Dante Gabriel Rossetti once wrote: “Look in my face; my name is Might-have- been; I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell.” Rossetti was an English poet born in the 1800s, and yet his words perfectly capture the frustration of the mark naysayer in 2017, who can see the error in the GAA’s latest rule change.
Indeed, what might have been if Congress had grabbed the opportunity last year and made a statement about the way in which we want our national game to be played? After all, Rossetti was considered one of the romantics, but the mark does little to inspire the GAA romantics, those purists of the game who long to see traditional contests where midfielders go to war in mid-air for primary possession.
Modern Gaelic football is about playing the percentages, and managers have become so tactically astute that their breaking down of the game becomes scientific rather than instinctual. Even in club and underage teams, the system takes precedence over natural skill and ability, and players are used to plug gaps or kill space, and all of it is in the name of winning – no matter the cost to the spectacle. Sweepers are employed all over the country in every grade, and the short kick-out is an All-Ireland winning approach. So, why change a winning formula? The logical answer is you don’t change it, unless you stop winning, or you’re forced into change.
The seemingly negative strategy of tapping possession to a corner or wing back and taking the ball over halfway through deliberate handpassing has come in for criticism, as have blanket defences over recent years. The black card was the ploy aimed at stopping that cynicism in the game and became a poorly implemented and inconsistently refereed fiasco. It did little to counteract packed defences where teams sit deep and absorb pressure. The black card has given us little more than a few extra controversial talking points each week where one player saw black and another didn’t for seemingly similar tackles.
The GAA’s latest solution to the short kick-out choking competitiveness out of matches came into effect on January 1, and it is nothing more than a halfway house. Is it conceivable to think a team who employs the short kick-out, where possession is guaranteed in 90% of cases, are going to change tact and launch the ball into a 50/50 situation in the hope of getting a mark and subsequent free?
In most games, the defending team will allow their opponents who have taken a short kick-out advance to the halfway line before actually meeting them to engage in tackling anyway. Therefore, teams like Dublin have a choice of a short kick out that almost guarantees possession and advancement to the halfway line, or a 50/50 battle that might get them to the same point of the pitch.
The mark makes no material difference to that approach. The fact that the mark will not even be a talking point come September shows it up as a complete failure. The mark won’t figure because it doesn’t give enough of an advantage to a team launching an attack from a kick-out, and doesn’t penalise or inhabit a team’s choice to take a short kick-out.
Therefore, the teams contesting the latter stages of the All-Ireland championship will not give the mark a second thought when preparing for crunch games late in the summer. Casual viewers will not even notice, and have barely noticed during the Allianz leagues, that there has been a change to the rules at all.
The missed opportunity for the GAA is that they could have made it mandatory for goalkeepers to kick the ball beyond the 45. This would have tackled the issue the mark was supposedly introduced to tackle, but in an actual meaningful way. However, it would also have upset a lot of clubs and counties who use short kick-outs to great effect, yielding great success, and does the GAA want to do that?
The games we are now forced to watch are glorified scientific arm wrestles between middle aged men wearing earpieces, calculating their way to victory. The longer the GAA fail to address negative tactics, or continue to react in such a feeble manner as they have with the mark, the further away we’ll drift from real Gaelic football where teams are more than just methodical bands of robots.
And like Rossetti, as traditionalists, as romantics, we must say ‘No-more’ – no more half-heartedness at Congress. For now, we must bid farewell to the days of high-fielding, the aerial artistry immortalised in iconic black and white photographs of the past, where football was truly played by natural footballers, and not plotted by machine men with machine hearts.
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