Finding the X factor in Gaelic football
By Michael Moynihan
“Into the face of the young man... there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that a hurling fan is about to talk Gaelic football.”
No, PG Wodehouse never wrote that version of one of his greatest sentences. We thought it, though, in light of the comments of the new GAA President, Liam O’Neill, to the effect that Gaelic football could be boring.
Before being accused of feasting on football’s travails like some kind of hurling snob (why break the habit of a lifetime? — ed) it might be no harm to see what O’Neill said in its entirety.
“Just when you think it is in bother, you get a great game of football, a great All-Ireland final,” said O’Neill. “That happens time and time again. However, the defensiveness of the game at the moment and the overuse of the handpass is slowing it down and it’s boring. It’s not what our supporters want, we like physical contact and we like the game moving forward.”
Fair enough. With all of that in mind, yours truly fetched up in Croke Park yesterday to see just how boring Gaelic football can be, using the utterly unscientific Moynihan Entertainment Axis, where X = More Fun Than Samuel L Jackson In Pulp Fiction, Y = Less Fun Than The Fiscal Treaty Explained Slowly And Earnestly.
The first and overpowering impression yesterday was that looking down on a Gaelic football game from a height such as the top tier in Croke Park gives you a good idea of the compression of play, something you don’t always get from TV coverage.
The gold standard in this kind of actuality-versus-representation is not Father Ted (“These are close, but those are far away”) but an interview we read with Packie Bonner many, many years ago, in the wake of Italia 90.
The interviewer made the point that in the game against Holland in that tournament, Ireland had done pretty well in general play and had deserved their equaliser.
Hold on a second, said Bonner. That might have been how it looked on telly, but he felt Ireland had been destroyed, pulled all over the place by the movement of Ruud Gullit up front — far away from the ball on which the TV cameras were focused but clearly visible to the goalkeeper, alarmed by the Dutchman’s elusive running.
The same applied yesterday. An interesting experiment would be to set up one of those time-lapse cameras on the roof of the Hogan Stand shooting the movement of the Kildare and Tyrone players on the field in the Division Two final: the drift of players in a crowd up and down the field resembled two lines of rugby league players at times, 24 or 25 players stretched from sideline to sideline crossways and maybe 20 metres deep.
Entertaining? Not really, to be honest.
It was certainly significant to see that the one moment which had bums lifting from seats in anticipation in the first half was a terrific long ball from Tyrone’s Owen Mulligan to team-mate Stephen O’Neill on the edge of the square: O’Neill collected but dragged his shot narrowly wide of the posts (“He’s probably frozen solid since the ball last came up,” said one colleague, referring to a cold wind yesterday that had Sherpas whimpering on Jones’ Road).
Kildare kept Tyrone in their sights until pulling away in the last 10 minutes with a run of fine scores, but their big full-forward Tomas O’Connor admitted afterwards that the game wasn’t one for the neutrals.
Tomas, you spoke the truth.
How about the main event, then, Cork v Mayo in the Division One decider? More boring? Less boring? About the same, in this viewer’s opinion. The wind that froze all and sundry for the first game didn’t abate for the second clash, and that probably influenced the quality on offer.
The sides lined out in a slightly more traditional manner, though Cork did not look quite the unsophisticated group of position-huggers yearning for the days of 17-a-side which some pundits would have you believe. Again, though, it was a long ball from Paudie Kissane to Donncha O’Connor which eventually resulted in Colm O’Neill’s goal, Cork’s first. Discern for yourself its significance.
Entertainment value? Well, it’s probably unfair to judge any game on the basis of a competition that offers an inherent definition of not-as-good-as-the-real-thing. The league is the league and you don’t need predictive text to finish the sentence.
But the league should also be where teams try something a little different, the odd twist in the approach that might bring dividends in the summer because it’s tried out off-Broadway. The increased importance of the league generally means less willingness to experiment, and that bleeds into conservatism in the playing style.
Boring? Not if you’re from Cork and Kildare, maybe. But what about everybody else?
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