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How do you solve a problem like the square ball?

GAA officials are under pressure to review the rule after yet more controversy this summer. But what can they do.

Donegal players surround the umpire last weekend.
Donegal players surround the umpire last weekend.
Image: Inpho

This post first appeared at Action81

The current issue

The rule as it stands forbids an attacking player from entering the square, or rather the small rectangle, before the ball.

The problem of course is not with the definition or even interpretation but with the propensity for error amongst officials in calling the offence.

Kildare’s footballers have been involved in games with three controversial square ball calls in just their last two seasons. All have come down to human judgement and the difficulties referees face in judging square balls.

It is exceptionally difficult for a referee to keep up with the run of play and simultaneously be best placed to examine the approach of attackers into the small rectangle.

The problem does not exist on an island. Umpires play a crucial role in judging square balls, given that the best way for them to do their jobs is to track the movement of the ball, but they are not referees.

Measures have been taken to improve their performance but unlike linesmen they lack the qualifications and experience of the men in black (or whatever the colour du jour is).  Furthermore referees are not obligated to consult with umpires on square balls, a problem not unrelated to the limited qualifications of the men in white coats*.

*Even when they do consult not everyone is happy as Wexford’s Footballers will no doubt attest…on Twitter…repeatedly.

Complete abandonment

One of the suggestions proposed is to completely remove the rule. In terms of application this would make the jobs of referees and umpires much simpler. A modification that was trialled in the 2o10 league, implementing a complete removal except in the instance of set pieces (frees, sideline balls, 45s) would retain some work for officials but would also provide them adequate time to perfectly position themselves for making the call.

The problem is the impact it would have on how the game was played and the extra issues it would create.

Under either form of abandonment, there would be an incentive for managers to place one of their tallest and strongest forwards on the goal line and lob high balls in repeatedly. The risk/reward scenario of such a strategy changes dramatically if player are allowed much closer to the goal. The current rule exists to prevent an exceptional advantage on the part of an attacking team.

Goalkeepers are only protected in the small rectangle when in full possession of the ball. Any form of complete removal would force teams to opt to weight physical presence more than shot stopping in selecting goalkeepers. Entertaining as Finbar McConnell was in the International Rules series in years gone by, it wouldn’t be terribly aesthetically pleasing if the championship consisted of 32 McConnells.

Either power would be the norm in goal or, and this seems more likely, further protections for goalkeepers would need to be examined.

A popular modification

An alternative that has gained some traction and indeed makes some sense in principle is to adjust the rule so that players can enter the small rectangle as soon as the ball is played and prior to the ball itself. Practical application here is a big concern.

First off such a rule basically requires the referee to be able to see both the point at which the ball is being kicked and the movement of players simultaneously, essentially asking for an impossible vantage point. If umpires were relied on for player movement it would actually increase their burden as they would be forced to track more than the ball, increasing the responsibility on officials with already limited qualifications.

There is one solution to consider and that would be to use linesmen to aid the referee. Their equivalents in Football (the Association kind not the Gaelic one) already perform a similar enough role with regards to the offside rule but there are a couple of key differences. There’s an extra dimension for GAA linesmen to judge in this respect as it’s a box rather than just one line. Furthermore the minimum width of a GAA pitch is five metres wider and 20 metres longer than the maximums of any football pitch.

Meath’s Graham Geraghty has his goal disallowed. INPHO/James Crombie

The lower levels

While rule changes have been introduced in other sports, and potentially in Gaelic games, that will enable the use of technology to aid officials at the higher levels these changes are done to aid officials and not to increase responsibility or change the way the game is played. If any of the changes above are made either the officials or players at all levels will feel the impact.

Lower levels would certainly be dramatically affected by removal of the square ball or even the partial removal that was previously trialled. The modification to base it on when the ball is kicked would make the already unpleasant task of officials in junior and juvenile matches even worse. Few if any of these games have neutral linesmen on duty, never mind neutral umpires, placing a massive burden on those policing the vast majority of games.

Normally these columns conclude with some form of verdict. In this instance the only call I can make is to recommend extreme caution in any amendment to the existing rule.

Follow Emmet Ryan on Twitter.

Read more at Action81

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Emmet Ryan

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