I AM still recovering from the sing song at Knockmore GAA club. Michael English on the piano makes everyone sound good, even the glamorous brunette, who is the only woman I know who can see in three keys simultaneously. If the club was bouncing to ‘Courtin in the Kitchen’ it went to a whole new level when Anthony Finnerty took the mic. Every Mayo footballer has a sad story.
Earlier in the evening, I introduced Pat Holmes to my sons. He told them about the 1996 All-Ireland final. Pat was wing back. Mayo were beating Meath by a point with time up. Colm Coyle miskicked a shot, it bounced on the 14 and went over the bar. Meath won the replay by a point. In the second half of the 1989 final against Cork, Finnerty, aka Laughing Larry, scored a goal to put Mayo a point up, and in pole position to win the game against a nervy Cork team who had lost the previous two finals. Five minutes later, Noel Durcan put a great pass through to Finnerty leaving him one on one with the keeper to win the game. He drove it wide.
If Mayo football is a symphony of sorrowful songs, Laughing Larry isn’t. He started with Little Ole Wine Drinking me, ending on his hands and knees, weeping. The place erupted. He followed up with Big Bad John, the single funniest two minutes I have ever had in my life. When he stood on the piano and held up the roof of the clubhouse before sagging to the ground and dying on the floor, I thought Bernie Flynn and Pat Gilroy would need an ambulance.
Spending a night in the company of Tomás Ó Sé, Bernie, there’s only one Kieran McKeever, Gilroy, Noel Connelly, Holmes, Enda Gormley and all the rest, it was hard not to think of how unentertaining the game has become. The day before this year’s final, I addressed the world GAA delegates at Abbotstown in Dublin. The Uachtaráin Larry McCarthy was there and afterwards, the Q&A was dominated by how unattractive the game has become as a spectacle, as delegate after delegate wondered how it had gotten so bad and what could be done to restore it.
The core problem is that the GAA has missed the point. They appointed a Rules Review Body which spent three years and came up with a) the mark (to encourage high catching and long kicking, which does neither) and that when an outfield player takes possession of the kick out, he can’t pass it directly back to the ‘keeper but has to pass it to his mate first who can then pass it back to the ‘keeper. Three years.
Because the GAA have left a vacuum, the way the game is played is now determined by the coaches. Killing the game. Short kick outs, then playing donkey with the opposing forwards. Packing the defence. Playing a sweeper to kill attacking play. Using the goalkeeper as an outfield player to try to overcome the sweeper problem by creating an overlap. So, the ball is thrown in, and we can chat among ourselves until something happens.
The point, which has been entirely overlooked by the GAA, is that the game is first and foremost about entertainment. For the players, the spectators, the wider audience. To promote entertainment, the rules need to promote contests. Basketball was stuck in a rut of defensive play, killing the game, holding possession and general boredom until the NBA revolutionised it by taking it away from the coaches and enforcing rules that made risk taking and contests compulsory. We must do the same.
Four basic rules will achieve this:
1. The ‘keeper cannot take a pass from an outfield player. If he does, it is a penalty kick. This will reward teams for pressing up on the defence and tackling them hard. As it is, as soon as the ball has been safely kicked out short, the defending team can hold possession all day long if they want. In the epic 2017 final, Dublin were a point up against Mayo. They had a sideline on their attacking 14 yard line with a few minutes on the clock. Bernard Brogan took it. They worked the ball back to Cluxton and kept the ball until the final whistle. Without being able to involve the goalie, they would have had to go for it. As it was, they could kill the game. Not anymore.
2. At adult level, the kick out must be kicked from the 14 and must go beyond the 45. This will enforce contests. Coaches can weep. Let them. We have wept as they have ruined the game. The kick out beyond the 45 will mean contests. High fielding, breaking ball all over the place, mayhem, excitement. Simple to enforce. If the rule is infringed, then it is a 21 yard free in front of the posts.
3. Once the ball has gone over the halfway line, it cannot be played back. No working the ball back to the defence and playing keep ball. This, as in basketball, forces teams to go forward.
4. No sweeper. This requires a little more work but is straightforward. At inter county and club championship level, we already have three referees. Instead of a trained ref deciding whether the ball has gone over the sideline, we can have two sideline umpires. The two extra referees will take one half of the field each. There would be an exclusion zone. This would be a semi circle that would extend from the end line, the tip being 40 metres out. Inside this exclusion zone, only man marking is allowed. As soon as the extra ref sees a zonal marker, he will blow the whistle and a 21 yard free in front of the goals awarded. The exclusion zone means that the attacking team has the whip hand. A defender can only be inside that zone if he is man marking ie if his man goes in.
The ref will judge man marking on say a three metre distance but we all know what man marking is. This means that say David Clifford goes to the edge of the square he can only be man marked. There can be no sweeper in front killing the early ball. Once the ball is inside the exclusion zone, then everyone can go in. So, let’s say it is kicked long to Darren McCurry, then the midfielders etc can drop back in. We experimented with this at minor level in my own club and it looked great.
These four rules together will free the game. They will enforce contests. Keep ball will be impossible. It will encourage man to man marking as the team not in possession will be able to push up on the opposing team without being subjected to donkey. If a corner back is caught in possession, he cannot use the keeper so the crowd will be on its feet. It will encourage the defenders to kick longer as they can no longer endlessly handpass the ball around. From kick outs, the play will start between the 45s and an element of lottery and unpredictability will be introduced.
High catching will once again be vital. The fact it cannot be passed back over the half way line means the team in possession must attack. They have no choice. This will create risk taking. If a team has dangerous inside forwards, they can only be man marked until the ball is inside the exclusion zone. The single biggest killer of the spectacle has been the sweeper. This will get rid of that. Together, these rules will release the game and restore it to the spectacle we know it can be. In the recent final, only Shane Walsh and David Clifford were able to express themselves against the zonal defensive systems. Everyone else got nowhere. You should not have to be a superstar to get scores.
At the end of the Q&A, I asked the Uachtaráin to set up a Rules Committee and appoint me as chair. No one was laughing.