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MacKenna On Monday: What Do We Actually Want Our Games To Be?

In the superb 1970s movie, Network, the character Howard Beale tapped right into the heart of what was influencing the world and where it would all end up. A news anchor driven finally mad by all around, he previously professed the power of the box as a way into every living room, long before having an awakening and urging people to turn off their sets.

That power of TV has been eaten into to a degree in many spheres via media but here and in our national game?

As an island we are too small to diversify vastly and, as a sport, GAA is too slow to buy into new attempts at such diversification. Sure other efforts are nibbling away at tradition but at a glacial rate, meaning the Sunday Game retains an unhealthy power and sway far beyond just covering contests. Being an agenda-driven programme makes some uncomfortable, but the worthiness depends in what those agendas are and what they are based on.

After all, controversy can create influence but when that influence arrives, there’s a duty of care.

This is where the Sunday Game clout becomes troubling as, in a football sense, their pundits have over time become self-appointed oracles on how the sport ought to be played. An audience listening is one thing, but an association bowing is another. As a contrast, imagine Match of the Day taking umbrage with tactics and FIFA changing rules to appease.

There are loads of issues to touch on in Gaelic games – and to be fair some they do tackle, while bafflingly or tellingly ignoring others depending on your level of cynicism. Fixture gridlock. Spiralling costs. Club third-class treatment. An elitism epidemic. Cynicism in-game. Dublin. Hurling’s tiny influence. But how football is played should never have been one of them, when it’s been made front and centre.

It’s been a hard road on that front listening. And it’s been a road plenty long too, despite the fact entertainment ought to be subjective.

As far back as the second live Sunday Game of the 2010 championship, Joe Brolly was in full swing, taking the sport to trial during no more than an expectedly dull match-up between lower-league teams as it didn’t make him giddy in the studio. Colm O’Rourke and Pat Spillane rowed in and their tone was set for much of that summer, with none of them ever flinching despite the fact that what followed was arguably the most fun football summer ever played out. It was a warning as to what would follow for just as what’s seen cannot be unseen, what’s opined by some refused to be un-opined.

And so it continued, shoving stones down the barrel when bullets were rare, with the likes of a Dublin-Derry nothing game in the league in 2015 being used to push it further. Brolly was the first to call that and here is the problem. So much of what we pass off as our own opinion in this era is overheard and copied, thus the power those on the Sunday Game hold.

In fact it was after that 2015 encounter that Jarlath Burns who was chair of a committee on rules based his view of how bad the sport was on a preposterous anecdote about Jimmy McGuinness only telling his team to play 14 in defence five minutes before the 2011 All Ireland semi-final as proof anyone can play blanket cover and it’s devoid of skill.

But finally those around the Sunday Game have repeated the accusation enough so as to create change.

That change, of course, comes across as merely for the sake of change.

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Right now the GAA’s Management Committee are debating a fresh batch of rule tinkering that could be implemented during the league. They range from limiting consecutive handpasses to three, sideline kicks only going forward, sin bins for blacks and double yellows, and a complex kickout situation based on distance and zonality of players.

©INPHO/Presseye/Lorcan Doherty

There will be much toing and froing, overreaction and underreaction, such is the nature of debate. This is ultimately window dressing, however; it’s distraction politics; it’s look-over-there-as-there’s-nothing-to-see-here stuff. But if you want rule changes and decry the game, there’s a bigger question that involves stepping back from reactionary alterations.

What exactly do we want the sport to be?

This comes back to those with the most influential voices, for there is a romanticising over when and how they played the game. They have rose-tinted glasses towards their own halcyon days. But the tapes are there. Sure enough, pre-1970s it’s more anecdotes and legends blown up in that wispy and poetic old-timey language but go back to those ’70s. Take the 1977 All Ireland semi-final that is as widely and lazily chalked down as the greatest ever played. Has anyone ever sat down and watched it? If not, you should, as it’s not great.

By the 1980s, football had become a bloodbath and by the 1990s it was hit-and-miss. That’s why if people are to call out what is there now as a negative, then they have to show us and contrast with a positive.

So where is that positive?

Again, what is it we want football to be?

Much is misconstrued around how the game is played as well which makes it worse still. Take the All Ireland final in 1998 where Kildare were seen as the ruination with their handpassing with Galway a throwback to the swashbuckling football of yesteryear. Only stats showed Galway handpassed more that outing.

On a plus note at least these rule changes are based on the tireless statistics of Rob Carroll who went through every televised game since 2011 and presented his findings to rule makers without suggestions as to what should be done. In 2011, 83 per cent of handpassing chains lasted no more than three consecutive handpasses. In 2018, that number has fallen to 68 per cent with growing sequences. Essentially it had become a possession game where ownership was all.

Against his science, it’s unfortunate to sit down beside that with an opinion, but a personal observation is that such a game is seen as defensive and negative and therefore it must be forced down a new path rather than to be left to develop organically. But there are numerous problems with this thinking. For instance, only nine championships ever have averaged more than 30 points per game. They were the last nine championships.

2013 was the first time the figure surpassed 31, 2014 was the first time it passed 35, and look at the trend since. In 2015 it was 33.63, in 2016 it was 34.26, in 2017 it was 35.65, and this summer it was 38.02. Basically, there are fewer possessions, albeit it longer possessions, meaning better quality of ball management and an improved mindset and skillset. Yet with more scores needed from fewer opportunities, that also means a better quality of shooting. So what exactly is wrong? It reminds of the man in the crowd who panics at possession, roars to kick it in long, and loses it when that long ball is lost.

There are other questions posed though by the modern critique of the sport. Why is good defending negative? Why is counter-attacking bad? Why is strategy away from the programme-positions obscene? Is it not a negative to kick the ball away and turn it over? Is it not negative to avoid doing all you can to stop the opposition scoring? And what exactly is wrong with handpassing, after all simply look at Corofin’s goal of the year in the All Ireland where Jason Leonard, Dylan Wall, Martin Farragher, Michéal Lundy, Gary Sice and Daithí Burke’s all played handball to set-up Michael Farragher.

There is good and bad kick-passing, just as there is good and bad hand-passing, just as there are good and bad games in general. But this is as if we are trying to move the sport into the modern era of Speed Snooker and Six-Hole Golf and Twenty20 Cricket where it’s tailor-made for a highlight reel people can take in on their phones in mere seconds.

As Carroll showed it is indeed a ball ownership game now but swings and roundabout. Football started late in terms of actual tactics rather than each man keeping in his sector with each ball just hoofed aimlessly upon arrival but it is catching up. McGuinness came and his brilliance already bypassed and undone, and other methodology will take over. That’s part of sport. Just look at soccer’s move from total football to tiki taka and on into the present. Nothing lasts forever.

Therefore, let it evolve. Allow styles to make fights.

But the GAA trying to calm hysteria is trying to be reactionary in the wrong areas. And in doing so they are throwing up another storey when there are no foundations. The current rules aren’t anywhere near enforced or possibly enforceable and they want to add more. With the pace of the game increasing and the nastiness returning, referees are under too much pressure already but now they are also expected to count passes and control who is where. And as for fans, it feels it is becoming artificial, taking away from what the game is, to sooth those who remember it incorrectly.

In essence, it’s burning down the house to get the flies out of the kitchen.

It’s ignoring the real issues all around.

But crucially it’s satisfying those that shout loudest and that have access to your living room.

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Author: Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.