By Frank Craig
SHAUN Patton admits there will be plenty of trepidation surrounding the GAA’s return to play – and it won’t all be Covid-19 based.
The GAA has confirmed that the new playing rule changes, implemented at the start of the year, are to remain in place.
Inter-county sides have some experience of the amendments. But clubs will have to learn on their feet having had no collective pre-season or even league to get their heads around them.
Some counties will go straight into their respective championships and that will, Donegal stopper Patton feels, place added pressure on the shoulders of both players and domestic referees across the country.
The St Eunan’s man already has experience of the likes of the sin-bin, the advanced mark and kick-outs, where the ball must travel 13 metres from the kick-out spot, not the 21-metre line.
But football’s new back-pass rule, only rubber-stamped at Congress back in early March, hasn’t yet been applied in any games.
This rule will prohibit a defender who receives a kick-out from passing it back to his goalkeeper.
The penalty proposed for a breach of this rule would be a free-kick awarded to the opposition from the position the goalkeeper receives the pass. If the goalkeeper is inside the 13-metre line when in receipt of the pass, the free will be from the 13-Metre line opposite where the foul occurs.
The corona pandemic means ‘keepers, even in training or in challenge match scenarios, haven’t yet seen it in practice. Patton anticipates plenty of turbulence when we finally get back under way at the tail end of next month.
“It’s a strange one,” he said. “Normally these rules are run out over the course of the county season before it really gets back to the clubs. Obviously, this year that’s all reversed.
“It’s going to have to get figured out through club football, which will be strange and quite new. Over the next few weeks, when everyone gets back training, we’ll be able to put these new rules into practice and hopefully we’ll figure it all out sooner rather than later.”
On the elimination of the option to go back to the goalkeeper with the ball, he added: “My opinion hasn’t changed. I don’t see it helping or benefiting the game in any shape or form.
“It’s a tough one. If a ‘keeper gives out a kick-out in a tight situation, all of a sudden the instinct of the full or corner-back is to give it back to him.
“That’s completely gone now. If it does happen it’ll be a free from a scoreable position. It’ll take an awful lot of getting used to. It’ll take a great deal of training to get a feel of it.
“You’re pulling that instinct out of defenders and with any rule change, that’s never a good thing, I feel, to do. Old habits die hard.
“Over the course of the last decade, the goalkeeper has become a lot more involved in the play. You do see ‘keepers demanding the ball back from a kick-out to attempt to add an extra attacking dimension. How is that not a good thing?
“But it has been taken out of the game now. I felt the addition of goalkeepers that wanted to join in the play was a positive thing. There is no doubt there will be confusion.”
It’s Tuesday, March 10, and Shaun Patton has been rolled out for Donegal press duties ahead of his side’s eagerly awaited NFL clash with Tyrone that coming Saturday in Ballybofey.
He fields various questions, mostly on the new playing rules and some, only some, on the growing concerns regarding Covid-19. Reflecting back, not for one second did he anticipate the bomb that was about to drop inside the next 24 hours.
“That day in Jackson’s Hotel… little did we know. The weather was picking up. All the talk that week, early on at least, was that we were looking at an Ulster Championship dress rehearsal.
“I was looking forward to it so much. I think we were finding a little form. And it was all set up for a really competitive night in Ballybofey.
“We’d kicked it up a gear against Monaghan the week before. It was that time of the season when you could feel things coming together.
“I left that press event and there was no way in the world I thought for a minute we were on the verge of what eventually would transpire with Covid 19.
“It’s something like 14 weeks later, and it’s such a different landscape now. It’s a different world. For a long time you were looking down the tunnel and there didn’t seem to be any light.
“Thankfully, in the last few weeks that has changed. It’s a lot more positive and it looks like we’re going to get some football this year.”
Patton, a Garda stationed in Navan, was only a few weeks out of Templemore when the seriousness of the pandemic and its global repercussions hit. That initial period was frantic and uncertain. But he admits that lockdown brought a strange degree of tranquilly to the nervousness and apprehension that a new officer would usually have to deal with.
“I’d three weeks done before it all really happened. The first fortnight or so was hectic. Navan, surprisingly, is a very busy place.
“I was running around trying to get to grips with my new surroundings and the job. All of a sudden, it was like a switch was flicked. There wasn’t a person kind to be seen in the town.
“Crime dropped massively. For such a scary time, we’re talking a global pandemic, I was kind of eased into it after that busy start.
“The restrictions have eased now and people are getting back out. It’s not completely back to normal but it is moving in the right direction.”
Goalkeeping distribution, much like free-taking, is a specialist skill. Patton says he has tried as best he can to replicate that environment in a bid to retain what has been a superb level of kicking over the last number of seasons with Tir Chonaill.
“We’ve a great backroom team. They’re in constant contact with information and different drills. But it’s not something that you can just leave for weeks and expect to pick up at the same level or standard months down the road. You have to constantly work at it.
“I’m living in an estate down here. I have three O’Neill’s footballs with me. I was out on the green and just kicking. I’d a bin at one end and I was trying to hit that. I’d one or two of my housemates out helping out. At times, people were looking out the window wondering what we were at!
“Sometimes I was on my own and I had to run after them. I probably looked like a lunatic! In the middle of lockdown, in the early parts, that was the only option for me. I was just booting the ball around myself.
“It’s a very hard thing to replicate. But even for the muscle groups, even just striking the ball; it will have kept those in sync. And even without the usual surroundings, when you hit a ball well you just know.
“It’s something that you just have to keep on top of as you will have to hit the ground running when we do get back.”
The extra respite means that Donegal will welcome a fit Paddy McGrath, Oisin Gallen, Jason McGee and Stephen McMenamin back into the fray. That’s some heavy artillery.
Strength in depth is crucial to success in Gaelic football but it will be more important than ever, Patton says, in what is surely going to be a congested and unique inter-county season.
“That’s one of the positives out of all of this for us. Some of the lads were unfortunate to pick up what were serious injuries last year. It’s going to be great to have all those lads back.
“I can guarantee they’ll all have done as much as they can to make sure they’re back and in contention.”
The two-time Ulster SFC winner says ticking over and trying to stay sharp has been as much a mental undertaking as it has been a physical one. But with return dates finally furnished now, Patton sees things being ramped up across the board.
“We’ve all been busting ourselves throughout the week with no real target. To have got that now, it’s brilliant. To know you’re back with your club at the end of next month is a massive boost mentally.
“For me, I’d have no problem running into two seasons. After what will be close to four months without nothing, we’ll all have a much better appreciation for what we do. It’s been such a miss.
“When behind closed doors was mentioned early on, you wondered if there was much point. But now, I’d play in front of a man and his dog. You only realise how big a part of your life it is when it stops.”
Donegal had lofty ambitions at the turn of the New Year and those haven’t changed. Patton feels his side is inching closer to making a serious dent in the latter stages of the All-Ireland.
“I think so, definitely. With the panel of lads there, they’re extremely driven and focused. They want to kick on. No one is there that doesn’t want to be involved on match day. It’s a fiercely competitive environment. It’s really encouraging.
“They’re not only good footballers – they’re really strong minded. That’s extremely important.
“Over the last number of years there is no doubt, as a unit, we’re closer and we’re improving. There’s that better understanding of what is expected of us and even what needs to be done.
“It’s exciting. But unfortunately the way things fell this year, it did interrupt that momentum. Every side will feel that but I do believe we were coming along nicely.
“So that’s the hope and aim now – to get back into that frame of mind as seamlessly as possible whenever we are back up and running.
“I do believe we will. Because it’s not a mindset you can just fabricate. I know it’s there and I know the aim of all those players is to go on and lift the Sam Maguire.
“I see so much quality and potential. And for us, it’s about realising that now.”
Paul Durcan’s name is brought up. And Patton is asked what he is learning from the legendary man mountain from the Four Masters. He is learning, but he is also keen to point out that Durcan remains part of the Donegal squad and is as motivated as ever to play.
“Obviously, everyone looks at ‘Papa’ and you’re talking about an absolute hero, a Donegal legend. Even having him alongside me, and ‘Farmer’ (Michael Lynch) too, it’s brilliant for us to have him there.
“We bounce off each other and he’s great with advice. You can only learn off him. He’s been there and done it. But he’s a competitor and he also wants to play.
“Some people think he’s now part of the staff… but Paul is in there and he is wanting to play. I’m wanting to keep him out and he wants to get back in. Between the three of us, that’s a great dynamic.
“You simply cannot rest on your laurels or take anything for granted. That’s the only way you improve. ‘Papa’ is a two-time All-Star. He’s won club and county All-Irelands. “He still has massive hunger to come in and play. You feel all that breathing down the back of your neck. But even with all that, he’s prepared to give advice and direction.
“It’s my third year in now. I’m determined to kick on and improve. And I know I have to. I’d love to build a legacy of my own some day.”