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John McEntee: Kickouts rule change seems pointless

High fielding and contesting midfield possession is undoubtedly a great skill – but do the rules really need changed again to encourage it? Picture by Philip Walsh

ANOTHER rule change for change’s sake. That was my first impression when I saw that Special Congress had passed Motion 21 on football kickouts.

Kickouts must now travel beyond the 20m line before being played by another player of the defending team. The punishment for a breach of this rule will be a throw-ball on the 20m line.

The Standing Committee on Playing Rules is chaired by an Armagh man – Jarlath Burns – who I hold in very high regard, with a membership comprising past players in hurling and football, past managers and some Croke Park officials.

I have no doubt that these people take their role very seriously and every motion they put forward is done with much thought, so I am in no way casting aspersions on their integrity.

That said, I can’t help but think that their own experiences and thoughts on how they want the game played prejudices their decision-making.

Let me state it plainly: A ‘catching’ midfielder will always want a goalie to kick the ball out. Fetching in the air is his strength. More and more short kickouts risk sounding the death knell for the ‘big’ midfielder.

Last Saturday’s change was well flagged up.

As far back as January 2017, Jarlath referred to the anomaly in the rule governing the kickout. Under the old rule, all players needed to be outside the 20m line when the kickout was taken, and the kick needed to travel 13 metres, but the ball could still be received inside the 20m line.

While the committee may have felt they were addressing something that needed addressing, there was no public outcry at the kickout strategies on view this season.

We all had a chuckle when Kerry’s Brian Kelly kicked the ball over his own endline from a kickout in the All-Ireland semi-final replay, and felt young Ben McKinless’s pain as his excellent performance for Derry against Mayo turned sour as a result of a quick kickout gone wrong.

But kickouts – and the need to ‘fix them – wasn’t the burning topic of the summer.

If the rule committee comprised past players who were defenders or goalkeepers I wonder if they would have looked on the wording of the old rule as leaving open a loophole.

Taking short kickouts under pressure and working the ball from deep in defence to achieve a score at the opposite end requires high levels of concentration and many skills.

It is no less skilful than the fetching executed by midfielders.

It is my sense that the midfielder has become more relevant that in any time during the past 10 years.

Surely the mark has changed how teams approached each kickout. As I watched each game this season it struck me that teams are now pushing up on their opposing kickouts and that increasingly the goalie is looking at pockets of space beyond the 45m line to secure possession in an offensive position.

Only the weaker teams, the copycat teams, are persevering with short kickouts and with the failed defensive strategy of uncontested kickouts.

Stephen Cluxton is characterised as being an exponent of the short kickout. If anyone was watching the Tyrone or Mayo games it was obvious that his first instinct was to go long.

Only when the options were closed did he chip to his corner-back. There is nothing wrong with encouraging teams to retain possession from stops in play.

I do not know of any other field game which actively discourages possession from a restart purely for entertainment purposes.

Hurling was the main focus of this Special Congress – not football.

Why then were there motions such as the one changing the kickout hidden among the big ticket hurling items?

If they wanted to tinker at the rules then now was the time to propose rules preventing players from carrying out actions which bring them and our Association into disrepute.

Surely it would have been appropriate to introduce more stringent and frequent drug-testing given the adverse publicity attracted by the GAA in 2017. The GAA’s reluctance to address performance enhancing drugs is affecting the sport’s credibility.

Surely this was a prime opportunity to address the barefaced cynicism observed by millions of viewers in the dying minutes of the All-Ireland final – although a consistent application of the rules that exist by the referee would be a first step.

Preventing primary possession was the aim of the Dublin forwards.

If someone pulled a jersey or checked a run during open play the referee would issue a free kick from the site of the offence and might even issue a yellow or black card.

There is no justification for not applying this rule as the ’keeper sets up for a kickout.

Have we really got all the rules and their application so well sorted that we are tinkering around the edges of rules which are actually working in practice?

The goalie who is skilled at quick kickouts is being made redundant. The defensive plans in which players create pockets of space for others to capitalise on are consigned to the dustbin.

Special Congress provides opportunities to address the big issues. Make them your focus.

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