Review committee's report will set the reform ball rolling


The process of reform and improvement of football is now in motion and, certainly in the long run, won’t be easily derailed. Change for the better looks inevitable

IN LITTLE over a month’s time the GAA will launch one of the most significant documents in its history. It’s doubtful if any major sport has subjected itself to as thorough a review as Gaelic football has been conducting in the past number of months.

Will it make any difference? Maybe not; the GAA has a poor history of acting on reports no matter how exhaustively researched and sensible the recommendations are.

Frequently the better-qualified and harder- working the group which produces the research, the poorer the chance it has of being accepted. An abiding image from 10 years ago is of the Strategic Review Committee crouched behind desks getting off the occasional shot as delegates aimed fusillades at them from the floor at Congress: metaphorically – but just about.

Proposals five years ago from the task force on burn-out foundered on considerations that had nothing to do with player welfare and everything to do with the convenience of officialdom and teams.

However there’s reason to be optimistic that the current survey being undertaken by the Football Review Committee under the chair of Eugene McGee won’t suffer as badly as previous similar exercises. That optimism is based on the extensiveness of the consultation that has taken place as well as on the cautious functionality of the committee whose stated role was to identify areas of concern in football and leave it to Croke Park to address them.

The idea has been that the FRC, an independent body appointed by GAA president Liam O’Neill, would take soundings from as many people as possible and present a survey of the views and ideas about football as presented by the wider public as well as the various stakeholders within the game.

It has been a huge undertaking and the level of response has been commensurate. The survey on the FRC website has attracted 3,000 responses and 500 e-mails and 300 letters have been received by the committee. Twenty per cent or so of the responses have been from respondents under 24.

There have been discussions with players, administrators, managers, referees – and even media – as well as a number of focus group meetings around the country. A notable aspect of the responses has been the frequency of a preface saying that the respondent was delighted to have the chance to make a submission, something they hadn’t had before.

For an organisation which prides itself on its great democratic structure, the GAA suffers from the same administrative alienation as any other large body.

People feel that it’s hard to get their views taken into account and although the great ‘log cabin to White House’ narrative of proposing a motion at your club and shepherding it all the way into the Official Guide at Congress is theoretically possible, big issues are rarely resolved – or even ventilated – on that basis.

But Congress is certainly not completely out of touch with the concerns of the ordinary membership. Three and a half years ago the proposals of the Disciplinary Task Force chaired by Liam O’Neill – and designed to protect the skilful player and penalise foul play more effectively – resonated at annual congress to the extent that 64 per cent voted to clean up the games – just a fraction short of the necessary two-thirds majority.

A scan of the concerns which have arisen before the FRC reflects the breadth of the committee’s remit: championship structures, discipline, gamesmanship, club fixtures, hand passing, sin bins and countdown clocks.

It’s ironic the Dublin-Donegal All-Ireland semi-final of last year was the catalyst for all of this activity, crystallising as it did anxieties about the direction in which football was heading in its defensiveness, stacked rearguards and consequent low scoring.

The irony surfaced in a focus group last weekend when it was speculated that had Liam O’Neill’s term of office begun a year later, the questions about the game might have been different given the positivity generated by Donegal’s more evolved game and the county’s first All-Ireland win in 20 years. If so, the much-reviled semi-final has served a higher purpose – by acting as the trigger for the current review.

Early indications have been that a generation gap has revealed itself in and around the above issue. Younger respondents and players are far more flexible in terms of tactical innovation and more comfortable with the ubiquity of the hand-pass than those from an older demographic.

Playing styles and tactics are largely a matter of fashion and you need to be very sure of your ground to commence the task of genetically engineering football to your own taste and so it’s questionable how far down the road of such proposals as restricting the hand pass it’s advisable to travel.

There are however incontrovertible problems with a) discipline – the most obvious being that it is ambiguous whether committing fouls benefits or disadvantages your team, b) club fixtures – providing a reliable schedule of matches for the 98 per cent who don’t play at the elite, inter-county level and c) multi-eligibility – the practice of young players being asked to play for a vast number of teams between club, county, college and various age grades.

Championship structures are also in need of reform. No fair competition can place such radically different demands on contestants depending on their provenance. It’s likely that the four-conference initiative, which will square off provinces into eight-county units, will emerge as the most realistic proposal – but even that will face an uphill battle given the tradition of the provincial championships.

There are no guarantees that the FRC can be an immediate catalyst for solving all of the problems facing football but such has been the level of engagement with its consultative work that no-one can argue with the authenticity of the identified issues.

Every worthwhile reform in the GAA’s history has been a matter of trial and error: bringing forward proposals and at first being laughed out of it or peremptorily dismissed before the penny eventually drops. We have the qualifier system in both football and hurling because the more ambitious Football Development Committee proposals were blown out of the water but their discussion laid the ground for – albeit less radical – change that was accepted within six months.

The process of reform and improvement of football is now in motion and certainly in the long run, won’t be easily derailed. Change for the better looks inevitable.

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