The year before Oliver Stone blinded us – and one linebacker in particular – with Any Given Sunday, Pat Comer hit us with A Year ’Til Sunday, one of the first and still finest GAA documentaries ever made. Both titles were a nod to the competitive reality of the respective environments that the Miami Sharks and Galway footballers operated in.
The fluctuating fortunes of Coach Tony D’Amato’s charges reaffirmed the wisdom of the old NFL commissioner Bert Bell who coined the term that on any given Sunday, any team in the league could beat or be beaten by any other team; even now, 20 years after Stone’s tour de force and the Sharks’ neighbours, the Dolphins, back in 1972, remain the only team to have ever gone the whole season unbeaten.
The adage ‘A Year ‘Til Sunday’ wouldn’t have been one in circulation the way Bell’s was prior to Comer’s film; indeed it was probably the backup Galway goalkeeper and filmmaker himself who coined it.
Whoever came up with it, it was a brilliant choice of language. Because that’s what Gaelic football and hurling was like back then. Lose the first round of the championship and you’d be waiting 52 weeks for the same opportunity.
Comer knew that better than anyone. The season prior to Galway’s annus mirabilis of 1998, he’d shot footage of the side putting in the hard yards ahead of their first-round clash with Mayo in Tuam. Galway had actually played tremendous football that day, the first any of us would have seen Michael Donnellan playing senior championship football.
But they’d lost, as Mayo showed just why they had reached the previous year’s All Ireland final and why they would do so again that September. One game and Galway’s year was over, and, assumed Comer, his film too, binning all that 1997 footage.
Early into the 1998 season though he ran it past the new Galway manager, John O’Mahony, could he again document the side’s prep ahead of another first-round clash with Mayo. O’Mahony gave him the green light and the rest is history.
They’d win that game and the All-Ireland and Comer had his film, capturing dressing room scenes like a bare-chested Ja Fallon delightedly clenching his fist in Castlebar. Down the corridor it was the home team that was left to ponder on the cruelty of 20th-century championship football: it’d be a year until their following championship Sunday.
That’s how it used to be with Munster hurling back then as well. The very next week following that Galway-Mayo game, a Cork team that had just won the national hurling league but no significant championship match in six years came down to the Limerick Gaelic Grounds to face a home side that had won a league themselves the year before.
Cork would win, prompting Ger Loughnane among others to smilingly remark how unusual it was to see Cork supporters celebrate a first-round game with such jubilation.
Meanwhile under the bowels of the Mackey Stand, back when journalists used to have dressing room access to players and their post-match anguish, Ciaran Carey, while buckling his belt, mumbled a few words of thanks to his teammates for their efforts for the year but how it had become a “nasty habit”, being knocked out of the championship early for a second straight year.
Imagine if Munster championship hurling still operated along those lines. John Kiely and Declan Hannon last Sunday, after another opening game defeat to Cork at home, having to address their dressing room for the last time all season. No shot at redemption.
Or imagine if John Meyler and his team didn’t have a chance of redemption last Sunday, their summer over after 70 minutes upon a chastening opening day defeat to Tipp.
We’d never have gotten to see Alan Cadogan play this summer, all that strain and effort to get back from injury in vain. Aidan Walsh would never have got his chance either, his choice to return to hurling being hailed as folly instead of bravery. And Meyler would have been dismissed as decidedly old-school and out of touch as Pacino’s D’Amato.
Thankfully now the likes of Kiely and Meyler and their players don’t have to wait a year for such a Sunday. Instead they’re getting to show and learn that just like with the NFL, in Munster hurling anyone can win or lose to anyone on any given Sunday.
It’s not just the senior setups that are benefitting from the new format. Up until last year, the Munster minor hurling championship was about as infuriating and erratic a competition model as you’d find anywhere in world sport. Lose in the first round and you still had a backdoor. Win that first round but lose the next day out and there was no backdoor for you.
Now there’s no such inconsistency and non-logic. All five teams get to play four games. Lose the second day out and you still have a third game. Even in the odd case of you losing all four of its games, you’ve still had time together, to gel, to develop. With Liam Sheedy, Tommy Dunne and Eamon O’Shea back on the line this summer, about the only former Tipperary mentor of recent years that hasn’t returned seems to be Paudie O’Neill but even his influence is evident this summer.
A few months after stepping down as a selector with O’Shea upon the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway, he spoke to this paper as chairperson of the-then hurling development committee of how he’d like the sport to progress. He had just spearheaded the brilliant Celtic Cross Challenge for U17 hurlers and felt it was a programme that could be rolled out for all players.
“You constantly hear the refrain ‘Oh, promote hurling – get plenty of coaches in.’ But you start by promoting hurling by giving them games. That way there’s context. What’s the point in me going into coach a team in Donegal when they don’t have a game? What’s the point in coaching guys when there’s nothing to play? Because the real coaching is not just coaching the sport.
Last Sunday in Limerick we got talking to a member of the Meath hurling minor management who could vouch for how valid O’Neill’s thesis is. In their first game of the summer, the Meath minors were down a few key players, including their captain who got injured in the warm-up. They were duly hammered by Carlow.
Next day out though, with a few of their players back, they beat Down well. Last week then they beat Antrim, who had originally been in a tier below them. Next Saturday they play Kildare in a Leinster preliminary quarter-final, a measure of their development.
But the thing was they were given the time and the games to develop. Had their summer ended after Carlow, the players would have been brandished as useless and their management even worse.
It’s not just players and coaches that are the better for the new format. So are the spectators. On the eve of last year’s championship, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín expressed his concern that the new format would dilute the importance and attendance of matches.
Last Sunday though in Limerick there were over 31,000 people in attendance. The same as there was the previous week in Páirc Uí Chaoimh for Cork and Tipp, and just 3,000 less than when he played in that do-or-die first-round game between Cork and Limerick back in 1998.
The more hurling people see, the more hurling they want to go and see. The more players play, the better players they’ll be. More games and the more coaches can learn, tweak – coach.