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Colm Cavanagh: Constantly tweaking rules only leads to frustration for fans and more work for referees

The Armagh v Monaghan match was one of the most open, free-flowing games of football we have seen in the Championship in a very long time and I don’t think any of that can be attributed to any rule changes but rather changes in the mindset of coaches and management to play a different style of football, to let attack be the best form of defence Picture: Philip Walsh.
Paul McConville

NAME me a sporting body that changes and tweaks rules more often than the GAA? It is difficult to keep up to date with the rules as a player, never mind as a supporter of our games so we can't be too critical of referees when they have to keep up with a constantly changing and adapting rulebook.

Yes, our game as a whole was being played very defensively but every county played the same style of football, as much as the purists of Dublin and Kerry would have you believe that ‘puke Ulster football' was ruining the game. You freeze the screen on the majority of games involving Dublin or any other team and I can guarantee that the defence is packed and the majority of the players are in one half of the field. It was getting frustrating for the supporters to watch, I understand that, but I don't understand how constantly changing the rules is going to help change the attitude of the coaches at the most basic level.

Take the forward mark for example, I assume that this has been brought in to try to move teams away from defensive play but in reality, it has proven to be a disadvantage to the defender and is only slowing the game down. It is a dream rule for a forward who can catch a high ball or run onto catch a long pass. If teams can work the distances out correctly and practice their foot-passing skills, then forwards never need to take on or go around a defender. If they can catch the ball cleanly, they just have to raise their arm and take the free in.

As a supporter, seeing a forward or half forward catching a ball and taking on a defender is one of the most exciting aspects of the game, the side-step or dummy to throw the defender off and then the progression towards goal – that can all be avoided now by calling a mark. For referees to try and police the forward mark is bound to be a nightmare. They are expected to keep up with the play, see where the ball has been kicked from, how far the ball has travelled and also keep an eye for any holding or foul play going on inside. They would quite literally need eyes on the back of their head.

I can see that the GAA are trying to encourage forward play and move away from so many hand-passes but I just don't see how this rule will change that for the better. Take the Armagh v Monaghan match a few weeks ago. This was one of the most open, free-flowing games of football we have seen in the Championship, not just Ulster, in a very long time.

I don't think any of that can be attributed to any rule changes but rather changes in the mindset of coaches and management to play a different style of football, to let attack be the best form of defence and to just go for it. The majority of the scores in the game were from open play and it was a treat to watch for all supporters of the game.

Another change which I can't quite justify the existence of is the new rule around penalties and what determines a penalty from either inside or outside the box. If a list of criteria is met then a penalty can be given even if the foul was conceded outside the box. My assumption is that this is to try to rule out cynical play (an advancement of the black card perhaps, but the less I say about it the better).

My issue with this is the inconsistent way in which it is implemented in the game and the difficulties it causes the referee when making their decision. Umpires should have a clear opinion on the goings-on in and around the square but the pressure is on the referee to make the call and what one referee would consider a clear goalscoring opportunity might not be the same as the next referee and therein lies the issue.

In my opinion, if the referee has played football themselves at any level then their judgement of what is determined to be a clear-cut chance would be different to someone who has never played the game. When Tyrone conceded the penalty against Donegal, there was no doubt that Rory Brennan had pulled Ciaran Thompson back and it was a foul, however, my issue was that I didn't consider it a clear goalscoring opportunity. Michael McKernan had made his way back and to me the Donegal player's body language made it look like he was more likely take a point rather than go for goal.

Had Michael Murphy scored that penalty and put Donegal five points up, then the game would have been very different and the penalty would have been a huge talking point. Instead we talk about how the penalty was missed rather than how or why it was given and because Tyrone went on to win, it has barely been discussed.

So far the Championship has thrown up some poor, very one-sided games and some absolutely brilliant battles, for me changing the rules continuously won't change this. It won't better our game and I think it only adds confusion and difficulty for the referees and frustration for the supporters.

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