Pulsating league clashes can rule out big changes
There is a palpable sense of anticipation as the Allianz Football League begins to hot up. And it's not just because every team is feeling the pressure as a vital week-end looms.
Certainly, the outcome of games this Saturday and Sunday will have a big bearing on promotion and relegation issues.
Managers are acutely aware that with a two-week break looming after this programme of second round fixtures has been completed, the prospect of a respite while burdened with relegation worries is something that they just don't wish to contemplate.
But while team fortunes will preoccupy players, managers and supporters, GAA administrators are beginning to focus even more strongly on just how the game is actually played over the course of the league.
This is hardly surprising given that Congress is due to take place in Derry before the end of March and by that stage the league will have reached a fairly advanced stage.
By then, too, the powers-that-be will have gained a further insight into just how the game has evolved, taking on board the dramatic strategic ploys and tactical machinations which have brought the sport onto a different plateau over the past two years in particular.
With a number of proposals from the Football Review Committee likely to be aired at Congress, the style, concept and approach adopted by teams during the league could well help to fashion just how votes are cast.
While there is a feeling abroad that some amendments to the current playing rules are necessary, I would be very reluctant to endorse this view.
The season of course is still very much in its infancy and no-one will read too much into the fare which has been on offer in all four provinces since the dawn of the New Year but I would caution against too much tampering with the rules as they are currently framed.
I am aware that the groundwork is being prepared for what could be described as an 'overhaul' of gaelic football, particularly in relation to disciplinary issues, but for me that would be taking things too far.
While the Football Review Committee under the very capable chairmanship of Eugene McGee has come up with a number of recommendations, I do not see any real reason while all of these should be implemented.
Instead, I would hope that the league action in advance of Congress will see more emphasis placed on high fielding, less pulling, dragging and time-wasting and on greater respect for referees.
Obviously the whistlers are going to be in the spotlight and the focus will be on ascertaining just what level of consistency has been reached following all the publicity and debate which has surrounded the uniform interpretation of the playing rules.
I would be very much in favour of two modifications to the playing rules – the award of a 'mark' to a player effecting a high catch in midfield and the referee being empowered to bring free-kicks much closer to the posts to further penalise players deemed guilty of cynical play or abuse of any form.
We are fortunate here in Ulster in that we have some of the finest exponents of high fielding in the modern game – players like Neil Gallagher (Donegal), Sean Cavanagh (Tyrone), Kalum King (Down, Martin McGrath (Fermanagh), David Givney (Cavan), Patsy Bradley (Derry), Owen Lennon (Monaghan), Michael McCann (Antrim) and Kieran Toner (Armagh). How frustrating, though, it must be for our midfield craftsmen when they soar high to claim the ball only to be engulfed by bodies on their return to earth and, worse still, have a free awarded against them.
Owen Lennon took three splendid catches for Monaghan against Tyrone in the recent Power NI McKenna Cup final but his team derived little or no benefit from his eye-catching skills because of the opposition's ability to surround him and prevent him from using the ball to good account – a legal tactic but it made for very untidy viewing.
We have all heard the plea 'let the game flow' from the fans in the stands and on the terraces yet sometimes when referees take this course they are accused of ignoring fouls – a case of being damned if you do and damned if you don't.
The Allianz League will offer referees and players a further opportunity to showcase gaelic football in a positive light and from my perspective I hope that this is maximised.
You can be sure that county board officials up and down the country along with members of the powerful Central Competitions Control Committee and also the Football Review Committee will be watching anxiously to see how the action evolves.
To my mind it would be a great pity if the league action was to offer further cannon fodder for those who would seek to tamper significantly with the playing rules.
If on the other hand the league were to throw up a series of exciting, skilful and passionate encounters that epitomise the virtues of the sport, then I would think that the level of debate on amendments to playing rules at Congress could become rather more limited.
And that's not to say that the work of the Football Review Committee would have been in vain. After all, Eugene McGee and his merry men have succeeded in getting us all thinking about the perceived ills within the sport.
And that in itself could prove a starting point for real progress.