Kerry's Bryan Sheehan demonstrates the art of kicking.

Why must the hand continue to overrule the foot

Most of us have seen Gaelic football matches in recent years where the emphasis on defensive football has dominated the trend of the game and indeed in many cases determined the outcome, writes Martin Carney.

Defending in numbers became fashionable in the last decade or so and it has been the cornerstone of much of the success enjoyed by northern teams in particular.

It is a phenomenon that has polarised opinion. Many proffer the view that it is not an obligation of players to entertain an attendance and that getting a desired result, irrespective of how you achieve it, is all that matters. Would there have been a universal outcry, I ask, had Mayo won any of the last three All–Ireland titles where their core style was underpinned by an ultra-defensive system similar to that favoured by the likes of Donegal, Tyrone and Armagh in recent times? I doubt it!

It was the 2011 Donegal versus Dublin All–Ireland SFC semi-final, which the latter won on a scoreline of 0-8 to 0-6, that will be forever remembered as the contest which gave rise to the term ‘puke’ football. On that occasion Donegal pulled 11 or 12 of their team into their own half, invited Dublin onto them and strangled the life out of their attacks. To compound matters, they rarely kicked the ball but retained possession by stringing together an endless chain of hand passes that had the effect of frustrating Dublin and killing the game as a spectacle.

Okay, they didn’t win on this occasion but the template which was to carry them to glory had been stress-tested and was in place when, as we all know, they won Sam in 2012.

Last Sunday week we were treated, if that is the right word, to as extreme a form of defensive football as it has ever been my misfortune to watch. By regularly pulling all 15 of their team behind their own 45-metre line, Tyrone brought the whole concept of defensive Gaelic football to new levels.

Mayo were faced with a near impossible conundrum as to how to break down this system. An early goal opportunity, had it been converted, might have forced the visitors to abandon their strategy. Tyrone would have been forced to chase the game and in doing so it may have left more space in their defence to exploit.

As it turned out, by establishing an early lead, they were able to dictate the terms of the game and Mayo were incapable of finding an answer to the problems posed. It was a contest where the massed Tyrone defensive systems allied to their use of the hand pass were the game’s core elements.

All of this leads to what has become a big bugbear of mine and that is the hand pass, or should I say the excessive use of transferring possession by hand. What should be a subsidiary skill in the game has, over time, replaced the kick pass as the primary method of moving the ball.

Witnessing week after week the manner in which the overuse of the hand pass is distorting the nature of the game nationwide has become a major concern. In the televised games over the recent national football league weekend, the average ratio of hand passes to foot passes was close on five to one.

It appears that a player no longer needs a full repertoire of foot passing skills to pass as a Gaelic footballer. If he possesses the requisite strength levels and is athletically inclined he can, in all likelihood, succeed at the code.

The unrestricted use of propelling the ball by hand has, in my opinion, distorted the nature of the game and encouraged a breed of player whose ability to kick the ball accurately and cleverly is now of secondary importance. The code as a spectacle thrives when the game is played in a direct and dynamic manner and where an amalgam of accurate foot passing and legitimate physicality abound. A limited form of the hand pass is necessary.

But the monotony of watching an endless litany of hand passes moving the ball from sideline to sideline is robbing the game of its attractiveness and potential to grow.

Gaelic football is a unique code that when played in a particular manner has a capacity to excite. If one had any doubts about this then they would have been suitably encouraged by the style and application central to Corofin’s win over St. Vincent’s in the All- Ireland club semi-final last Saturday. To say that it was a game that would restore one’s faith in Gaelic football is an understatement. The standard and regularity of the foot pass in the game was consistently high. The game never ceased to excite and our western neighbours deserve great praise for their style and manner of victory. Hats off to Crossmolina’s Stephen Rochford for his management of the team.

I am not blaming coaches and players for playing in whatever way they think best suits their needs. But I have issue with the GAA in allowing the rules for the game of football evolve to the point where it is no longer important whether or not you can kick the ball. The game is, after all, Gaelic FOOTball!