Colm Begley – GAA Congress off the mark

“All we were hoping for was for the season to be brought back two weeks to make things easier for the clubs and they denied that straight up. Maybe they are just making changes for the sake of making changes?”

Laois footballer Colm Begley knows about the introduction of the ‘mark’ better than most. Begley is a former Australian Rules player where the mark, a reward for catching a ball passed over a certain distance, is a major feature of that game. The rule was brought in to Gaelic football by GAA Congress last weekend in Carlow, although the exact introduction date has not yet been confirmed.

Critics have been plentiful on social media, especially as a number of proposals looking out for player welfare were largely ignored by Congress. Begley has his own damning opinion of it.

“I think it will phase out very quickly. I can’t see it being a major game changer. The player catching the ball is likely to be facing their own goal. If they stop and go backwards, do they gain much of an advantage? I don’t think so.”

“Most frees will likely go sideward or short after a mark anyway because teams will still be set up defensively and it will still be hard to make a penetrating long pass. It might bring some excitement initially but games will turn out the same.”

What is a ‘mark’?

When a player catches the ball cleanly from a kick-out without it touching the ground, on or past the 45m line nearest the kick-out point, he shall be awarded ‘a mark’ by the referee.

The player awarded a ‘mark’ shall have the options of (a) Taking a free kick or (b) Playing on immediately.

What this means in practice is that the player will indicate to the referee if he intends to take the ‘mark’. If he wants to he then takes the free kick himself from the hand from the point where he was awarded the ‘mark’.

If the player chooses to play on he may not be challenged for the ball until he carries the ball up to a maximum of four consecutive steps or holds the ball for no longer than the time needed to take four steps and/or makes one act of kicking, hand-passing, bouncing or toe-tapping the ball.

Monaghan footballer Shane Carey says that the immediacy of the decision took him by surprise.

“There should have been a trial period, as is the case of all major rules before they are implemented, so the players can see the pros and cons to it. It is hard to say what it will bring to the game without being tested, especially with goalkeepers placing the ball, chipping the ball or playing the ball to the wings for a moving receiver. The game is moving away from the time of kicking the ball to the big receiver.”

“I was very surprised more than anything. I thought GAA Congress would have been more orientated towards the fixtures but it did not turn out that way.”

A generational gap is evident on the ‘mark’. Its main advocate in Congress was 47 year-old Jarlath Burns. The former Armagh midfielder’s heyday was in the 1990s when midfielders relied on the art of high fielding. Fellow committee member Darragh O’Se was of a similar ilk. Today, aerial midfield battles are a much rarer occurrence as midfielders are more involved in covering all areas of the pitch.

“The clubs are being choked and the county players are being dragged away. The county year goes on and on. The clubs have to wait ages to play some games. It just doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Colm Begley thinks that there is a big difference between how those who attend Congress view the game and how those who are playing football right now.

“The game has changed so much. The people in the Congress need to move with the game because no offence to them but they don’t understand what the players are going through in games or what they are going through in training. I think for the game to evolve, the people need to evolve as well. It happens in businesses, it happens everywhere.”

Criticism from some of the players and managers does not seem to deter Jarlath Burns and his committee. Their next consideration is a proposal on limiting the amount of handpasses per move for each team. Believing that they have retained the glory of the ‘catch’, they are now focused on the ‘kick’ as they look to return Gaelic football to the catch-and-kick game it was in the ‘good ol’ days’.

Begley thinks the older-style football will never return. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law in Gaelic football at the moment. The fact remains that short kick-outs are smarter because there is more chance of getting momentum when you keep the ball rather than relying on winning lucky breaks without the ball.”

The ‘good ol’ days’ sentiment was also alive and well with the obstruction to changes in the intercounty calendar. The motion to reduce the Championship season by two weeks so clubs have more time to play their competitions was defeated. A Cork delegate argued that September is All-Ireland season and changing the dates of the All-Ireland would give September to other sports.

The neglecting of the needs of club players because of intercounty competition structure is not a new issue. An annual report from GAA Director General Pauric Duffy in 2014 stated that there is now an “unacceptable distortion” in GAA whereby “most players in the country do not have a planned and fairly scheduled set of fixtures, fixed and known in advance.”

This is because the intercounty season is now intensive for more or less nine months of the year. It often means that club players are training for months without playing a single game.

“It’s madness that the seasonal fixtures haven’t been changed,” Begley says.

“The clubs are being choked and the county players are being dragged away. The county year goes on and on. The clubs have to wait ages to play some games. It just doesn’t make sense anymore.”

There are 2,319 GAA clubs in Ireland, according to the Irish Independent. They are the basis of most small towns and villages. Club and county players alike play for the love of what is an amateur game. Club matches are fit in over only a few weeks towards the end of the year around intercounty schedules. Club players, who make up 98% of the organisation, are denied the opportunity to play in firmer ground and drier conditions.

“I don’t know whether it is up to the players to make a statement about not being happy with the situation at the moment or whether it is going to be the same for the next few years. The GAA talk about the clubs being the heart of the game yet the reality is that this is not the case and it needs to change.”

The players themselves are relatively happy with what is happening on the pitch comparing to what is happening off the pitch. At GAA Congress, the powers could not manage to give club players even two weeks extra in the year. Instead, they will introduce the ‘mark’ but it seems like the GAA have missed the catch on this one.

David Gorman

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