rewiring the entire house.

“I am gobsmacked by the new rules,” Carlow manager Turlough O’Brien told Sky Sports.

I’m stunned at the number of rules they’re putting forward, for a start, and that some of them are so unrealistic. I can’t understand why they’ve done it. They’re saying, ‘you’ve got to play a certain way, and the way is simple; 1940s, catch and kick and wear your flat cap’.

“I think the game today, there are issues but none of these are dealing with it. I mean, the biggest issue in the game for me is the tackle and there’s no mention of it anywhere. They haven’t addressed it. As a result, we end up with all of these controversial black cards.”

Gaelic football has suffered inordinately through the constant comparisons with hurling when it has followed paths similar to soccer, rugby, AFL, and hockey. Possession and patience has become par for the course in all those games, too.

Hurling, with its pace and its frenetic pulse, is very much the outlier in modern team sports, although it too has flirted with more considered strategies.

Just as frustrating as this insistence on turning back the clock is the alacrity and manner in which the GAA intends to railroad these ideas through. O’Brien was incredulous that the national league has again been deemed the best breeding ground for the planting of these new spores and it’s a question to which we have no logical answer.

Why is the second-most important competition in the country treated with such casual disdain?

Why are the January competitions not the designated laboratories for these groundbreaking alterations?

Or the third-level colleges scene? Would it not be better to hold hothouse trials with teams brought together for this expressed purpose? To tread softly with these big ideas?

The 1950s or 1980s aren’t going anywhere. If that’s what we want to recreate, what’s the big rush?


Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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