Chief Burns braced for a backlash as mark is introduced
Jarlath Burns, the Chairman of the Football Review Committee, is fully prepared for a torrent of criticism of the Australian-Rules style mark after the rule change is brought in across the board on Sunday.
The Dr McKenna Cup will be the first time - in its latest guise - that supporters can see the mark used across Ulster. It has already been used in December's inter-provincial series, won by Ulster against Connacht in the final in Carrick-on-Shannon, and in recent higher educational competitions.
Burns has already faced criticism for his role in the introduction of the rule. He told the Belfast Telegraph: "In terms of people having what you call a backlash, which is something that happens after the event, with the mark I experienced what I will call a 'frontlash', which is a criticism before a ball was even kicked. But that's what you expect."
Drawing a comparison to another recently-introduced rule in Gaelic football - the black card - Burns maintained how that hugely contentious change continues to improve the game as a spectacle.
"It (the mark) is similar to the black card. With the black card, all that people see are the sad faces of (Tipperary's) Robbie Kiely and (Mayo's) Lee Keegan walking off the field," he said.
"They don't see the advantage, the free-flowing play, the ball going from one end of the field to the other, the better tackling, all those things."
The Ulster Championship-winning Armagh captain of 1999 uses the rather colourful metaphor of, "when the government puts in a strategy to cut down teenage pregnancy, you cannot meet any girl who didn't not get pregnant as a result of it," to explain the benefits.
After several briefings with his fellow FRC members, it was identified that a lack of fluency was harming the image and the spectacle of Gaelic football. Hence the motivation for bringing in the mark, which just scraped through a vote at Congress in 2016, gaining 68 per cent of the vote which required a two-thirds majority.
"Look at games three or four years ago and it was general policy that when a team was attacking with great purpose, someone came along to pull them down. That was a major problem in the game," said Burns.
"With the mark, all we wanted to do really was just open the game up."
So far, with the mark being played in a number of off-Broadway venues, Burns has received positive feedback, though he knows that may change when high-profile managers and players are asked for their views having experienced it first-hand in the first round of McKenna Cup games.
"It hasn't been disruptive at all. That's what it is supposed to be, that the game might go by and you might not notice it," he commented.
"I think in the first game, there were six marks taken. That is way ahead of the number we thought was going to be taken. We thought there might be one or two each half.
"In the early days, it's going to be interesting to see. There will be unadulterated marks. It will also be interesting to see if it embeds kicking the ball out to the middle of the field."
In the inter-provincial final, a notable element of Charlie Vernon's goal for Ulster - which granted them the lead for the first time in the game - was how it stemmed from a mark taken by wing-back Declan McCusker from a Niall Morgan kickout in the second half.
Unopposed because of the five-seconds grace after taking his mark, McCusker was able to pick out a pass without being challenged, which set in motion a flowing movement that Vernon crowned with a thumping shot to the roof of David Clarke's net to take the lead.
"I think that players will take the mark increasingly. When you take the mark, players have to stand away from you and allow you one free play, or a kick," added Burns.
"That means that it's a big advantage. I watched a few videos of it.
"What it does is that if a team are on their game and a keeper kicks the ball out and it is caught, all of the things that are required for scoring are there.
"A bit of space out the middle of the field to kick the ball, the blanket defence hasn't time to filter back, and it is a perfect opportunity to counter-attack into space."