Rule changes: football in a straitjacket?
A manager, player and referee have their say as opinions are sharply divided on proposed rule changes
Still nothing stirs football debate quicker than rule changes.
Once the GAA’s Standing Committee on the Playing Rules issued their five mildly radical reforms on Tuesday afternoon – for purely discussion purposes – they were instantaneously tried and tested and it seemed their fate already determined, without one ball even being kicked, or indeed hand-passed.
In fact that process is only beginning. The committee followed up their five proposals with an evaluation questionnaire, issued across all 32 counties, aimed at the three main stakeholders: the inter-county player, manager, and referee.
Following this consultation process, GAA Central Council will decide which of the proposed rule changes should go on trial, first at college level, then during the 2019 league. None, if any, can be written into rule until 2020, and by then any such changes may be completely different.
Still initial reaction has been cautious, at best.
Here, three stakeholders debate the proposals: Carlow manager Turlough O’Brien admits he was “gobsmacked” when first reading them, while Roscommon forward Ciarán Murtagh suggests “football doesn’t actually need to change a whole lot, the top teams will still finds ways to win”.
Also contributing is Mick Curley who refereed the 1999 All-Ireland final between Meath and Cork, along with football finals in all four provinces, and the 1998-99 International Rules tests with Australia. After his retirement he was also the chairman of the National Referees Committee.
1 Hand-pass: To introduce a restriction of three consecutive passes of the ball with the first or open hand by players of the team in possession.
Turlough O’Brien: “There may be some merit in this, but there could also be a number of situations where it would be detrimental. Say a player is on the attack, only has three hand passes, a player in the square inside him, and he can’t pass to him. That would be a disaster.
“And for the skills of the game, after three hand passes, you have to kick the ball away, which is like football 40 or 50 years ago, a lot of ball being turned over. And you can’t blame the likes of Dublin for the increase in hand passing. It’s up to the opposition to counter it.
“None of us like to see a team being static, just hand-passing the ball around, but teams have to prepare for that, or make sure it doesn’t happen. And a lot of teams sit back in their defensive shell even when they’re four or five points behind, which is hard to understand, when they have to push out and chase the ball.”
Ciarán Murtagh: “I can see some reasoning behind this, trying to get more kick passing, but I can’t imagine three hand passes actually working. Players will end up kicking the ball away just for the sake of it. It would be difficult for referees to keep count as well, with everything else that’s going on around the pitch. It could end up with balls flying everywhere. When you have the ball, it’s up to you to hold onto it, and the best teams will do that anyway, so I don’t think it will do away with defensive play either.”
Mick Curley: “This could be difficult to enforce from a referee point of view. It certainly puts an extra layer of attention on the referee, as he has to count for them, unless he has someone else on the sideline doing it for him, and I can’t see that working. The referee needs to have full control of what’s happening on the pitch, and it’s the easiest.
“It would have to be done on an experimental basis before we get a proper idea of how it would work, and any real difficulties would be seen at that stage. It has been curtailed in the International Rules game, and over time if a referee got used to it then certainly it would become easier for them.
“I do think the game needs to do something here, because football is getting a bit of a hammering at the moment, because of that type of hand-passing. It needs a bit of an expansion, to bring back a bit of the excitement of kicking and catching. If all the passes were going forward as well that might make some progress, but at the moment it is very defensive, all about possession, not losing it, and just preserving it.”
2 Sideline Kick: That the ball shall be played in a forward direction from the kick (unless on or inside the opponents’ 13m line, when the ball may be kicked in any direction).
TO’B: “This could happen so fast the referee mightn’t even see it, and the opposition will be shouting ‘no, it wasn’t forward’. That happens all the time already. It could be controversial.”
CM: “I’d have no issue with this, and it would force players to move the ball forward, obviously. It would be easy enough for the referee and linesman as well, and could take away from defensive play, especially in the last few minutes of games, where teams are kicking backwards to the goalkeeping, just to keep the ball. It wouldn’t be anything major though.
MC: “It would be an improvement, no doubt about that, and just another aspect really of trying to make it a less defensive game, and if it encourages the player to put the ball further down the field, encourages the play to go forward and for the player to get the ball as far forward as he can from his own goal, then I think that would be a winner.”
3 The Mark: To extend the mark to the clean catching of the ball on or inside the 20m line from a kick delivered beyond the 45. The option of a kick at goal is permitted should the player avail of the mark. Up to 15 seconds shall be allowed for a free to be taken from a mark.
TO’B: “There’s no doubt the high catch is a great skill, and it’s good to reward it. And the mark has worked very well at midfield, from the kick-out. The mark in front of goal could be a good idea, I’m just not so sure if it’s out by the corner flag. Maybe there could be a zone for a mark, a more limited situation.”
CM: “I like this, and while it mightn’t benefit the smaller player such as myself, even in the half forward, passing inside, it would be nice to see a clean catch rewarded, and I think it would encourage more long kicking, inside the 45, instead of going for the safety net and just hand-passing over and back. Even the smaller player could catch it on the run, so I would be a fan of this. The mark has settled into the game, a reward not just for a clean catch but a good kick pass as well. And only allowing a certain amount of time, not off the ground, is a good idea.”
MC: “I would encourage anything that would look to bring more skill out of the game, but at the same time I’m not sure this will work to the extent they think it might. It would be easy enough to implement, from a referee point of view, I would say, but I just don’t think it would have the impact from a players’ point of view.”
4 Sin Bin: A black card or two yellow card infractions would lead to ten minutes in the sin bin. Further infractions would lead to red card dismissals. The maximum number of substitutions in normal time to return to five.
TO’B: “Okay I think there is some merit in this. I just can’t understand why we’d allow two yellow cards become a sin bin situation. That’s a red card situation. Two yellows and you’re gone. You shouldn’t be allowed back on the pitch after that. But otherwise I see no reason not to try the sin bin again, see can it be worked out.
“There’s no doubt the black card isn’t always a punishment when teams can bring on a player every bit as good, but again it goes back to the referee, and what exactly the situation is. We’ve seen a black card offence, and five minutes later it’s a yellow card offence. That whole thing around tackling is still not resolved.
“Nowhere here are they addressing the tackle, one of the key weaknesses in our game, how to define that. How many times do we see a player surrounded, being hammered at, and he’s blown for overcarrying? Then five minutes later the same thing happens and it’s a free in. We don’t know what the referee is going to do in that situation, because the rule is the problem. And the blanket defence, players are so conditioned now, can cover the ground, get back into the defence. Maybe one solution to that is to make the game 13-a-side.”
CM: “I don’t think this is going to work, lads coming off and on again, it could become a bit of a free for all. And it adds more stoppages, makes it more confusing. To be it’s not a proper punishment if the lad is allowed come back on again. We see as well a player gets a black card for something, another player gets a yellow for the same, and it could be too tricky, and frustrating, if that happens with the sin bin. The stronger squads will also benefit more as well. If a player has done something to deserve being sent off the pitch he should not be allowed back on.
MC: “I was refereeing the last time they tried to bring that in, and I think the mistake then was that it was too long, 15 minutes, and that was never really going to work. I think a 10-minute sin bin would work, especially in the context of the black card.
“Right now if a team gets a black card they’re not really losing anything, because another player comes straight on in their place, and we know for most of the football squads, or nearly all of them, the first five subs are nearly as good as the players on the field. There is no real punishment there. It would mean more attention on the fourth official but there’s no reason why it couldn’t work.”
5 Kick-Out/Zoning: For a kick out, only two players from each team shall be positioned between the two 45m lines. The goalkeeper and a maximum of six players from each team shall be behind the respective 45m lines until the ball is kicked. The ball will travel beyond the 45 m line before being played by a player of the defending team.
TO’ B: “This is ridiculous. I don’t know how this will work. If you have a defender, who ran down the field to put the ball over the bar, that play can’t begin again until he gets back in his own 45-m line. And what if a player runs in just before the ball is kicked? And only four players in the middle third of the pitch? It’s very difficult to even imagine.
“It looks to me like they’re trying to put football in a straitjacket. This is the way you’re going to play, catch and kick, end of story. And I think that would be a disaster. Overall I’d be very disappointed, to be honest. I’m sure the committee put a lot of thought into them, but it would be mind-boggling if they tried all of these out in the league. It would be showing a lack of respect for managers. The league is a very important competition and some these rules or decisions could determine promotion or relegation and I don’t think that is acceptable.
“We got promoted to Division Three this year, and trying to adapt to a new set of rules on top of that could be massive challenge. It’s poor to think they’re putting five out there, hoping one or two will get through. They should really go with the one or two they really believe, not be confusing everyone with so many options on the table. I’m not trying to be negative, but we’re all stakeholders in the game, some of us are working at the coalface, and I just think most of these rules would actually be detrimental to the game.”
CM: “Again I can see the reasoning, but can’t see it working. It would be great to see the four lads battle it out at midfield, but it would be very difficult to implement, for the referee and linesman, and even players, standing on the 45 waiting for the kick-out to go over your head. And it would slow the whole game down, waiting for players to go back into position, the ball out of play even more, and it would become very boring very quickly. Or get awful confusing. Forwards and defenders love scrapping for breaks, so leave it as it is.”
MC: “To be honest I wouldn’t be sure at all at how that would work. Again it’s trying to encourage a more attacking game, and reward the skills of the game. But again how could it be manageable from a referee’s point of view, until it is trialled.”
There’s no doubt the high catch is a great skill, and it’s good to reward it. And the mark has worked very well at midfield, from the kick-out
Tyrone’s Colm Cavanagh and Dublin’s Brian Fenton contest a high ball in this year’s All-Ireland senior football final. The mark is one of five areas earmarked for change.