Man and ball: leave handpass alone
11:44, 10 May 2012
The handpass is being blamed for making Gaelic football "boring" but, argues John Kelly, it could be worse.....
We’ve always been a contrary race but if the history of Gaelic football is anything to go by we’re getting a bit better. Still, we like something to give out about. Right now it’s the fiscal treaty which seems less about whether it really is a good or bad thing for the country and more about who appears the angriest, or who might be right.
Those who point out all that’s wrong tend to be the ones offering the least plausible solutions. At least that hullaballoo will end in May, though. This handpass thing could drag on out all over the summer.
In a national newspaper recently the case for the prosecution against the handpass presented evidence which showed that in the recent league finals there were four times as many passes from the hand than the foot. It is a familiar complaint and there are those who seem to have serious problems with the game’s evolution.
Maybe when new GAA president Liam O’Neill was asked about the state of Gaelic football he should have left it at “not too bad”. Or, if he was feeling that pessimistic, he might have said “it could be worse” -- in keeping with the general mood of the country. The handpass is getting a raw deal when the third-man tackle, for example, is getting away scot-free. The handpass is the critics’ new blanket defence.
John O’Mahoney, for one, has said the entire philosophy of the sport needs to be re-examined. The former Galway manager claimed the handpass has damaged the kicking element of the game. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, though. In the 1998 All-Ireland final, O’Mahoney’s Tribesmen scored one of the greatest points
ever seen in Croke Park when the ball was moved 100 metres up the pitch without the use of a foot pass.
He also said recently: “As far as managers, coaches and players are concerned, it’s all about winning and if using the packed defence/close handpassing game is seen as the best way to achieve that, then it will continue for as long as it’s within the rules.” This sort of statement has been allowed to self-perpetuate. Who is winning by packing defences? In the last decade -- in other words in the time these accusations have been levelled at teams -- Kerry have won five All-Irelands and no one ever accused them of being dour; a skilful and positive Galway side have won one; and Tyrone won All-Irelands in 2005 and 2008 with winning totals only bettered by Kerry in the same time frame. Dublin and Cork, too, have been admired for their forward play.
Maybe the meeting of Dublin and Donegal in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final was the tipping point for the purists. Certainly, having been at the game, no team’s tactics have been met with such derision from the stands in recent times as Donegal’s were. Yet, it was fascinating to watch and there are many others who found it absorbing. Besides, didn’t the “good guys” win in the end?
The term “crabbing” has also become more and more frequent in the language of football. And it is always used in a way that seems to absolve the opposition when one team decides that possession is nine-tenths. It seems ludicrous to talk about possession of the ball in the negative. Tyrone and Armagh are credited with – or accused of – evolving a new style of play that has had plenty of detractors in the last decade but, if one analyses their respective styles, they are more easily compared with a Barcelona than a Chelsea. Both Mickey Harte and Joe Kernan instructed their players on the “full-court” press and it was only their extraordinary fitness levels that allowed them to funnel players back quickly and gave them the illusion of being defensive rather than it being an innate part of their make-up.
Altering the handpass rule to limit the number of consecutive passes – as has been suggested by some -- could do more harm than good. In the build-up to one of the most dramatic goals ever scored at Croke Park there were six successive handpasses before Meath’s Kevin Foley put his boot to the ball. And those games were, according to Micheál O’Muircheartaigh, “the most incredible series of football matches that were ever played in any code the world over”. Of course, one could pick out plenty of instances of goals resulting from long balls but in the last 30 seconds when Meath needed absolute precision, instinct told them to hold on to the ball rather than to kick it long and hopefully.
These are 21st century, first world problems. If O’Neill was taking up the job 100 years ago when it was all objections, rejections, walk-outs and walkovers he might not have been able to move for the tangle of administrative and bureaucratic knots.
In 1912, Kilkenny turned up late for their Leinster final with Meath. The Royals were offered the title, refused it, and a challenge match was played which Kilkenny won. Meath objected but Kilkenny were declared Leinster champions anyway. In Connacht, Galway and Mayo’s clash was postponed and never replayed. While up in Ulster, they didn’t even get around to organising a championship.
The debate will go on but, really, it could be worse.
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