What's the one constant in Gaelic Football's ever-changing world?

What's the one constant in Gaelic Football's ever-changing world?

Think of All-Ireland finals of yore. Páidí marching up and down the sideline in cream chinos. Kevin Heffernan in Lyle and Scott sweaters.

Short shorts. Cotton jerseys. Smaller hurleys, bigger hurleys. The ankle high boots of Aidan Skelton and Martin Furlong. The Rugby flanker boots of Pascal McConnell.

The old Hogan Stand. The old Cusack Stand. The changing rooms down the corner of the field. Goals hand-passed to the net. Pot bellies. Supporters in the stands smoking.

Supporters on the pitch. Supporters standing behind a player or manager being interviewed, acting the yahoo.

Pretty much everything; tactically, visually, sartorially, technically, has changed in style. All-Ireland final from 1999 bears little relation to that of 1989, 2009 and 1979.

One thing has remained consistent though; the humble O’Neill’s football.

On Saturday morning, Bernard Smith of the Games Department of Croke Park will gather up around a dozen or so balls for use in the final.

The weight will be no more than 500 grams and have a circumference of 70 cm. It will be inflated between 9.75 and 10 psi.

It is significantly heavier than a soccer ball, which have a tolerance of 410-450 grams.

The ball itself has been standardised for around 30 years, according to O’Neill’s head of marketing, Cormac Farrell.

“The manufacturing process hasn’t changed,” he explains.

“We control the raw material. We are very vigilant in the quality of the raw material. It’s not just a leather ball, it is a tried and tested source that we have used over a long period. So we control the quality of the raw material that goes into the ball.

“The balls are hand-stitched. Quite a lot of soccer and rugby balls now are machine-stitched. The advantage of that is you can make more of them, but you may not maintain the quality of them.

Whereas, hand-stitching is a skill and it’s very difficult to get people to stitch footballs nowadays, with the advances of technology and so on.

“But we retain that in our factories. Each ball is inspected and doesn’t come off a large volume run the way a machine-run ball would.”

Farrell is not at liberty to reveal how many balls they sell per annum, pointing out that O’Neill’s are not the only licensed trader for Gaelic footballs, but it certainly is the most recognised and renowned.

However with Gaelic Games spreading to a reported 70 countries, O’Neill’s have a huge market to tap into. The belief in coaching circles that a surplus of balls is necessary also helps them shift units.

The company celebrated 100 years in business last year after the founder, Charles O’Neill of Capel Street, Dublin, manufactured a brown leather ball that featured heavy lacing.

It tended to take in water and lose shape but O’Neill’s footballs were used almost across the GAA since the 1930’s.

The advent of vulcanised rubber and a move to the present day 18-panel football allowed O’Neill’s to become the recognised market leader and they introduced the first white ball for the All-Ireland final between Down and Kerry in 1960.

By and large, nothing has changed, though there have been a couple of innovations.

When floodlit games became more commonplace in the middle of the last decade, O’Neill’s created bright yellow footballs and sliotars for the occasions.

The yellow football even featured in the GAA 125th Anniversary celebrations when Tyrone played Dublin under floodlights.

The wider GAA population are nothing if not creatures of habit and the yellow ball has all but disappeared.

The same thinking applies to the logo on the ball. O’Neill’s have gone through several changes of font and style on their garments but the font on the ball remains the same.

“We have that discussion internally on an ongoing basis,” says Farrell.

“The consensus is from the board, the management and directors is that if we start to tinker with the logo on the ball, the first comment would be that O’Neill’s have changed the ball.

“And there could be an assumption that the quality has changed. The last thing we want to do is to put doubt in someone’s mind. If it’s not broke, then why try to fix it? That would be our motto.”

DROP CAPS it back and think about what the most famous kick of an O’Neill’s ball is, and you will be brought back to September 16th, 1982.

Just as Dublin are today, Kerry were going for five All-Ireland titles in a row.

That was until the intervention of Offaly substitute Seamus Darby and his only kick of the ball that day.

Can we mention the war? Well, Offaly were two points down deep into injury time when Liam O’Connor hoofed in a ball.

Darby (used his body / illegally shoved Kerry defender Tommy Doyle – delete according to prejudices) collected the ball and produced a dipping lob that went beyond Kerry goalkeeper Charlie Nelligan.

It remains the most famous kick of a Gaelic football.

“I knew I hit it right,” said Darby when we caught up with him this week.

“I compared it to a golf shot, where you just don’t feel it in your hands and you just know it was good. And I knew when I made contact with it, that it was a good one.”

There was no chance of another attack. The five-in-a-row was in Kerry’s grasp and could only be taken away by something special.

The gap that Darby had to aim for was miniscule, but he had the flight of the ball tracked. He could thank O’Neill’s for that.

“There’s nothing wrong with the ball at all; it’s not real light that it doesn’t fly through the air all over the place,” he said, before outlining his intentions.

That’s what I was thinking before I got it into my hands at all. That was my thought. I knew that was the thing I had to do if I could get it, and getting it was the problem. Getting it, and then executing it.

“I knew what I wanted to do with it. It worked out good.”

Indeed it did.


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