Small-ball code a better spectacle than football due to staying true to its roots
Shane O’Donnell and Shane O’Neill battle during the Clare and Cork All-Ireland SHC final which captured the public imagination PAUL MOHAN/SPORTSFILE
EUGENE MCGEE – 30 DECEMBER 2013
Hurling dazzled the Irish people in 2013 to a degree which other sports in this country have hardly ever been able to match. For drama, quality, motivation, sportsmanship and unexpected events in major games, there has never been anything like it.
Of course, from time to time there have been amazing periods in Gaelic football, soccer and rugby, but nothing could match the almost unbelievable events that unfolded in this year’s hurling championship — and bearing in mind that the hurlers are amateurs while two of the other sports are professional, the amazement level is even greater.
But sport is transient and it is not long after the excitement and drama from one series of events is over that the focus of participants and followers moves on to the next year, the next campaign. Hurling is no different. The GAA of course organises another major sport called Gaelic football and to non-GAA followers it must seem strange that Gaelic football often seems incapable of matching the heroics of hurling at the present time.
True, the past year was quite a good one for the big-ball code, but it never caught the imagination of the Irish sporting public to anything like the same extent as hurling.
So why is it that the country’s most popular sport, Gaelic football, is not seen in as favourable a light as hurling, even though there it has fully-fledged teams in 31 counties (Kilkenny being the exception) and beyond, while less than half the 32 take part in the Liam MacCarthy Cup?
While the different football codes share many similar traits and methodology, hurling is a totally different game, as are two other ball-and-stick games that thrive in other parts of the world — cricket and hockey. Like hurling, there seems to be more spontaneity in how these games are played as opposed to the various football games.
This is particularly true of Gaelic football, a sport that has, to a large extent, abandoned the skills of the game as it was when founded officially in 1884. The core skills in the first century of Gaelic were high catching as the main means of winning possession, swift movement of the ball through accurate kicking over distances of up to 50 metres and the facility to get scores in several ways, most notably by scoring with a kick from the hands at distances of up to 50 metres.
The application of science has always been part of the evolution of sport and Gaelic football is no different. Some people think that this sort of evolution only started in modern times with things such as massed defence or swarm tackling, but that is not the case.
Almost 90 years ago the solo run was ‘invented’ largely through the ingenuity of a Mayo player called Sean Lavan — then a student in University College Dublin. Needless to say, it caused consternation at the time but when Eamon O’Sullivan, a UCD classmate of Lavan’s and also the former Kerry trainer, brought this new-fangled skill to his native Kerry, acceptance soon followed.
Over the decades, many other developments came into football, some very good, some not quite so.
In recent years we have had a raft of new tactical devices often aimed at undermining some of the basic skills of the founding fathers but seen by some as necessary in the context of other aspects of the game, such as the advancement of fitness and psychology levels.
These tactical advancements rarely contribute to an increase in the skill levels of Gaelic football but rather tend to sidetrack inherent skills for effort in some other area of the sport.
Hurling — and here I cannot claim to be an expert — seems to have strayed far less from its skill origins than football and maybe that is why there is a mystique to the sport that so fascinated the Irish public this year.
The awesome skills we saw from hurlers from Clare, Cork and other counties are largely based on the first rules of the game but with some modernisations, such as the use of the handpassing.
One major traditional skill which has largely disappeared from hurling is the aerial striking whereby players were capable of pulling on a high ball in mid-air and striking it all in one movement. It was a hallmark of the great Wexford teams of the 1950s and ’60s but is conspicuous by its absence now, with catching the ball in hand being the replacement.
Of course it would be wrong to claim that football is the poor relation of hurling, rather it has been the staple food of the GAA for 130 years.
Football was always universally played, even in Kilkenny, and was the main provider in making the GAA as strong as it is, particularly in relation to financing major capital developments.
On the playing side, the Dublin-Kerry semi-final this year was one of the greatest football games ever played. But overall, football is seen as not being in the same league as top-class hurling because the innate skills of hurling are more obvious and more regularly on view than is the case with football.
The debate about whether the abandonment of so many of the original skills of Gaelic football in favour of more modern methods such as handpassing, pass-and-run techniques, short kickouts by goalkeepers, and 12-man backlines, will no doubt go on for some time yet, and both the old-timers and the modernists have valid points.
In hurling, the same level of debate does not arise because the inherent skills of the game are so distinctive, and if they were to be altered it would destroy the soul of hurling.
Maybe it is the incredible skill of leading hurlers that captures the imagination of the Irish public, and even more so non-Irish people around the globe who watch the game on television because the main skills are unique to hurling.
Some of the various football codes share similar skills, such as catching the ball in Gaelic and rugby, taking penalties in soccer and Gaelic etc. But there is no other game like hurling at the highest level.
So there is an onus on everybody involved in Gaelic football to make their own sport even better — it is generally very good already but more could be done. Maybe some things will happen in 2014 to move that process along the way.