"These new rules are setting us up to fail. It's hard enough for a referee"

A few years back, on a crisp and clear Wednesday evening in October, two intermediate clubs in Derry were contesting a relegation playoff in Celtic Park, the loser of which was to be condemned to junior status.

Joe Mulholland was the referee.

A native of Moneymore at the very south of the county but a resident in Desertmartin, not even 10 minutes up the road, he made the hour-long journey over the Glenshane mountain and into Derry city to cover a tense affair that would finish with just 12 scores, Limavady beating Seán Dolan’s 1-6 to 1-4.

Dolan’s were relegated but mere inches spared Limavady and they spared Joe Mulholland too because it was his mistake that led to what could’ve been a twist of fate.

In a tight and narky clash, a scrap broke out after a foul in the Limavady half. Pushing followed, foreheads came together, and more and more players charged into the carnage until, eventually, Joe got things under control. It was only after play had restarted though that he realised he had pointed the wrong way and gave a free to Dolan’s despite their player committing the initial foul that stopped the game. 

He watched on with horror as they cut their way through the Limavady defence, one of those plays a ref is just hoping that karma or some force of the universe or just plain luck would intervene for him so a split-second decision made in the heat of a raging battle didn’t determine an entire year for a club, unjustly.

As it worked out, a thumping effort rattled the post and rebounded into Limavady possession and, still, seven years later, Mulholland wonders what would’ve happened if the ball had hit the net. 

All he could do was apologise. John Deighan, who was the Derry ‘keeper at the time, was in goals for Limavady and had the best view of that shot that ricocheted off the woodwork. Mulholland was beside him with the Limavady players rightly incensed and he explained what happened and simply said that he was sorry. What else could he do?

“I just admitted it and held my hands up… but imagine that had went in the net? Dolan’s would've gone two up in that second half and might've won the game.

“We're not infallible. We'll make mistakes.”

Honesty has always been an admirable policy of Joe’s, it’s what makes him such a popular referee in Derry. And, in a county of intense rivalry, it’s rare to get a referee so close to being universally liked. For 19 years, Mulholland has been officiating at all levels of Oak Leaf club football, right up to senior championship, and he has taken the field every week with no agenda, no bias, and nothing but a genuine effort to call things as he sees them. If he doesn’t see it, he doesn’t give it and he’ll tell you why. If he gives it, he’ll tell you why.

As a veteran of the whistle, Mulholland can live with mistakes safe in the knowledge that he’s trying his best but his biggest issue with the new rules being trialled in Gaelic football is that him and his fellow referees, particularly at club level, are being exposed to more opportunities of making mistakes.

“All these new rules are doing is adding more pressure,” he says.

“Every year, there are more rules to be applied and, let me tell you something, it's a hard enough station without these new rules.

“You had Martin McNally during the week doing the University of Ulster game against Derry and then Branagan at the weekend, and these are good referees, inter-county referees. The hames that they're making of things is scary and they're there with linesmen, umpires, fourth officials and you take, as an example, an ordinary club game - a Ballinderry against Loup or a Slaughtneil down at Glen – with none of that support… I just don't think people realise the pressure referees come under for these games.

“Big crowds, the whole parochialism, and the pressure that's on you to get it right. Already, you're looking at the hand to toe, the double bounce, you're counting the steps and you're looking off the ball and looking to see if there's any holding going on.

“But this rule now means that you cannot take your eyes off the ball for a wee simple hand pass that you might misjudge.

“Then, look at every club nowadays. Every club from under-12 up, they have a fucking video at it. So there's no escaping it. You make a mistake and everyone will see it.

“Imagine you're doing a relegation battle - two clubs' life or death - and all of a sudden you miss a hand pass and there's a fourth one played before they kick a point and a team is relegated because you missed a hand pass.

“You'd be off their Christmas card list, let's put it that way.

“Every single thing a referee does is scrutinized. I saw that Derry v Tyrone video and you can imagine the frustration of the players and the people there to watch and you can even hear the crowd going ‘ya bollocks ye!’”

If the rules themselves were points of fair contention because of the predictable problems that would arise from them and the dramatic idea that the biggest sport in Ireland should and could so easily be fundamentally changed, the implementation of them really hasn’t helped.

In October, the Standing Committee on the Playing Rules introduced five proposals to be trialled in what was, by far, the most circulated document of the lot. By the time the rules were approved for experimentation in November – exactly eight weeks later – to be trialled in December, four of those proposals had either been altered or just wholly replaced and that affected the clarity around a series of ideas which really threatened to complicate the game further.

The sideline kick hasn’t changed much in the intervening weeks although, initially, it was said that it would still have to be played forward, even if a player was 14 metres from the opposition end line. It still has to be played forward now if the kick is outside the 20, which still presents more potential rewards for a defensive team than the attacking team. For all the research done before the implementation of these rules, there was often a lack of common sense applied to how each of them would work out in practice. In real life.

The advanced mark has since been ruined. The first proposal which drew little controversy or uproar (probably the only one) was that a ball kicked from beyond the 45’ and caught inside the 20-metre line would result in a mark, if you wanted. Now, a mark is awarded if a ball is caught cleanly anywhere inside the 45’ as long as it’s a 20-metre kick pass (from open play) that starts from beyond the 45’. The referee now must guess what he thinks is a 20-metre kick pass and award what will probably be a scorable free for a measurement estimation he’s made up in his head. 

Even the GAA themselves failed to explain their own rules when they tried to simplify the key points for each in a tidy, fool-proof graphic. Unfortunately, the picture they drew as an example of how to win a mark showed a pass being played from inside the 45’ rather than beyond it, which would not be a mark – as per their rules. Eventually, they amended and circulated a new crash course.

The sin bin for a black card is something the vast majority of people welcome with open arms but, even then, that very rule was hampered with as the initial proposal married it, completely pointlessly, with a stipulation that a second yellow card would also result in a sin bin, meaning that a player could commit three yellow card offences before being sent off. Thankfully, that’s been rectified.

Remember the kickout rule they offered? Jesus Christ. Six players have to start inside the opposition 45’ and six more outfielders inside your own 45’ meaning it would be 2 v 2 inside a 54.5 x 88 metre area in the middle of the pitch. That would’ve changed the traditional midfielder type overnight and it would’ve delayed the game in extraordinary proportions waiting for the referee to marshal who is in the zones they’re supposed to be in. It also would’ve depended on a ‘keeper being able to kick the ball consistently beyond the 45’ because no-one was allowed to touch it before one of those four in the middle did and that failed to take into account a decent wind, a misplaced kick, a young ‘keeper or just a bad ‘keeper. Of all the rules, it was the one which showed the least concern for how on earth it would’ve worked at club level. 

On The GAA Hour, David Hassan cited Stephen Cluxton’s amazing ball to Jack McCaffrey down the left that completely opened up Tyrone and changed the game in the All-Ireland final – it’s great when examples of the current game are used as reasons to change the current game – and he used this example as a reason why we should be enthused by the kickout proposal. He didn’t seem to realise that his new rule would’ve meant Jack McCaffrey would not be allowed to touch that ball or even drift beyond his 45’ until one of the midfielders did. He was outruling the kickout of the year. The motion was scrapped and all they did was move the kickout from the 13-metre line forward to the 20-metre line, where it used to be taken from.

Then, the hand pass idea. Targeting the symptom, not the disease. Making it more rewarding to flood the defence knowing a team would have to kick it down your throat eventually. Transforming the game into an unnatural state where a perfectly brilliant attacking move would be outlawed if your fourth pass was with the fist, regardless if it was creating a goal chance or not. A rule which increases the chances of a needless referee error like nothing before. Ciaran Branagan, in the Derry-Tyrone McKenna Cup clash missed four consecutive passes of Tyrone’s, twice, and twice he gave them a free that they scored at the end of the same passage. Meanwhile, he penalised Derry for fist passing the ball two times in a row and then he penalised them again for fist passing it once. That’s right, Derry got blown up for their first hand pass. Both times, they were in attack. Tyrone won by three. 

But, whilst Branagan is qualified as one of the top referees in the country, he’s only human. He’s looking for a mark from the kickout, he’s looking for fouls, he’s looking for fouls on the ball and he’s looking for advanced marks when it passes by him, he’s warning boys who are niggling off the ball as he runs on and, meanwhile, he’s supposed to be counting and keeping up alongside the play.

Does it mean he now has to forego taking his eyes off the ball just for the sake of not missing an inconsequential hand pass?

“It's setting us up to fail. It really is setting every club referee up to fail,” Joe Mulholland can easily say that when he sees it easily faltering at county level.

“What about the referee who likes to catch the holding that's going on? Or the one who wants to stamp out the dirty box so he's looking out for it as much as he can? He can't catch the full back who wants to just hold the shirt of Eoin Bradley or Paul Mannion - in county games, the umpire might catch it and call him ashore - but at club games? The full forward will just be held mercilessly because the referee can't take his eyes off the ball for a second.

“You just can't take your eyes off the game now. Can you imagine the frustration that's going to cause the forwards? And the amount of holding that will go on. And the amount of times you'll have to stop the game because of wrestling, because that's what happens - one man holds the other and then the two start wrestling and others get involved and you have to stop the play and the crowd go mad screaming for your attention and for you to do something about it and suddenly, again, "it's all your fault, referee!"

“It's just going to slow the game down.”

One of the things that’s thrown out a lot is that the like of Pat McEnaney is able to count the hand passes very easily in the International Rules. It’s said that he counts them allowed so both him and the players keep on top of it but one thing that Joe Mulholland, a club referee of 19 years living in Desertmartin in county Derry, would say is that he’s Pat McEnaney, he’s one of the best the country has seen and he was on the field with another referee as he officiated on just one half of the pitch. The other thing that should be noted is that we’re talking about International Rules. It’s a bastardised hybrid of two sports and it’s nothing like Gaelic football. It’s a different sport.

No-one’s saying that football is perfect. No-one’s denying that it’s way easier to stop goals now and no-one should ever completely shut down the idea of being open to rule changes. But, most importantly, any proposal of a rule change should respect that, despite the social media hysteria, we’re talking about the biggest and most popular sport in Ireland where playing numbers continue to soar so every single alteration anyone is proposing to it should have to absolutely stand up to rigorous review. If there’s even one problem with why a rule wouldn’t work, then it should no longer be looked at. A rule change is supposed to enhance the sport as it is, not work on an NET system where we’ll take a blow at the expense of a gain elsewhere. 

Examples are used in rugby and soccer a lot about how they change their sport. Imagine equating fundamental game play changes being trialled in Gaelic football to the most recent rule change soccer, the bloody VAR trial. A replay system. Soccer is trying to find a better and more reliable method of law-enforcement, they’re not looking at restricting sideways passes to an arbitrary number. 

And the best of it all is that GAA, contrary to popular belief, has been quite progressive. In the last number of years alone, they’ve trialled rules, they’ve introduced new ones, scrapped older, unnecessary laws and even changed the structure of its flagship competition. 

Oisin McConville, when he was on the rules committee, was successful in moving the penalty spot forward – a rule that everyone would look at and not freak out because it’s a rule change, but agree that it both fixes a problem and can be implemented seamlessly. It rewarded attacking play. 

The black card was brought in – whatever you think of it – to stamp out cynical fouls and reward attacking play, which the new progression to that (the sin bin) will help further.

Before that, they tried the sin bin with yellow cards.

The kickout position has been moved for a third time in the modern era. 

The mark from the kickout was introduced to reward clean catching and to tidy up around the middle of the pitch, instead of an all-bets-are-off pile on when a player came back down from the sky.

The sideline was tweaked to make the rule more black and white – like every rule should be – that you can no longer cross the line.

Free kick shootouts were brought in to recognise the fixtures strain and stop the potential for endless replays.

And one thing that took too long but finally helped referees was the advantage rule which allows the game to flow and, yet again, rewards attacking play.

These are all in the last few years. These are all to Gaelic football.

Every sport has tweaks and the GAA do it too. They do it a lot, actually.

Right now, of the five experimental rules being trialled this season, some of them might get through the whole way – like all those other ones above - and the sin bin definitely should be in with a big shout. But the GAA should not be bullied into changing its sport with a limitation of one of its most fundamental tools for playing, the hand pass, because some Twitter accounts are accusing them of being dinosaurs and resistant to change. Of all the organisations out there, they are among some of the most progressive to make tweaks to the game and will continue to do so.

If they don’t introduce the hand pass restriction when nearly every manager in the country is cursing it, 96 per cent of the players are voting against it, fans are laughing and referees are making a balls of it, it’s not because they’re out of touch or afraid to shake the status quo. It’s because it’s a rule that was unnecessary and a rule that doesn’t work and one that was never going to work.

In fact, if they brought in the hand pass rule in spite of all that, what they’d actually be showing is not that they’re fearless or modern, but that they don’t care how it’s dying a death already and they don’t care about the predictable problems the rule poses. And they’d be showing that they certainly have no care or consideration for how this feeds down to club level – down to their “lifeblood”. Or how it affects the referees trying to enforce it, the players giving up their lives to play, and the fans giving up their money to watch.