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My three simple rule changes to make Gaelic football great again

Modern tactics are based on fear and have not resulted in a better game

Kieran McGeeney of Armagh in action against Kerry's Dara Ó Cinnéide in the 2002 All-Ireland final, one of the games analysed to show the changing trends in Gaelic football. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Killian Spillane of Kerry is tackled by Galway goalkeeper Connor Gleeson this year's All-Ireland final. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

John Harrington who completed an analysis of four All-Ireland finals over 30 years. Photo: Sportsfile

23 September 2012; Christy Toye, Donegal, in action against Mayo players, from left, Donal Vaughan, Richie Feeney, Barry Moran and Jason Gibbons. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Donegal v Mayo, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE© SPORTSFILE

29 May 2022; Odhran McFadden Ferry of Donegal is tackled by Niall Toner of Derry during the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final between Derry and Donegal at St Tiernach's Park in Clones, Monaghan. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

20 September 1992; Charlie Redmond of Dublin is tackled by JJ Doherty of Donegal during the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final between Dublin and Donegal at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

20 September 1992; Charlie Redmond of Dublin is tackled by JJ Doherty of Donegal during the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final between Dublin and Donegal at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Pat SpillaneSunday World

I have been a long-time critic of the kind of game Gaelic football has morphed into.

Not everyone agrees.

I’m regularly accused of being ‘out of touch’... ‘a dinosaur who is no longer relevant’ and ignoring the fact that ‘the game has moved on’.

Let me address some of those accusations.

Of course, the game has changed. But can I remind my critics that the ball is still the still size, the goalposts are still in the same position – and, shock horror, the team which scores the most still wins.

My basic premise is that evolution ought to have resulted in a better game. And this has most certainly not happened in Gaelic football.

So, who is to blame for this horrible spectacle we have to endure in so many games?

The answer is very simple – managers/coaches/trainers are primarily to blame.

As I have often written, many modern-day coaches are the GAA’s version of snake-oil salesmen. They are selling a dubious product.

Think about it – they are handed a blank canvas on which to develop their game plan and tactics.

Anyone of them could be the GAA’s version of Michelangelo or Picasso – painting vibrant, beautiful images.

Instead, they opt for a painting-by-numbers approach which produces a safety-first, generic product.

They do not encourage flair or imagination. Essentially, everything they do is dominated by fear.

Two recent articles illustrated how much Gaelic football has changed over the decades – and not for the better I hasten to add.

On the GAA’s official website GAA.ie, John Harrington compared and contrasted four All-Ireland finals, spanning 30 years: Donegal v Dublin 1992; Armagh v Kerry 2002, Donegal v Mayo 2012 and Kerry v Galway 2022.

Interestingly, there were a few measures which remained relatively unchanged.

For example, the frequency of scoring from play hasn’t changed much – there was a score every three and a half minutes across all four finals.

Furthermore, the average length of stoppages remained constant at 27 seconds.

On a positive front there is less fouling nowadays. In the 1992 final a foul was committed every 76 seconds, whereas in the 2022 decider there was a foul every 190 seconds.

As a result there are fewer stoppages in play. Whereas in 1992 there was a stoppage every 39 seconds, in 2022 there was one every 60 seconds.

Killian Spillane of Kerry is tackled by Galway goalkeeper Connor Gleeson this year's All-Ireland final. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

The scoring rate across the four finals increased slightly, from 32 to 36 points per final.

The Kerry v Galway final bucked the trend in terms of the number of aggressive fouls committed in the four deciders.

From a high of 93 in the 1992 final the figure had been dropping until this year, when there were 88 aggressive fouls.

But the eye-catching figures all tell the same story – how Gaelic football has evolved into a possession-based game over the last 30 years.

In 1992 the periods of play during which one team held possession averaged 73 seconds. In 2002, this figure dropped to 69 seconds. But in this year’s final it has risen to an eye-popping two minutes and 18 seconds.

There were 120 segments of play in the Donegal v Dublin final in 1992, whereas there were just 80 in the July final this year.

In other words, teams are holding on to the ball for far longer spells nowadays.

Granted, the sample size of just four matches is tiny, but the underlying message is unmistakable – long passages of ‘keep ball’ are now an integral part of Gaelic football.

Gaelic Stats produced a more comprehensive set of figures for the GAA’s Standing Committee on Playing Rules this year. Their data was much more rounded, compiled from some 33 championship games and ten league ties.

There were some positive figures. The number of cynical fouls per game dropped from 1.5 last year to 0.6 in 2022. There was a fall in the average number of frees per game – from 38 last year to 32 this year.

Again, there were some positive figures. The average number of scores (32.6) per game was third highest since records began.

Goals (2.6 per game) were slightly more plentiful than last year, and the average winning margin dropped from 9.2 points in 2021 to 7.9 this year.

But the dominant theme was how possession in now king. And here’s why.

Long kick-outs – the ball going beyond the 45m line – are in decline.

In 2011, 86 per cent of all restarts went beyond the 45m line – the figure this year was 50 per cent.

Likewise, the number of contested kick-outs dropped from 55 per cent in 2017 to 37 per cent this year.

Eighty-four per cent of all foot-passes were uncontested this year – the highest on record.

The average number of back passes to the goalkeeper is now 13.1 per game. Worse still, a fifth of these occur within three passes of a kick-out.

The average number of attacks per game is 70. But the downside is that a growing number of these attacks cross back over the halfway line.

Last year 4.5 per cent of attacks went back across the halfway line. This year the figure had increased to 5.6 per cent.

The foot pass is disappearing from the game. Ten years ago there were 2.5 hand passes to every kick pass. This year there were five hand passes to every kick pass.

John Harrington who completed an analysis of four All-Ireland finals over 30 years. Photo: Sportsfile

The average game now has 322 hand passes compared to 72 kick passes. There were just 62 kick passes in the whole of the Connacht Championship tie between Mayo and Galway this year.

This is not FOOTball.

Hurling is going in the same bad direction. In the 34 games Gaelic Stats reviewed this year the average number of hand passes was 99, compared to 71 in 2018.

Contrary to what my critics allege, I have never argued that games in the past were better.

The opposite is the case – games and players are infinitely better nowadays.

My bone of contention is that fear is the dominant theme in so many games. Everything revolves around not giving the ball away and avoiding turnovers.

So, we get horrible matches – such as this year’s Ulster final between Derry and Donegal which was practically unwatchable – because the two sides set up as a mirror image of each other.

Once I hear games described as ‘intriguing’ ‘absorbing’ or ‘fascinating’ my bullshit monitor goes into overdrive.

These are weasel words. A modern tactical game of football is a hard watch.

The good news is that three simple rule changes would resolve some of the issues.

All kick-outs to go beyond the 45 metre line; no back-passes over the halfway line, and no back passes to the goalkeeper.

The beauty of these changes it that they are simple to implement.

However, two elephants would still remain in the room; the hand pass and the blanket defence.

The GAA will have to consider the nuclear option in an effort to deal with these twin scourges.

Firstly, they will have to restrict the number of consecutive hand passes a team is allowed before having to kick the ball.

Secondly, restrict the number of players allowed in one half of the field at any one time.

This would eliminate the ugly spectacle of 29 players packed into half the playing area, which is now such a common sight in Gaelic football.

Joe Brolly has suggested banning zonal defences. But this would be a difficult rule to implement.

I would go for a simple rule: teams would have to keep four players in the opposition half at all times.

The bottom line is that all of us, as members of the GAA, must get involved in a national discussion about the way we want the game of Gaelic football to be played. We need to take back control.

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