Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Case for 13-a-side

As human beings we evolve.  Humans are taller, stronger, and live longer nowadays compared to a generation or two ago.  Along with evolution of the species, training and fitness programs have evolved, making naturally taller and stronger athletes even fitter and stronger today compared to 15 or 20 years ago.  The games we play must also evolve with the athletes who play them. 

The 13-a-side game in North America is an open and fast
version of Gaelic Football.
Much has been said and written about the defensive tactics employed by a number of county and club football teams lately.  Pat Spillane’s “Puke football” was one of the early descriptions of said tactics.  Joe Brolly referred to the recent Dublin versus Derry National League game as “muck.”  I have watched some of the intercounty games from Ireland in recent years and I have to say that at times the game resembles basketball or Olympic handball played on a large field.  The team not in possession retreats en masse to defend the goal while the team with the ball passes back and forth across the field several times before deciding to attempt a penetrating pass.  I do not always remember it being that way; my memory is of the ball moving up and down the field fairly quickly rather than side to side.

Anyway, changing rules to suit the changing times is nothing new.  Basketball is a great example.  Rules were introduced to keep dominant players from completely taking over games.  The 3 second rule to prevent a particularly tall player from camping under the basket, or rules for free throws to prevent said taller than tall players from leaning towards the basket and reducing the distance. 

What seems to have happened with Gaelic football has as much to do with fitness and stamina levels as with tactics.  In the “old” days players would not have been fit enough to rush up and down the field to clog the defence or break away for 70 minutes the way they can now.  As a manager, if your players have the ability to execute the tactics why not use them?

I am more used to watching the 13-a-side game played under the North American County Board rules.  It has been that way since I came the United States 23 years ago.  I do not know the reason for playing 13-a-side, I always put it down to the fact that we played on a small field.  Maybe it was down to numbers, who knows.  Anyway, since moving to the full size field the numbers have remained the same and the games are highly entertaining.  Four less players on the field means more space and managers have to vary tactics.  Forwards have more room in which to operate and games are open and fast.

It would be a radical change; maybe the powers that be would have to wait until there is a crisis (which there is no sign of just yet) before contemplating such a radical change.  Radical changes are not unprecedented in the GAA however.  At one time games were played with 21 players on each team, goals counted for an infinite number of points, frees and sidelines had to be taken off the ground, etc.  However, if these tactics continue and lead to a decline in attendances and viewership opening up the game by reducing the number of players would be an option that is worthy of a high place on the list of considerations.  Canton on a Sunday in high summer is evidence of that. 

By Rory O'Donnell

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