The man considered to be the most stylish gaelic footballer in GAA history has delivered a withering indictment of the game he once loved and adorned.
Kerry’s Mick O’Connell says the game has lost its direction, lost its soul and has become a mish-mash which, he’s ashamed to say, is now one of the least attractive field sports around.
"I would watch nearly any other sporting code in preference to gaelic football," O’Connell admitted in an interview with the Irish Examiner.
"I’m an ex-gaelic footballer now and I’m ashamed to say, it’s one of the least attractive games that I watch. And this is not an ex-player condemning present-day players, it’s the game itself I’m talking about," said the 75-year-old legend from Valentia Island.
"This is not personalised criticism. The players nowadays train well and put a huge amount of time into the game, and rightly so — we did too in our day. But the game they’re asked to play is very uncertain. I don’t know how any referee can referee this game, I don’t know how they can be criticised when even the players themselves are uncertain about what’s a foul and what’s not."
At root of the problem, O’Connell believes, is today’s philosophy, not just the football philosophy but the sporting philosophy.
"I wrote many years ago that the game needed a direction. What was it going to be? Was it going to be a ball-delivery game or a ball-carrying game? You then work the rules according to that. There’s no such thing as a decent, clear set of rules now.
"I grew up with a game where the ball was caught and delivered, no solo-runs — I never saw a solo-run in those days. Gaelic football was about good fielding and good ball delivery and when you think about what it has become, when you really analyse it, solo-running is just a man running with the ball and playing by himself, no team-work involved whatsoever."
The Kerry stylist reckons the hand-pass has also become a major problem.
"They say the hand-pass is a skill? I think this has become a game devoid of skill. A skill to me presents a challenge to a player and there’s a challenge in fielding a high ball, there’s challenge in kicking an accurate ball, but I can see no challenge in the hand-pass. I cannot see a challenge in a game where you’re just throwing the ball from hand to hand, from one player to the next.
"I saw Kerry playing a game last year, and counted the number of hand-passes before there was one kick — 13 hand-passes I counted.
"The game evolved a lot but it has changed from a ball delivery game to a ball-carrying game with the soloing and hand-passing. That’s the big change and it has come about gradually.
"And again I stress, I’m not criticising players. It’s just got to the stage now where youngsters growing up know no other kind of game and you can’t blame those boys for practicing that same kind of game, soloing and hand-passing."
Not that they’re incapable of playing the old-style game. "I saw one good example of it lately, some great fielding in this year’s All-Ireland final – ball kicked into the Donegal full-forward Michael Murphy who caught, turned, kicked a great goal. That was an example of the game I grew up playing and if you had that all over the field you’d have a more exciting game and a better game to watch. Instead nowadays you have all that uncertainty."
So what would he like to see done? "I think it should be football first, beat your man with good positional play, expose the defects in the other player. That’s the way the game should be. Competition is great in any sport but not at the price of winning at all costs. I’m not saying it was perfect in my own day — even then I didn’t think it was a great game, plenty of room for improvement. I felt it lacked fluidity, too much negativity — ‘Who’s marking O’Connell, who’s marking Flynn?’ Too often, even then, it was man first, ball second; try to negate the opposing player and if you managed that, then despite the kind of football you played you were considered a success. That negative aspect was always there, trying to keep a man out of the play.
"I’m an old man now but going back to the 40s, when I started out, the game that inspired me to take up football was catch and kick, the challenge involved in developing the ability to catch the ball well and kick it accurately, two-footed, from the hands and off the ground — you had to be able to do that in those days, no teeing it up."
So he’d go back to that, limit the hand-passing especially? "The name of the game is ‘football’. People can have the use of the hand to field, to block down, to break the ball, but to give total freedom to play handball right through the field and right through the game, I think that’s the opposite of what a football game should be. If anything I would limit it to one handpass, that’s all. But all my life I’ve been making suggestions; I was never listened to."
O’Connell was speaking in Charleville at the launch of Phillip Egan’s Touched By Rhyme, a book of poetry in which O’Connell himself features.