I got a tweet from Donal Og on Monday, who plays football at under 16 level for the Michael Breathnach club in Galway.
It reads as follows: “I know but every manager nowadays tells his players to stop the runner. I’m only 16 and my manager tells us to foul in this way.” Can you think of anything more depressing?
On Saturday night I was unlucky enough to be at Celtic Park to see my own beloved county against Longford. I was sitting next to Fergal McCusker and John Keenan, the county chairman and as the game unfolded, we became more and more exasperated. Eventually, I tweeted that the game was an advertisement for black cards and that systematic tactical fouling was ruining football. Interestingly, this provoked a storm of protest from Tyrone people, who assumed I was referring to what was happening in Croke Park. An interesting assumption, given that tactical fouling is ‘a myth’.
It was only afterwards on the way home that I heard about the last 15 minutes of that game. Watching it later, I realised why the Red Hand followers had gone for me. In that last period, Tyrone simply killed the game by deliberate tactical fouling. Dublin’s dangerous half-backs and forwards were strangled. They could practice the skills for a million years. They could be the greatest footballers the world has ever seen. It makes no difference. The only way to get to the Tyrone goals in that last 10 minutes was in a Humvee. Tyrone had three players yellow carded (fat lot of good that was) and saw out the match for the win. Never mind though, winning is everything. Just ask Lance Armstrong.
The party line is that these events are spontaneous. However, the notion that such a scrupulous and ingenious manager as Mickey Harte is presiding over 15 riderless horses who are out of control and doing their own thing seems implausible. And do not dare suggest I am anti-Tyrone. Let me make it clear – as I said in Trillick a fortnight ago at the launch of their Cairde fundraiser – that Tyrone is in my view the greatest GAA county in Ireland.
The thing is, there is nothing unusual about this, nor is it confined to Tyrone. This is a country-wide plague infecting every level of the game. We know the drill, we’ve seen it a thousand times. Back gets ball, tries to counter-attack, gets pulled down. Wins free, opponent stands in front of him briefly, turns his back to him, pretends to tie his laces, blanket defence in place, counter-attack dead. A good example from the weekend was Mayo full forward Jason Doherty dragging down Kildare’s Hugh Lynch. Jason literally dived full length and held him from behind, pulling his shorts down to his knees in the process. Forward wins great high ball inside the full back, crowd rises in anticipation of that thrilling one-on-one with the keeper, which used to be a moment of matchless excitement. Back immediately drags forward down, accepting his yellow and the congratulations of his team mates and (discreetly afterwards) his manager. A good example of this (there are thousands) occurred during the Donegal-Cork game at the weekend. Right at the death, with Donegal needing a goal to win, Michael Murphy took possession as only he can and was suddenly clean through on goal, leaving the Cork full back Eoin Cadogan stranded. The crowd rose to their feet as a Roy of the Rovers style netbuster beckoned. They soon sat down. Cadogan dived after the man-child and rugby tackled him to the ground, just outside the penalty line. The Gaels in attendance simply shrugged their shoulders and accepted that this is just the way things are.
The problem is that the strategy of systematic cynical fouling is immune to the current rules. In last year’s notorious All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Mayo, Mayo simply fouled their way to victory. On 28 separate occasions, a Dublin player was pulled down and the free was deliberately, if subtly delayed. They got the frees all right, but they simply couldn’t get the scores. All that training. All that shooting practice. All that tactical work on angles of attack and danger zones. All a waste of time when it came down to it, since all Mayo had to do was pull them down. James Horan thinks its a myth as well.
The debate is far bigger than any club or county. It is about the future of the game. Black cards, the 30m penalty for delaying the free and the mark will be a culture shock to begin with, just as it was a huge culture shock in soccer when they decided to tackle the curse of negativity (passing back to the keeper, tackle from behind, tackle with studs showing etc). But the suggestion from some managers that coaches should be left to change the culture of tactical fouling is like asking the cigarette industry to self regulate. Cynical fouling is the opposite of manliness. It is sneaky, unfair and destructive of the game’s ethos. If players foul in this way, the sideline is where they should be. Tactical fouling is not one of the central principles of the game.
The thing is that teams nowadays have never been more skilful or fitter. In every team, the backs can score as comfortably as most forwards, save for the stars like Stephen O’Neill or Michael Murphy. I watched Tyrone recently and thought to myself that if black cards were introduced, this team could run riot against anyone. There is nothing to be feared from the new rules. Sure, there will be the odd bad refereeing decision, but tell me something new.
The game is good. But it can be great. Instead of sitting in the stands fuming at yet another fine forward being hauled down or brilliant counter-attack being lazily destroyed, we should be on our feet time and again, marvelling at the beautiful game.