CLUB championship season is upon us, and it is hard to feel excited. We go because we support our team. We go because we have always gone. It is a triumph of optimism over reality. The sweepers will kill the game. The teams will hold possession endlessly. They will work the ball forward and back and across to try to find a gap in the blanket defence. Yawn. The game has become boring and predictable. People are fed up with it. The new rules I am proposing will force it back to good health. Coaches and players will have no choice but to play positively and take risks. They are:
1. The ‘keeper cannot take a pass from an outfield player. Infringement: Penalty kick.
2. At adult level, the kick out must be kicked from the 14 metre line and must go beyond the 45 metre line. Infringement: 21 metre free kick.
3. Once the ball has gone over the half way line, it cannot be played back over it. Infringement: 21 metre free kick.
4. Zonal defending is prohibited inside the 40 metre exclusion zone. Infringement: 21 metre free kick.
These will immediately free the game, the skills, the entertainment, the contests, the unpredictability. Other suggestions are artificial and impossible to police. Take, for example the three handpass proposal. What happens if the fourth handpass puts the attacker through on goal? Or the idea that four attackers must stay in their attacking half. What happens if their man attacks up field? Or if a ball breaks off a forward and by the time he chases it down he has gone over the halfway line and there are only three attackers left inside the half?
With these four proposals, the basic principles I have applied are these:
1. Do not disrupt the natural flow of the game
2. Do not interfere with the skills of the game
3. Enforce contests
4. Enforce positive football
5. Ensure the maximum entertainment for players and spectators
6. Encourage a fast moving game
7. Disincentivise holding possession to slow down or kill the game
Rules 1,2 and 3 are very simple and easily enforced. Rule 4 (outlawing the sweeper) looks a little more complex, but it isn’t at all. It is merely that in the GAA, there is a tendency to be suspicious of anything that requires some thought. The next time you are at a game, try it for yourself. A quick glance and you will immediately spot the non man-marking sweeper/sweepers. You can see them a mile away. Try it. You will be surprised how easy it is.
Last Sunday I was at the Mayo league final between Castlebar Mitchells and Knockmore. For long periods very little happened. I watched the game through the prism of my rule change ideas.
Castlebar fell back and allowed Knockmore to kick the ball out short 100 per cent of the time. They did this so they could set up their defensive system with one and sometimes two sweepers blocking the central attacking column. So Knockmore’s goalie clipped it to his corner back and the slow, boring build up began. Then, when they reached the Castlebar defensive cordon, they were forced to work the ball left and right and back, with no option of hitting the dangerous inside forwards. Yawn.
With my rule 2, the ‘keeper would have been forced to kick the ball long, beyond the 45. There would be no point in Castlebar dropping back as they would have every chance of successfully contesting the long kick out and then mounting their own attack. With this rule change, 30-40 times in every game, the attack would commence between the 45s and every kick out would be a contest.
Crucially, with my rule 4, neither team could drop a sweeper or sweepers back to kill the attack. This has been the real game wrecker.
The reason I propose a 40 metre exclusion zone running in a semi-circle from the endline to its tip five metres inside the 45, is because a) it encourages attacking play b) it enforces man to man contests like the old days c) it makes it even easier for the officials to see a sweeper or sweepers. We have trialled it at my club and it looks great. At inter-county level, I have proposed that the two sideline officials (inter-county referees) instead be positioned one in each half to police the exclusion zone (they will see a zonal marker a mile away) and that two assistants can police the vexed issue of whether the ball has gone over the sideline.
The 40 metre exclusion zone creates room to attack. It will encourage outfielders to kick to the inside forwards quickly. Also, they can work the ball through with hard running defenders off the shoulder (like Mayo). The rule is that only man marking is permitted inside the 40 metre zone until the ball has gone in. Once it does, then the normal situation applies. By that stage, it is pointless to try to set up a sweeper or zonal defence. The rule will encourage, indeed enforce normal attacking football. The impassable central phalanx that every team now has will be banned. The skills will again be paramount, including the lost art of man to man marking.
With the rules as they stand, a manager cannot introduce an adventurous, attacking philosophy. He would not get through the interview process. The committee would rightly say this was optimistic nonsense. After Kerry were screwed by Tyrone’s heavy defensive system last year (turning them over 35 times in the game), they brought in Paddy Tally to create a central defensive phalanx just like… Tyrone. In this year’s final, Damien Comer had a sweeper in front of him at all times and didn’t even get a shot off. Awful muck. With my proposed rule changes, both Galway and Kerry would have been forced to man mark and we would have seen how good their players and teams really were. I suspect they are both very very good indeed, but like all modern football, we never got to find out.
Think about the four rules combined. The ‘keeper must kick long beyond the 45, so each team is incentivised to fight for it. Dropping back into a defensive shell will be outlawed so there is nothing else for it but to man mark. The ‘keeper cannot take a pass from an outfield player, so the opposing team is incentivised to push up and tackle man to man. A team can no longer kill the game by handpassing the ball back and forward using the goalie as the extra man.
Finally, once the ball has gone over the halfway line it cannot be sent back. This will enforce front foot football. Teams and players will have no choice but to go for it. Risk taking will become compulsory, instead of an absolutely last resort that will probably result in you being taken off and TV analysts showing how you let your team down by trying something imaginative.
Taken together, these four rules will create a game we used to know and love. For younger readers of this paper, that game was called Gaelic football.