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High time Gaelic football's growing foul count was tackled

By Declan Bogue

Published 08/04/2015

Head lock: Tyrone’s Ronan McNamee and Kieran Donaghy of Kerry get to grips with each other during their National League meeting
Head lock: Tyrone’s Ronan McNamee and Kieran Donaghy of Kerry get to grips with each other during their National League meeting

Amazing, this Twitter business.

On Monday morning, I decided to tweet something I found significant from the day before. It read: '34 fouls by Kerry yesterday. 14 by Tyrone. Don't expect that to get too much airing.'

Well, it did.

134 retweets and 101 favourites at the last time of checking (a retweet from Joe Brolly tends to pour petrol on anything smouldering), and the Irish Independent had even made a story of it on their online edition, describing your humble correspondent as a "very accomplished journalist." Shucks.

Many of the Twitterati threw themselves into the debate on Monday.

Joe Brolly told his 65,000 followers; 'they are extremely cynical in the middle third. The drag back/hold is a central plank of their game plan.'

Referring to their league game against Derry; 'at Celtic Park they fouled in the middle third 100% of the time, if they were close enough. It is automatic.'

From Paul Brewster: 'and that doesn't count the number of off the ball fouls stopping support runners - Mattie Don(nelly). taken out a lot in 1st half?'

@JohnnyBruff reminded us that in a 2005 Munster Championship game - (Kerry 2-10 Limerick 0-10), Kerry committed 27 fouls and had only Tom O'Sullivan booked, while Limerick were pinged for 14 fouls, got five yellow cards and a red.

In the current debate about aesthetics and 'football as entertainment', the cynical foul is still alive and well. The rogue gene merely mutated from tripping and pull-downs into bear-hugs and holding onto the man after a free is awarded.

Let's face it, Kerry are not - and have no interest in being - the great entertainers. They are into winning. If, along the way, they can play a bit of outside-of-the-boot stuff then well and good, but they are about the bottom line. Thirty-seven All-Irelands. Read it and weep.

They learn lessons fast. After being stung by Tyrone and Armagh over a decade ago, they soon brought themselves up to speed with defensive systems, then-manager Jack O'Connor even admitting to meeting an Ulster coach for a bit of one-to-one time.

During the 80s, Ulster teams did not think themselves worthy of challenging the likes of Dublin and Kerry. For most teams, preparation was shambolic. Training was often followed by a plate of sandwiches and some pints.

Three weeks out from their Championship matches they would go on a binge of running, get beaten and then wrap it up.

Now, even the most unfashionable counties have got their act together and will acquire as many marginal gains as possible. Players' feelings on the matter, as noble as that concept may be, has little relevance.

Tyrone may be held up as poster boys for negative football the last few years, but they were also out-fouled by Donegal (29 to 20) the week before.

Forget for a moment about a fantasy world where extra umpires are required to count how many forwards remain in their attacking 65 metres, and consider instead what Dick Clerkin said last week in a radio debate with new GAA playing rules chairman Jarlath Burns, when he said that we should begin to treat the cause and not the symptom.

It pays too handsomely to foul. So what can we change?

Over the weekend, I watched the dramatic finish to two Aussie Rules games; Sydney Swans' dramatic comeback against Essendon Bombers, and Freemantle Dockers' squeezing past Port Adelaide.

Fouling is not an issue in the sport because they have a wrap-tackle.

Some have pushed the idea of a wrap tackle for Gaelic football, but where does that leave a genius like Colm Cooper?

Back for his first game in 14 months on Sunday, Cooper displayed his mastery of motor skills, showcasing his range of feints, dummies and skills in a blissful cameo. We all treasure that kind of player but a legalised wrap tackle would soon render players like Cooper extinct.

So, how about a foul count?

In the right spirit, this could be a serious addition to the game. Three strikes and you are out for the rest of the game. Increase the number of substitutes to 10.

But then, how long before managers use the extra subs to run down the clock at the finale of an enthralling fixture, or even send on players with the brief of fouling twice before they are replaced?

A line of conversation said within my earshot by a county manager a few years ago speaks of our changing attitudes and growing admiration for cheating.

Watching his county under-21 team defend against an attacking team, a defender wrapped an attacker in his arms and held on until the referee blew his whistle.

"Good foul," he said to the man beside him.

That says it all. Good luck Jarlath.

Belfast Telegraph

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