Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Cynical fouling will become a thing of the past after the new black card was introduced at this year's GAA Congress

Cynical fouling will become a thing of the past after the new black card was introduced at this year’s GAA Congress

IT makes me laugh when critics of the new disciplinary rules for Gaelic football suggest the current rules should just be implemented instead. Unsurprisingly a lot of those critical voices came from Tryone, including manager Mickey Harte, which is a bit rich considering his teams have turned strategic fouling into an art form over the last decade.

And because of Tyrone’s success, other teams have aped their style. Yellow cards have become meaningless because they carry little consequence. Continuing to implement the current rules wouldn’t have altered that fact.

Instead of upgrading yellow cards and making them a meaningful punishment a la rugby’s sin-bin the Football Review Committee came up with the new black card system. The GAA is always loathe to do anything that might look like it is borrowed from another sport.

Yet the reality is that football teams have been borrowing elements of other games for a long time. In basketball, strategic fouling is part of the game. You foul to stop the clock and get the ball back. It actually makes the game more interesting because players and managers have to make calculated decisions. Gaelic football managers realised a long time ago that they could capitalise on the inadequacies of the game’s disciplinary procedures. A deliberate foul wouldn’t necessarily give them the ball back but it would give them a better chance to win it back by slowing the game and allowing them time to get their players back into defence, especially if they had just lost possession on an attack. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of approach per se but there should be a price to pay for it. Under the current setup, the team that acts outside the rules gains an advantage from doing so. If you incentivise something you give people all the encouragement they need.

The new punishment won’t eradicate cynical fouling from the game. If you’re a point ahead with seconds remaining and a man is breaking through the middle, you’ll gladly pull him down. If the GAA had opted, as was one of the early suggestions, to award a 13-metre free in front of the posts for such an offence then you might start to change the game. The game is decided by scores ultimately so a guaranteed score would act as a massive deterrent. How many times have we seen a side with 14 men win? Too often a red card isn’t punitive enough so how radical is the black card really?

By and large the new rules are a positive development for Gaelic football. They will encourage more positive football but only because they are coming down heavier on the negative stuff. There should be incentives as well as deterrents. How about four points for a goal or two points for a 45? How about three points for a score from outside the 45 or from a sideline kick? If a cynical foul automatically resulted in a score for the opposition, we’d encourage better defensive play too.

Right now Gaelic football is being played at the highest standard it has ever been played at. The players are faster, stronger, fitter and the skill levels have to be higher as a consequence but the GAA faces a more fundamental question about Gaelic football. What kind of game does it want it to be?

Players, managers and supporters all want different things. The Football Review Committee has only succeeded in telling us what people don’t want to see. Personally I want to see a game that values skills more than strategy. I want a game that is about the football more than fitness. I want a game that is played with the feet more than the hands. But that’s only my view.

It seems to me that those in charge of our games aren’t sure what Gaelic football is or what they want it to be. Inter-county teams, led by their vocal and influential managers, have taken charge of it in the absence of authority. Some of their initiatives and innovations have been good like the increased workrate and intensity demanded of players but plenty have been bad, not least the prevalence of cynical play. If you ask them their opinions of Gaelic football, you’ll only get answers that serve their interests.

That’s why there are those who favour the current system like Mickey Harte but the game is not for him to decide. It is for all of us and it’s about time the GAA decided, for better or worse, what Gaelic football should aspire to be.

Lots to learn from Tyrone defeat

SUNDAY’S result against Tyrone was more reminiscent of the kind of returns Kildare were making during Kieran McGeeney’s first year in charge.

On a dirty night in Omagh his first league game in charge against Tyrone finished level thanks to a late goal from Padraig Mullarkey. Those that travelled north were far from enthused by the league point gained that night. To score just 1-4 was the real cause for concern while Tyrone kept us in contention with a string of wides.

Thankfully the team has been transformed since 2008 but scoring has been a problem that’s dogged nearly every Kildare team. Where McGeeney has really succeeded with his attack is the team’s ability to create chances. It’s only this year, with Seanie Johnston fully fit, that he has had a poacher to play inside and it was only two years ago that he made a target man out of Tomas O’Connor. In the meantime he has created a side that attack at every opportunity because deep down they know they have to create more chances than the opposition. We have not earned a reputation as a team of high-percentage shooters.

Unsurprisingly the partnership of O’Connor and Johnston has been the most productive so far this year and the decision to tinker with it on Sunday came at a cost. Having Alan Smith and Johnston close to goal in the first half made little sense while Ronan Sweeney was left to fend for himself rather than being used as a direct replacement for O’Connor. Those tactical mistakes were part of the reason the team found it so difficult to create chances in the first half.

It has also been telling this year that whenever McGeeney has rested the under-21 players from his attack, it seems to flounder. The likes of Niall Kelly, Paddy Brophy and Daniel Flynn bring an energy to proceedings that is sorely missed when they’re absent. When Paul Cribbin was unleashed from the bench on Sunday he brought that energy with him. He also scored three points in one half, which is an amazing return when you consider Kildare only scored 1-4 on that Saturday night five years ago in Omagh.

Kildare are radically different now and if McGeeney favours his younger players for the championship, Tyrone will meet a radically different force should they clash again later this summer.

A complete display

IN the search for words to describe the Kildare under-21 display against Laois there was one that kept coming to mind: complete.

The fact that Laois ended up with seven points on the board was an injustice to the quality of Kildare’s defence. Apart from some questionable frees in the first half, the only scores that the Lilies would have conceded were pot-shots that Laois were forced to attempt from difficult positions. You could nearly say that Laois were a little lucky to get any score.

It wasn’t just a mismatch on Wednesday night, it was like watching a senior team dismantle a minor side. Aside from the fact that two-thirds of the Kildare starting 15 have senior experience, they were playing a much more sophisticated game than their opponents. The pace and movement involved in the lead up to Fergal Conway’s goal was breathtaking while Daniel Flynn’s solo effort was my personal highlight of the night. It was as good a goal as you will see this year at any level.

We are overdue some success at underage level after watching too many promising minor sides fail to blossom at under-21 level. Now that this current group have built up a head of steam, I find it very hard to see anyone beating them in the final, even a Longford side who shocked everyone by beating Dublin. Apart from the talent and experience in this Kildare team, they have a will to succeed that is frightening.

With every passing minute of their Leinster semi-final they became more and more powerful and they leave the impression that with each game they play, they become closer to an unstoppable force.

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The GAA faces a more fundamental question about Gaelic football. What kind of game does it want it to be?"

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