Sport

Danny Hughes: On-pitch violence and rule changes are the GAA's two big issues

Violent scenes like these during last year's Armagh SFC clash between Crossmaglen and Maghery have become more commonplace in Ulster GAA in the past year and will probably continue until the authorities issue strict sanctions for teams involved Picture by Bill Smyth

I WAS in two minds as to what to address this week. Two very relevant issues are a constant in football at the minute. The first is football rule changes and last week’s proposals announced by the Standing Committee on the Playing Rules.

The second is the violence, which has come to the fore in many counties’ League and Championship matches up and down the country.

Rules

THE rule changes have a number of strategic goals in mind. To make the game more attractive to the supporters, attempting to promote kicking the ball and somehow come up with a rule to render defensive systems ineffectual.

Whether you care or not, defending is a skill in itself. Mass defending, however, is a blight.

The one v one defensive skill is being slowly lost via a combination of poor refereeing interpretations of the tackle and the mass defensive unit which means that you mark space as opposed to making a tackle.

I watched two minor matches over the weekend, my own club Saval beating an amalgamated team from the Mournes in a minor ‘B’ final.

Both teams played with freedom and as a contest, it was as pure a game as I have witnessed in recent times.

The game afterwards pitted Newry Shamrocks against Rostrevor in the ‘A’ final, with the Newry men eventually winning by a goal in a brilliant spectacle.

All four teams played the game without the restrictions of sweepers and men behind the ball.

For many of the players on show, the future of their game on current trends will no longer be played with the abandonment of underage football.

So does changing the rules in football somehow counteract the influence of coaches and innovations in footballing style?

These styles tend only to be introduced after players leave minor grade in many instances.

I am not so sure that the football rules are the problem here, rather it is the coaches and managers’ philosophy and playing style which has brought about such negativity in our game.

In soccer, for example, Pep Guardiola is lauded for ‘total football’. His philosophy involves playing out from the back and attacking teams.

As we are well aware in this part of the island, changing a mindset is not easy, especially that of a coach or manager who thinks they know better.

For me, the rule changes proposed resemble something introduced into a hybrid game like the International Rules code.

I can only see merit in some of the proposed rule changes and, of course, I have a few suggestions myself.

The introduction of a mark inside the 20-metre line from a ball kicked outside the 45-metre line can be policed at club and county level by an official as best as possible.

This rule would also accommodate the option to ‘play on’ from a particular play with the officials’ discretion here being the best option. For me, none of the other proposed rules are worthy of support.

Restricting the use of the hand-pass is counter-productive to the flow of the game and will result in some great moves breaking down and an over-worked official.

The sin-bin? Was the black-card not the compromise here? I see no reason for a sin-bin rule.

I hate the idea of zonal areas for kick-outs and restricting players to certain areas, because it is just too hard to police at club and county level.

Ensuring kick-outs go outside the 20-metre line was already introduced as a compromise.

Two potential proposals which I feel may have merit if we are seeking opinion are as follows:

l Increasing the amount of steps an individual can take before opting to solo the ball from four steps to seven.

This will potentially help to promote attacking play and, before an individual becomes wrapped up between two or three defenders, he/she will have seven steps to get out of ‘trouble’.

And let’s face it, the four steps is a rule very much open to interpretation.

l When a team crosses the half-way line into an ‘attacking’ area, the team in possession cannot carry the ball backwards into their own half of the field – akin to ‘basketball’.

This one rule is contentious as it could cause a basketball zonal defensive set-up, however, it will also promote kicking of the ball quicker into offensive positions when attacking before teams can ‘set up’.

Defending zonally in your own half is happening anyway with 15 players. A combination of the ‘mark’ inside the 20-metre area as proposed by the committee with the two above rules could improve the game as a ‘spectacle’.

My frustration, I suspect like many others, is the absence of well-known and respected football persons on the Standing Committee on the Playing Rules.

For this very reason, I suspect that the discussions around rule changes will have few supporters and, even more likely, will not receive even enough support to trial at national level.

Violence

OVER the last few weeks, more and more footage of melees and the outbreak of fighting on and off the football field has brought the game into disrepute.

It is noted that these same issues are not nearly as prevalent in hurling, but that is by the by.

I recall my father telling me of Saval, my own club, and Clonduff being thrown out of the Down club championship in 1982 after a rather unsavoury incident involving players and supporters.

Saval felt particularly aggrieved, having reached their only senior club final in 1981, beaten in extra-time in a replay by Burren.

That particular team started to fade away after 1982 and the opportunity to avenge the ’81 defeat never materialised.

While there was no footage of the incidents in those days, it appears now that many supporters with modern technology can access footage and are openly posting this on social media.

County boards now have no excuse in not taking appropriate action as the footage is usually clearly available.

The only deterrent in instances when players are attacking each other or referees or where there is open fighting among supporters is throwing teams out of championships, relegating teams involved and ensuring that the penalties are so heavy that instances like these do not happen. That is the only viable solution.

Turning a blind eye is not enough and it is my fear that, God forbid, the GAA and county boards will continue to bury their heads in the sand until there is a ‘one-punch’ fatality.

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