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Joe Kernan: We must keep ‘mark’ for sake of the game

The art of high fielding in gaelic football had been verging on extinction until the advent of the ‘mark’ as part of the overall experimental rules package.

And now with the half-way stage in the National League having been passed it has become abundantly clear that those sides which are best-equipped to effect high catches in the central area and thus reap the benefits that invariably accrue from a ‘mark’ are treading the path to progress.

Dublin sit unbeaten at the top of Division One primarily because Eamon Fennell on current form is one of the best midfielders in the country and Cork are tucked just in behind them largely through the influence of the towering Alan O’Connor and Pearse O’Neill in their engine-room.

Down are setting a hot pace in Division Two thanks to the aerial ability of skipper Ambrose Rogers and the emerging Calum King while close rivals Armagh — whom they meet in Saturday night’s eagerly-awaited all-ticket tie at Parc Esler, Newry — are currently being very well served by the imposing Kieran Toner who is rapidly acquiring the status of one of the best midfielders in the province even though he is comparatively young.

In Division Three Antrim’s Brendan Herron has proven a revelation since returning to the side after having given a commitment to hurling and now his lucrative partnership with Michael McCann has had much to do with the Saffrons spirited surge that could yet take them all the way into Division Two.

There may still be quite a number of people who harbour reservations about the ‘mark’ but it is certainly proving a useful boost for those teams whose midfielders can garner clean possession from goal-kicks. They are then presented with the opportunity to launch counter-attacks from the ‘marks’ thus maintaining pressure on their opponents’ defence.

Over the course of the past decade we have witnessed many instances of superb high fielding in the midfield area only for the player involved to be immediately engulfed in opposition shirts on landing on the ground after taking his chance. There has always been a certain inevitability about the outcome — a free against the player who effected the high catch simply because he is denied breathing space with absolutely no chance of off-loading the ball to a colleague.

It is to counter what is deemed as this negative, though certainly not illegal, ploy that the ‘mark’ has been introduced and while we must await the verdict of Congress next month to ascertain if the experimental rules will be carried over into this year’s Championship, I for one would be disappointed if the ‘mark’ were not to be retained.

Perhaps I am biased — as a former midfielder I have always had a special empathy with those who play in this area. When the tactic of suffocating the player who took a clean catch was perfected in recent years, many of us felt that the sport was stripped of some of its intrinsic value. All is fair in love and war of course and managers have the right to employ the tactics that will best facilitate their sides’ chances of victory.

But the manner in which the ‘mark’ is currently illuminating the National League to some extent, even though games are not actually peppered with spectacular feats of high fielding, offers the hope that gaelic football can improve as a spectacle.

Down through the years those teams who enjoyed huge success invariably boasted high-flyers, if you will forgive the pun, in midfield.

In the 60’s Down had the elegant Colm McAlarney, then Kerry gave us one of the greatest of them all in the legendary Mick O’Connell before Offaly provided Willie Bryan and Kerry offered the peerless Jack O’Shea. In the 80’s and 90’s players like Brian Mullins (Dublin), Eugene McKenna (Tyrone), Liam McHale (Mayo), Gerry McEntee (Meath), Anthony Tohill (Derry) and Steven King (Cavan) joined the ranks of the midfield elite because of their exceptional fielding skills.

And among those players of rather more recent vintage who made their particular mark before the ‘mark’ itself came into being are Paul McGrane (Armagh), Martin McGrath (Fermanagh), Dermot Earley (Roscommon), Nicholas Murphy (Cork), Dara O Sé (Kerry) and the newest of the breed in my book, Tyrone’s midfield nugget Aidan Cassidy who has impressed me in his county’s colours since the start of the National League.

He is certainly proving a worthy successor to his Augher club colleague Eugene McKenna whose own son Niall is currently making a name for himself in the midfield zone at club level with Donaghamore and at under-age level with the Red Hands.

Niall may have some way to go before he can claim parity with his father in terms of football achievements but he is among those who will certainly play a major role in ensuring the role of the midfielder will always continue to occupy a special place in the affections of GAA followers.

Belfast Telegraph

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