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Gaelic football is not perfect but there's still much to be admired

Fermanagh’s Eoin Donnelly is on the best high-fielders in Gaelic football, but he feels the introduction of the ‘mark’ would harm rather than help the game 

OVER the past few days, I’ve listened to Jarlath Burns and I’ve listened to Mickey Harte over whether the ‘mark’ would be good or bad for Gaelic football.

After 17 years in this job, you realise there are some people worth listening to and others not so much. Burns and Harte have always been worth listening to. On the issue of the mark, the pair couldn’t be more diametrically opposed.

Burns, the chairman of the playing rules committee that came up with the motion, will argue at this weekend’s congress in Carlow that high-fielding is a skill worth preserving. Harte’s counter-argument is the mark will do nothing of the sort and he wonders aloud why the skill of high-fielding should be the protected element of Gaelic football.

I suppose it depends on what angle you view the modern game from. Burns believes there is something wrong with Gaelic football and that it needs some kind of prescription. Harte believes Gaelic football is in good health and should be allowed to evolve naturally. ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ has never been more apt.

In Thursday’s Irish News, Burns said: “It’s not a coach’s job to produce a spectacle - their job is to win a game. It’s our job as legislators to try and make the game attractive to watch.”

It’s good practice for every sport to be under constant review. The playing rules that worked a treat in 1985 mightn’t be as effective in 2016. So intervention by a sporting body is occasionally required.

In the 1980s, soccer realised it had a problem. The game had become sterile. If a team scored a goal, it was relatively easy for them to protect their lead. Or worse, they could play for a scoreless draw.

The back-pass to the goalkeeper emerged as the biggest scourge in the game. Teams could pass the ball back to their goalkeeper as often as they wished. At that time, there was no rule that said the goalkeeper must release the ball after a certain period. As a consequence, soccer matches became disjointed and too defensive.
Rhythm could be easily stifled.

In 1992, the back-pass to the goalkeeper was banned. It was the best thing that ever happened to the game. Over time, the law change made both the defender and goalkeeper more skilled. Nowadays, part of a central defender’s desired skill-set is to be able to come out of defence with the ball and accept possession in tighter situations.

The profile of the goalkeeper has changed beyond recognition. They too must have good passing ability. Peter Schmeichel was the greatest goalkeeper Manchester United ever had, but he didn’t have good feet and actually struggled with the law change. Overall, the game of soccer was transformed by the banning of the back pass. But that’s not to say every rule change is effective. 

While Burns makes a persuasive case for the introduction of the ‘mark’, it still feels a premature move. In the late 1980s, soccer had reached a dead-end. Over several seasons, the game of soccer had become a poor spectacle. Therefore, intervention was required.

Gaelic football isn’t perfect (what game is?), but I don’t think it has reached a dead-end in the same way soccer did around 30 years ago. The game must be allowed to evolve naturally. Yes, 2015 wasn’t a vintage year for Gaelic football, but that doesn’t mean the game has reached a crisis point. We shouldn’t rush to the medicine cabinet at every whim.

In Friday’s Irish News, Fermanagh midfielder Eoin Donnelly explains why he’s against the introduction of the mark. Donnelly is one of the best high fielders in the country and, yet, he doesn’t believe the mark is the right way to go. He feels the middle of the field would become more crowded and it might lead to more cynical play to stop the tallest man on the pitch catching the ball.

Tactics and intelligence must be given its head before intervention. I recall Kieran McGeeney’s Kildare team in 2010 and how they managed to dominate the middle sector of the field in big Championship games. Good players helped, but tactics played a crucial role too.

At that time, Dermot Earley was one of the best fielders in the game. He was a Rolls Royce of a footballer. But he often resisted taking clean catches of his side’s kick-outs. Instead, he would bat the ball down to Eamonn O’Callaghan and Kildare’s attacks would be launched from there. It was clever and it was brilliant to watch.

That summer, Kildare had virtually perfected the breaking ball tactic. It was only when they ran into Down in the All-Ireland semi-final that O’Callaghan’s influence was stymied. Kevin McKernan picked up O’Callaghan and the Burren man scored a couple of smashing points to put Down well on their way to an All-Ireland final against Cork. That game didn’t need clean catches to be an excellent spectacle.

Of course, supporters of the mark would argue that this was before Jim McGuinness, over-crowded defences and the short kick-out strategy. The playing rules committee may well be right in their assessment. They might be onto something here. You can understand their intentions.

Maybe Mickey Harte and Eoin Donnelly are wrong. Maybe the mark is a good thing for Gaelic football. But the feeling is that it’s the wrong time to intervene in the evolution of Gaelic football.

Tactics and intelligence should be given their head. Gaelic football is not perfect, but there’s still much to be admired about the modern game.

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