SEAN WALSH, the Munster GAA chairman, has an idea to save Gaelic football. He has three ideas in fact. To eradicate blanket defences, he suggests that we abolish the pick-up rule and introduce an Aussie Rules-style mark and an Aussie Rules-style tackle.
“Everybody we talk to about modern Gaelic football says they want to bring more kicking and foot-passing into the game,” he said last week. “I think the three of these rules would work very well and help in that regard.”
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Ah Sean. If we were feeling snide, we’d say why don’t you go the whole hog and move to Melbourne, if you like Aussie Rules so much, and let us know how you like watching 36 lads engage in a rolling maul for what feels like six hours. Come up with some rule changes to save that sport and you’ll have earned your mileage. Maybe special prizes for anyone who can spot the ball?
We’re not feeling snide though, and in fairness, the ideas are not without merit. A midfield mark and a clean pick-up were tried in the national league a few years ago and didn’t work badly, though we shudder to think how many nights a footballer would have to spend in the gym if an Aussie Rules tackle was introduced.
What bugged us is that Sean was right about a lot of people labouring under this perception that there is something basically wrong with Gaelic football.
The people, it seems, want a return to the heyday of the sport, when every match was a fast-paced joy, when midfielders and full-backs and full-forwards gave exhibitions of high fielding and it was six forwards on six backs.
Wasn’t it grand? Let’s pretend, for example and for kicks, that we are at the All-Ireland football final of 1980. It’s the first minute and in greasy conditions Sean Walsh (no, a different one) fails to connect properly with the free he takes himself after fielding the throw-in and being fouled.
It goes straight to Roscommon’s Dermot Earley and he pumps it, long, low and accurate, down toward the royal canal, where Tony McManus is out in front of Kerry’s John O’Keeffe on the Cusack Stand side.
A normal forward might be happy to lay his first touch of the ball in an All-Ireland final off, but McManus is not, has never been and will never be a normal forward.
He sells one of the better full-backs of all-time a gorgeous dummy. O’Keeffe slips and though McManus is perhaps 30 yards out, the Clan na Gael wizard already has the net on his mind.
As he sprints to the edge of the square, Paudie Lynch is closing fast from behind, and two more Kerry backs are drawn to the ball as well. But McManus has seen John O’Connor, seven yards from goal, with a patch of the Croke Park pitch all to himself.
McManus taps it across with his fingertips, and for the ‘Jigger’ O’Connor, it must all have unfolded like a daydream, as he catches it, raises it and flicks it past Charlie Nelligan and into the net 35 seconds into the biggest football match of his life. He traipses out pumping his fists, the Canal End behind him a riot of primrose and blue.
We are set for an absolute cracker, the best football team of all time a goal down to a very determined one that has the great advantage of containing McManus and the peerless Earley.
It is not to be. For neutrals hoping to see a quality game of Gaelic football, the next 70 minutes are an unmitigated disaster.
Inaccuracy, long stoppages, punches off the ball, cynical fouling, jersey pulling and illegal tackling ruin it as a spectacle. Some of the best players ever to play the game are on the pitch but the occasion turns into a wearisome, slow-motion bar brawl of a game with little chance for skill to have its way. The final score was 1-9 to 1-6.
You should not leave with the impression that Gaelic football was a bad sport then; that same year, Kerry beat Offaly 4-15 to 4-10 in a fine semi-final. But the truth is that it was, in general, slower and dirtier than it is today. That changed in the early 90s, when sidelines and frees were allowed to be taken from the hands. It was an inspired rule change, and the result is a faster, more skilful and entertaining game.
Still, we got one bad game last year, and people seemed to decide that Gaelic football needed rule changes. Imagine if they took that attitude in soccer every time Jose Mourinho, that sport’s answer to Jim McGuinness, got the better of Barcelona.
The central point that people miss about excessive defensive systems like that employed by Donegal last year is this: they don’t quite work. Kerry gave Donegal a hiding on Sunday; Dublin were dominant by the end last year, and the round before, Kildare would have beaten them had a legitimate goal stood.
Gaelic football is a good enough sport to ensure that the better team will almost always win. Marks and tackles would slow the game down; McGuinness and others who try to win football games by 1-9 to 1-6 would welcome such changes with arms spread. People buy into the hysteria about games such as last year’s All-Ireland semi-final and ignore the fact that we had a cracking final, an adequate ‘other’ semi in Kerry and Mayo, while three of the four quarter-finals were enthralling, and even the fourth, Kerry and Limerick, was embellished by a wonder goal by Darran O’Sullivan.
Those who imagine the past as a kicking and catching utopia ignore the truth, that we have gone from only having two or three good games per championship, a state of affairs so bad that it often resulted in less than 30,000 people atttending All-Ireland semi-finals, to only having two or three bad ones.
Leave Donegal and others who want to play paranoid football off. They are missing the point, playing with fear in a game that is about courage and expression. Best of all, they are far more likely to fall short now than they would have been in the 1980s. Sean Walsh and those trying to ‘save’ Gaelic football are too late; it was saved 20 years ago.