Kieran McGeeney: Stop the cause of the offence rather than symptoms of the cause

14 June 2015; Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney after the game. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Armagh v Donegal. Athletic Grounds, Armagh.

Mistakes are meant for learning, not repeating

So the final is over and the victor has emerged and already the history books on this day have been written. And like we said earlier in the year, it’s all weighted on the side of the winner. It’s all the goalkeeper’s fault and the manager’s for making that one decision, which resulted in a one-point win or loss depending on your perspective. Oh, if it were that simple.

No mention of the balls dropped short or the missed frees, or missed tackles and/or poor decisions and so on. But such are the spoils of sport. As well as raising the cup, you get to brush over all your bad points while at the same time exaggerating your opponents’; everything you do is right (or more right) and everything everybody else is doing is wrong.

But that is old ground. And now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Dublin are not worthy winners, they certainly are. And overall I think it was a good year of football. But what I also believe is that we can get many learnings from some events of the year, many of which were highlighted again in the final replay.

“If you don’t know what you want” the doorman said, “you end up with a lot you don’t”

-Chuck Palahniuk -Fight Club


After watching the All-Ireland final last week, it struck me that the man in the middle is becoming increasingly more important than the players, and that is not what we want.

It is often said in any good business: hierarchy should be present but not always seen. Maybe the same could be said for referees. This will not be a referee-bashing article, but I do think their job is an impossible one (Peter Sweeney did a great article on this and I agree with all of it).

I’ve always believed that you need to know where you want to go to have any chance of getting there. In the GAA we can be obsessed with fire-fighting, or to put it another way, concentrating on what we don’t want and putting in new rules to stop it rather than focusing on what we do want and making our rules comply with it. To try and put things into perspective, I decided to look at the difference between the refereeing of Maurice Deegan last Saturday and the Dublin-Mayo game in 2006.

Refereeing comparison 10 years on

Paddy Russell was the man in charge of that semi-final a decade ago, with Deegan as linesman. The major rule differences in that 10-year period were that kickouts used to be taken from the six-yard box after a wide and the ’14 following a score, the introduction of the advantage rule and the black card which are now in play.

From a subjective view having watched both games simultaneously the physicality and contact levels were greater in 2016. However there was no great difference in the number of turnovers: 55 in 2016, and 52 in 2006. Russell adjudged there to be 28 fouls in 2006 (12 by Mayo, 16 by Dublin) but that was almost doubled last Saturday as 52 fouls were committed: 19 by Mayo and 33 by Dublin.

The advantage rule was applied on 17 occasions by Deegan; 10 to the Dubs, and on three occasions he came back for the initial foul allowing the Dubs to score 0-2 from frees. Mayo were awarded an advantage seven times, five times coming back for the initial foul resulting in 0-3 from frees. Cormac Costello’s match-winning point was the result of advantage being played as he took the shot. Cillian O’Connor’s late free chance occurred after his brother Diarmuid had been granted an advantage after a foul by Costello. In 2006 there is a case that the advantage rule could have been played on just two occasions.

The number of fouls has increased dramatically but the number of cards has remained similar; six yellow cards were issued in 2006 and five in 2016. Receiving a black card in 2006 was known as ‘a tick’, with three players receiving one. Observations of the 2006 semi-final conclude that a potential four black cards could have been issued for cynical play/deliberate fouling. A yellow was issued to Mayo’s Dermot Geraghty for a foul described by RTE commentator Kevin McStay at the time as “a professional foul in the amateur game… it's cynical but we allow for it”.

Dermotgeraghty (1) (1)


Rule changes introduced in 2016 saw an additional 20 seconds allocated for every substitute,30 seconds each time Hawk-Eye was utilised, and 20 seconds for each instance of a goalkeeper or defender going up-field for a placed-ball attempt.







Additional Time announced





Total time played (mm:ss)





Ball in Play (mm:ss)





The total time taken for kickouts has almost halved in a ten-period. In the 2006 semi-final there were 44 kickouts, taking approximately 23 minutes and 3 seconds. In 2016, the 41 kickouts needed about 12 minutes 57 seconds from when a shot went dead until the goalkeeper struck the ball.

So you can see that the referee is definitely having more influence and involvement than he used to with almost twice as many interventions now compared with the past.

The other thing that stands out is the quickness of the kickout, with it being moved twice as fast as it used to be. Perhaps these two are linked in terms of the game speeding up so much and the referee finding himself much more involved but, as a good friend of mine once told me: correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. But it is definitely worth looking into.

I would like to look into other areas as well and how our rules have just become a matter of interpretation instead of being what they are: rules. (Huge thanks once again to Brian from BMAC Performance analysis.)

A game of half rules

Talking to different people over the years — players, supporters, referees, administrators — the majority of complaints seem to centre around the stop-start nature of the game and the inconsistency with which referees interpret the rules. In other words, what we seem to want is fast, free-flowing games that allow physicality but not cynicism — with lots more scores. So I propose why not work backwards from this vision and make the rules work toward them? (Obviously I’m not saying to just use my vision.)

I know there are people out there who say the rules are fine as they stand but I would tend to differ on that opinion, and this point was really brought home to me many years ago when I represented Ireland in the international Rules series. We had Australian referees over and they were trying to understand our game and the parts that would be incorporated into the combined game.

During one of the workshops after training, one of the Aussie referees sat beside me and said “I really can't get to grip with Gaelic football”. I asked why and he said, “it’s a game of half rules.” I laughed, and even though I felt I knew what he meant, I asked him to elaborate. “What is a free one minute is not the next,” he said, adding how size and strength could be a hindrance in many circumstances and then a help in other areas.

For example, is an Aidan O’Shea allowed to tackle a Jack Caffrey the same way a Jack Caffrey is allowed to tackle an Aidan O’Shea? If Jack used his whole body weight and strength it’s unlikely he would knock Aidan over, but you would expect a different outcome if it was the other way around. Then one would be a foul and the other wouldn’t. This is rather a gross simplification of an event, but it does happen.

So Aidan would get penalised for his strength whereas Jack wouldn’t. What if we penalised Jack for his speed in beating Aidan to a ball… would this be okay, as surely it’s the same thing? Other examples include pushing off an opponent while in possession, or holding your opponent while he is in possession but just not for too long. We could go on and on like this to show examples of our half rules. So what’s the answer?

As I mentioned earlier, I believe we need to start with a collective vision of where we want to end up. Presently we have many people talking about the merits or not of the black card, and to be honest I don’t believe all these barbed comments either way are helping.

We now have great GAA people having a go at each other, people I’ve had words with myself over the years but people I’ve tremendous respect and admiration for. These figures have valid points and are entitled to their opinion but are also very defensive about the areas they have been involved in, and rightly so as well.

But surely we could harness the extensive knowledge they have in a more constructive way. The black card was introduced for the right reasons and has had some very positive effects on the game but it has also added negatives, and exaggerated some of the more vague areas of our rules. So it’s only a matter of adapting it and tweaking it rather than just calling to get rid of it.

Nothing is ever perfect first time around and nothing keeps everybody happy, but if it gets us closer to the vision we have of our game then it's surely worth trying.

Just to get the debate going… We can say that the black card has helped towards taking out the third-man tackle and some examples of cynical play but the principal reason for its introduction — stopping a man going through for a score in the dying minutes of the game — hasn’t been eradicated.

Why? Well quite simply the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Surely would it not be better to reward the offended team with the very thing the opposition is trying to avoid, namely a shot at goal or a shot at a point? It’s only a suggestion but would a player be pulled down in order to stop a goal if the punishment for pulling him down was to give him a clearer attempt at goal?

What I am trying to suggest here is that we start to look at stopping the cause of the offence rather than symptoms of the cause.

Confused? Well, here is another one. At the moment we talk about too many hand-passes and not enough kicking of the ball. Our proposed solution is talking about limiting the amount of hand-passes, another hard job for the referee. Firstly let's look at the cause, the number of players getting back to defend the goals makes players hesitant to kick the ball in a now high-pressure game where possession is key.

But surely in a counter-attacking game where everybody is now attacking into space there are times when the kick is on. However players and therefore play is slowed up in the middle third with seemingly innocuous fouls, which gives time for the opposition to get behind the ball and limit the chance of the kick-pass. And if the player or team fouled want to take a free quickly and the opposition are slow to step back, what happens? He either tries to kick through the player or tries to take a few steps around him and how do we give advantage to the team that’s been fouled? We either throw the ball up or tell him to go back and take the free from the spot, therefore slowing the play down even further and giving the opposition even more time to get back. Result: more hand-passes and less kicking.

So what could we do to help reduce hand-passing and increase kick-passing, especially on that counter-attack phase? We could give the team in possession more opportunities to move the ball quickly out of the foul zone and into the scoring zone i.e. the fouling player must retreat five or 10 metres quickly or allow the fouled player the advantage of continuing to play the ball whichever way he sees fit without interference, or it will be a penalty 21-metre free. This of course is only a suggestion but it would definitely reduce fouling and encourage more kicking without putting an extra burden on the ref. Treat the cause, not the symptom, and I believe we would get better results.


Anyway, just to end on a more positive note as I like to do, I have to say I really enjoyed this year’s championship (obviously outside our own poor performances), and I believe there have been some great games with some tremendous individual performances.

There are loads of opinions out there at the moment about All Stars and Players of the Year etc. To be perfectly honest I would find it hard to give a good balanced view as I didn’t see every game but there were four players for me that stood out in every game I saw them in.

They wereMichael Quinlivanfrom Tipperary, Ryan McHugh from Donegal, Lee Keegan from Mayo and Ciaran Kilkenny from Dublin. I thought when Kilkenny moved to wing-back in the Leinster final he gave a superb display and has consistently been a strong cog in the Dublin outfit all year.

But overall I’d probably give the nod to Keegan because of his performances at both ends of the field from the beginning to end of the championship.

And whether in the winning or losing camp we all now face the same task, to reflect on our own year, see the positives, repeat them, see the mistakes, learn from them, and keep moving forward.