Paul Earley believes excessive hand-passing threatens football’s ‘core values’

Former FRC member says GAA needs to conduct annual review of how the game is played

The GAA need to conduct an annual review of trends in football according to Paul Earley, who has said he is worried by the proliferation of hand-passing in the game.

Earley, a member of the Football Review Committee which reported two years ago and manager of Ireland’s International Rules team in the past two series, is one of the GAA’s most qualified football coaches and he believes the game runs the danger of becoming no longer attractive to watch.

“One of the things we said in the report was we wanted the GAA to look at the hand-pass on an annual basis and see if the trend changed,” he told this newspaper. “It’s up to them at this stage.

“It’s easy enough, as we have all the data prior to 2013 so all they have to do is look at 2013 and 2014 championships and league campaigns and see if there are dramatic changes.

“We have too much debate in the GAA without supporting evidence in my view and we need to gather that evidence in order to have an informed discussion.”

Report publication

The FRC report found that the ratio of hand-passing to kick -passing had steadily increased from 1.1:1 in the 1970s to 2.3:1 at the beginning of this decade. That ratio had however dropped in the couple of years to the report publication in late 2012 to 2.1:1.

At last month’s GAA Congress, the proposer of one of the motions to restrict hand-passing (all defeated) cited statistics from one weekend’s televised matches earlier in this year’s football league. It was a snap shot rather than a detailed survey sample but it showed in the Mayo-Tyrone and Meath-Kildare matches that the ratio was 3.9:1.

According to Earley the FRC decided not to recommend restriction of the hand-pass, as they believed that the trend was moving in the right direction but he believes that may be changing.

“When we considered this in the FRC, we thought the climate was changing but that the GAA needed to look at it on an annual basis and if that trend was being reversed to do something about it.

“I don’t have data but anecdotally you’d imagine there was more hand-passing in the last year and they need to analyse that and if that is the case, do something about it and if that means limiting it – okay, it puts extra pressure on the referee but it was done in the International Rules.

“I know there are two referees there but football is a slower game so I don’t think it’s the case that it’s not manageable.”

Whereas a year ago the influence of Dublin's attacking style was seen as strong after the county's All-Ireland win, the influence last year was different.

Defensive game

“If you look back this debate has probably been prompted by last year’s All-Ireland final,” he said, “which was quite a defensive game. Kerry certainly played more defensively than they had done throughout the championship. We had three great semi-finals which were very positive and where there was a lot of very good kicking.

“I think if we’d had a final like that this debate mightn’t have been heard at all. When we looked at it we analysed 20 years ago, 10 years ago and the most recent trends. We found that the top teams in particular were kicking the ball as much as they were hand-passing it and that the ratio had improved in the previous year or 18 months. We thought that may have been a trend but it is much easier to coach a defensive strategy than a creative attacking strategy.

“It worries me, the proliferation of hand-passing and how it’s becoming more difficult to dispossess players in possession by the nature of the way the game is being played.

“Many teams are just allowing opposition to retain possession out the field and the putting them under pressure in the forward line.”

Earley doesn’t believe that teams or coaches should have unfettered control over how the game is played, as it is the GAA’s responsibility to protect what he terms “the core principles of football”.

Core values

“We were trying to protect the core values or principles of the game. One of them was the contest and the high catching in the middle of the field. A lot of the excessive hand-passing arises from the short kick-out and we saw it over the weekend. Whenever any team goes short you’re going to have seven or eight hand passes up to the middle of the field in general; I know Dublin try to move it that bit quicker.

“The mark was defeated by a narrow margin in congress but it’s interesting that International Rules kick-out that had to pass the 45-metre line last year got a lot of positive reaction and (GAA Director General) Páraic Duffy mentioned it in his annual report.

“It challenged us as coaching unit to try and master it. It promotes the contest in the middle of the field, which is what people want – and one of the reasons hurling is such a popular spectacle – to see and is one of the core principles. It would also substantially reduce the amount of hand-passing. Having seen it in action, I think it’s something worth considering.

“The big issue here is that the administrators have got to protect the integrity of the game and the core principles. If they see it going in a particular direction and those principles are being diminished they’ve got to do something about. Football is a kicking game, a contesting game, a fast game but is moving away from that to being a possession game with very few contests around the field and less attractive for players to play and people to watch.”