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Eamonn Fitzgerald: How to improve the modern game

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Fixing the tackle, binning the bin and cutting the numbers… Former Kerry goalkeeper Eamonn Fitzgerald puts forward a number of measures that he feels would rejuvenate Gaelic football

In recent weeks most of the discussion on Kerry football has centred on the appointment of Jack O’Connor as manager of the Kerry senior football team. The Sam Maguire hasn’t returned to Kerry since locals Kieran O’Leary and Fionn Fitzgerald lifted the Holy Grail in 2014. The domination of the Dubs with the six-in–a row and the disappointments of the past three years, when Peter Keane was very unlucky not to manage Kerry to victory, has led to a deeper frustration among the Kerry supporters.

Some followers of football are losing interest in the game as it is played today. Some say they don’t bother going to games anymore, because the style of football has deteriorated into a mixture of basketball and athletics.

The romanticised recollections of the high-fielding of Mick O’Connell and the marking your own man, thou shalt not pass type of football is largely gone. Joe Keohane, Teddy O’Connor, Paddy Bawn, Paudie O’Shea and a host of others made sure that the opposition’s attackers never got a chance to have an unchallenged shot at the goalkeeper. Zonal defence, how are you?

THE  TACKLE

Mick O’Dwyer always said that there is no really clearly defined tackle in Gaelic football, and I agree fully with him. He saw it from three sides: as a defender, attacker and manager. I talked to him many times about this.

There are three basic types of tackle in Gaelic football: (a) the side tackle, the most common one, (b) the front tackle, (c) the tackle from behind. The referee is the sole judge and has to decide if it is a free in or a free out. Types (b) and (c) don’t pose any real difficulties in decision making. Both are fouls. But a shoulder to shoulder is allowable. However, if a player gets a fair shoulder and falls to the ground, invariably the referee favours the fallen one.

One Kerry football defender of the past perfected the ideal ruse. When he was slowing up in his latter days with Kerry and he faced a jinking speedster, he ushered him out towards the sideline, gave his customary right belt of a shoulder, and then assisted the forward with a helping hand to ensure he stayed on his feet. Free out. Over-playing the ball.

The rule regarding tackling states that you must use one hand and one hand only, but the problem is: what does a defender actually do with that one hand, as opposed to what he is allowed do.

Tackling in Gaelic Football is confined to tackling the ball. It is illegal to trip, punch, hold, drag, pull or rugby tackle another player.

For defenders all you can do safely without conceding a free in is to shadow the opponent with both arms outstretched, doing a sprightly dance like David Rea’s Riverdance, hoping you can entice/force the forward out to the sideline where he is least likely to score. Two hands draw the foul. Of course, some defenders play to the optics using the one hand and raising up the other hand so that the ref thinks he is not fouling. What is the defender doing with that hand? Playing the ball trying to punch it out from the attacker? If that hand delivers a punch to the solar plexus, so be it, as the referee is usually unsighted. Or, as happens too often in club games, the referee is not up with the game and cannot see what is really happening. As he makes his way to the scene, I believe that he is unduly influenced by the roar of the crowd. “Free in, ref!”. Thank you very much says Seánie O’Shea and Dean Rock.

Rugby is very clear-cut when it come to the defined tackle and to some extent in soccer, where the sliding tackle is not acceptable.

While there is some credence in the perception of these disillusioned football followers, who long for the Kerry football style of the good old days, I don’t see it through the same rose-tinted glasses. Too often in the past the hard man was lauded for his physical prowess and not for his skills. I can see the merit of the modern possession game, but not endless lateral hand-passing, the fulcrum for launching a successful game strategy, which was one good reason why Dublin won six-in-a-row. They were also a great team.

You’re a loser all the way with Dean Rock and Seánie O’Shea delivering almost 100%. Take a recent game as an example. Seánie kicked 15 points versus Dr Crokes and 14 of those were frees, from any distance from 45 metres inwards. The winning score was 17 points. So a reliable free-taker is essential on any team.  He repeated the performance on Sunday last by scoring 11 points to squeeze past Dingle. The scoring in football games nowadays is very high and even more so in hurling.

PITY THE REFEREE

I have great sympathy for the referee in football and have never commented on the performance of the referees in these pages, unless I attended the game. Second-hand accounts are biased, unreliable and unacceptable. When I attend games in person, I comment on the performance of the referee, but never personalise these comments. It is a judgement on performance not on the referee as a person.

Quite simply, I respect referees. I believe they have an impossible job. It’s tough enough at intercounty level but pity the ref in some local game where he does not have neutral umpires or linesmen. The ref should apply the rules, but also apply common sense, knowing the difference between a deliberate intentional foul and body contact where the player is playing the ball, not the man. No free or card for such, even if the player falls to the ground.

The modern game has evolved and there is much to recommend it, but I believe that it can be made much more enjoyable for players and spectators by making necessary changes

IMPROVEMENTS

Some of the he rules are not clear-cut, particularly the tackle.

Rid the game of the mark. The idea was that it would reward high-fielding, a wonderful but fast–fading feature of the game. It has not done that, particularly around the middle of the park. Midfield is often bypassed today and worst of all a mark is allowed for a player near goal, who manages to catch a low ball stumbling to the ground and raises his hand within a few seconds to signal his achievement. Did he, or did he not, raise his hand? Invariably the referee awards the mark and a simple tap over for a certain point, which may be the winning score.

Learn from the women’s game. The LGFA has got it right with the clock (in major venues) taking the timing of games away from the referees. The same happens in basketball. The clock stops when there is a hold up in play. Then there are no grounds for dispute. I have seen too many games where the referee played too much overtime, or too little, and the winning scores came during the extended time. Recently I witnessed 13 minutes added on by a referee. There is a lot of stoppage time in 13 minutes.

Spectators have watches and stopwatches/timers on their phones, so then the arguments commence. That time added on is at the discretion of the referee. He has too much to do already and more advisory discretion should be given to umpires and linesmen. In the absence of a clock, let the other officials bear that responsibility.

Get rid of the water-breaks too. Too often they influence the flow of the play. Pardon the pun, but too often they also change the run of play.

13-A-SIDE

I would love to see the teams reduced to 13 players. Take out the full back and the full forward, create more space and set the scene for more open football. I have seen it used very successfully at colleges level and it is a joy to watch. Also, it would help rural clubs in particular, who are hard pressed to have 15 players available due to depopulation and other factors. It would help clubs to field their own team instead of being forced to join up with their neighbouring parish, probably their greatest rivals for many years. Amalgamations are undesirable, but often necessary. I think of South Kerry clubs in particular.

There is an argument to get rid of all referees’ cards, red, yellow and black. For a start dump the black card. As it is, some players feign injuries, waste time and run down the clock. The 10-minute penalty and 14 players effectively means the sin-binned player returns after seven, six or dare I say five minutes. The timekeeper is the ref. He is not God almighty and he has enough to do.

The modern game of football has plenty going for it, but there are responsibilities on the GAA authorities, the referees, the managers and the players to improve the enjoyment of the game. Ditto for the spectators, the hurlers on the ditch, or in this case the footballers on the terraces. Too many are not conversant with the new rules. It is hard to blame them; there has been too much tricking around with the rules governing football that it can be hard to know the updated position.

That situation with local club rivalry and natural bias leads to misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the facts and rules that leads to difference of opinions, to put it very mildly.

Pity the poor ref having to make instant decisions, de facto on his own. Video analysis is not confined just to The Sunday Game. Many club games are also filmed. The ref can’t win. Who would want to be a referee? Certainly not for the money – a very modest €40 for a local senior game.

Is it a just reward for running the gauntlet of some players, or a few officials who spend half their time encroaching onto the pitch, and the tirade of abuse from spectators, usually personal, misguided and unwarranted?

Who’s reffing the game on Sunday next?

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Killarney Valley AC named Club of the Year at national awards ceremony

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Members of Killarney Valley Athletics Club had cause for celebration on Wednesday as they picked up the prestigious Development Club of the Year prize at the 123.ie National Athletics Awards.

The award is handed out annually to a club who have made a positive impact on behalf of the sport within their community.

Sprinter Sarah Leahy of Killarney Valley and UL was also honoured with the Female University Athlete of the Year award.

Speaking to the Killarney Advertiser, coach and committee member Tomás Griffin said he and his clubmates were “delighted” and “very proud” to accept the Club Development award on behalf of all their athletes, coaches and administrators. The opening of their new track alongside St Brendan’s College in 2020 has been crucial, Griffin explained.

“The facility a catalyst but the passion was always there and we had people doing their best and coaching long before there was a track. To see the momentum that came with the opening of the track being maintained is great. We now have a waiting list of people looking to join the club.

“Did we see ourselves winning an award like this, in an organisation of 53,000 members and 400 clubs? No. But was it always possible? Yes. Killarney as a town across all sports – Gaelic football, soccer, basketball, cycling, judo, rock climbing – it’s a place where people excel. The bar is already raised. But being able to reach this level and achieve what we have in just two years shows what other talent is out there.”

Killarney Valley now boast five Irish internationals, 320 registered members and 22 Athletics Ireland accredited coaches. The club won 107 provincial and national medals in 2022, and they had 155 graduates from their Couch to 5k programme. Many of these participants are now regulars in the local Park Run and are continuing their personal health and fitness journeys with the club.

Nine Killarney Valley representatives attended the awards ceremony on Wednesday: Tomás Griffin, Jerry Griffin (chairperson), Bríd Stack, Gene Courtney, Con Lynch, Karen Smith, Sarah Leahy, Jordan Lee, and Madie Wilson-Walker. Sarah’s parents Mike and Marie also made the journey.

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Jiu-jitsu champion Wilson da Silva sets sights on world title

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This week Adam Moynihan called to the Movement & Fitness Club on New Street to catch up with Killarney man Wilson da Silva. The 38-year-old Brazilian recently won gold at the European Championship for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and now he’s gunning for a world title.

Wilson, congratulations on your latest success in Rome and Abu Dhabi.

Thank you, Adam.

Before we chat about that, let’s go back to the start. How did you end up living in Killarney?

I came here around 15 years ago because I met someone from Killorglin and we went out for five or six years. After we broke up, I came to Killarney. I’m pretty much half-local, half-Brazilian now.

What part of Brazil are you from?

The northeast. A place called Recife. If you look at the map, it’s the nearest point to Ireland.

Do you get to go home often?

I try to go once a year, you know? I was home earlier this year and then before Covid. But once a year I go home in the summertime.

It must be nice to get some sunshine.

It’s nice, man. Even recently the doctor told me I have Vitamin D deficiency. My skin colour needs the sun! So I go home once a year. I follow the doctor’s advice.

How did you get into jiu-jitsu?

I did it back home in Brazil but I continued here in Killarney. I trained with guys here, Pedro Bessa and Tom McGuire. Then there is another club in Killarney and I trained with them up until four years ago. Things weren’t working out so I started my own gym. I just wanted to do things my way which was to have a clean place, no ego, no drama, no stress, no jealousy. Just come, train jiu-jitsu and help each other. And it’s going well.

Was it hard to go out on your own?

In the beginning it was really difficult because I was opening a second club in the town, on my own. There was really only one guy who wanted to train with me, but then my fiancé (Ewelina) started training and one became two, two became three, and it started to grow. Now we have classes for babies from three years up, kids and teenagers. We’re doing jiu-jitsu and capoeira for all ages. I guess it’s something good for the community.

Can you tell me a bit about jiu-jitsu? Is it similar to other sports?

If you were to describe jiu-jitsu to someone who never saw it, it would be very similar to judo. You have people throwing each other and putting each other on the floor. The jiu-jitsu match is five minutes long and the goal is to checkmate the opponent, to make your opponent quit, or tap out. So there is a lot of ground work, grappling, and wrestling. It’s an excellent sport and great for self-defence. I can’t recommend jiu-jitsu enough.

So there’s no striking?

There is no striking but [in terms of self-defence] there is ducking from striking, turning a strike into a mobilisation. It’s about finding locks on the body – the joint moves this way for example (he turns his arm) – figuring out how the anatomy of the body works.

It seems quite technical and intellectual.

Yes, it’s a very intelligent sport. I trained in weightlifting for a long time, for many years. With time it simply comes down to reps, breaking muscle fibre, and you’re not learning anything. It’s boring. With jiu-jitsu you’re constantly thinking. You’re constantly working your brain.

I compare it to a game of chess. First you figure out how to move the pieces, and then you have to play strategy. Look ahead to the next move and what your opponent can do to you. The moves are complicated and you’re always learning new things. It requires a lot of focus and discipline to get good at it. You don’t get bored with jiu-jitsu.

Is the focus and discipline side of it good for the kids who come to your gym?

Yes, definitely. I find that it is so beneficial for the kids. The kids want to win but if they want to win, they need to learn the moves. In order to learn the moves, they have to pay attention. So straight away it develops focus and concentration and discipline. If they do not pay attention, if they run around the place, they’re going to lose when they spar. It fixes itself. The guys who come in, pay attention, and it makes the others not want to lose so they pay attention and worker hard to learn the moves.

You can see the difference in the kids when they come here. We try to make them comfortable in uncomfortable situations so that when you take the child out of the jiu-jitsu class and they have a to deal with a hard subject in school, or a bully, they are mentally stronger.

I have witnessed that myself. I worked in security for many years and before I dedicated myself to jiu-jitsu, I found it easy to lose the head. But the more hours I put into the gym and training in jiu-jitsu, the more comfortable I became with frustrating situations. You’re able to remain calm. That’s a benefit of jiu-jitsu.

How important is size in jiu-jitsu?

That’s a tricky one. People say that size doesn’t matter. It definitely does. There’s no doubt about that. But the beauty of jiu-jitsu is that once you have the technique, you’re able to apply it against bigger guys. You know, the bigger guys have big muscles and bigger egos, but if the small guy trains hard he will be able to move the big guy’s body in a way that works against him. The big guy who goes to the gym, he’s used to pushing the bar this way (straight out), whereas the guy who knows jiu-jitsu knows that if he moves the bigger guys arms here (upwards), he’s not strong anymore. Now the bench press is worth nothing.

Bigger guys think they are unbeatable. The small guys have to work for it. I always motivate the guys here in the gym to be humble. You always have to consider yourself the second best, the guy who wants to be first. The moment you think that you’re bigger and better than everyone else, you stop working.

Tell me about your recent victories in London, Rome and Abu Dhabi.

Yeah, so I went to the UK and managed to win four golds at the London Open in the ‘Gi’, ‘A’, ‘No-Gi’ and ‘Absolute’ categories. (The ‘Gi’ is a uniform sometimes worn in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. There are categories in which the Gi is worn – ‘Gi’ – and categories in which it is not – ‘No-Gi’. The ‘Absolute’ is an open weight division).

Then a couple of weeks ago I travelled to Rome to compete in the European Championship. The day before that event, the Rome Open was on and since I was already there, I signed up for that too. I won the first fight, submitted the guy, but then in the final I lost. It was a good lesson for me. Coming from so many wins, I thought I was going to smash this other guy. I got a bit cocky. Losing settled me down and humbled me a little bit. I went back to my accommodation and analysed my mistakes. I hoped that the next day I would be able to play a strategy to win.

In the end I managed to win four fights and win the biggest European tournament – the No-Gi European Championship. It was my dream. I have been there twice before and got knocked out in the quarter-final, and came third in the Gi division.

It was really emotional for me. It was a great achievement. Even now when I’m talking, I feel emotional. I don’t train that much with No-Gi so to come first in Europe, it’s hard to believe.

It’s really hard to run and promote a club and also train and win tournaments, a lot of people say it’s not possible, but I’m putting a lot of hours into this and proving that it is possible. When you work so hard, with the help of my training partners, the results have to come.

And you weren’t finished yet. Where did you go next?

Yeah, to finish the story, after winning the European tournament on the Saturday, I flew to Abu Dhabi on Monday for the World Championship. I managed to go there and win three fights before losing the semi-final after getting beat pretty hard. I got my ass kicked by the winner. Then I had to fight to win the third place [match]. So, even though it’s only third place, it’s third place on the biggest podium in the sport.

Is it normal to compete in this number of events in quick succession?

No. It’s crazy to do so many competitions in a short period of time. I usually take a month or two months off before the next competition. It’s expensive too and I must thank Kevin Leahy [from the neighbouring Black Sheep Hostel] for sponsoring me. But after London, I had a feeling that there was no stopping me. I’m healthy. I’m not injured. Now is my moment and I have to take the chance.

It was hard enough to believe that I won the European Championship but to go to Abu Dhabi and fight against the best guys in the world… It’s a dream. Well, it’s not a dream now because it happened. It’s a reality.

Is this it for you now? Have you achieved all you want to achieve?

No, there’s more. Much more. I want to win the World Championship in California next year. For sure I would like to win the European Championship next year too.

But my goal is more than just winning championships, it’s to build champions. I want to teach people and share techniques that are proven to work. As I try to grow the gym, I will continue competing for as long as God blesses me with this health. That’s it.

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