Turns out his comments at Congress were taken out of context and in fact he thinks the game is “wonderful”.
But does he really? Last Saturday while clarifying his comments at Congress, O’Neill unveiled his choice as the chairman of the football review group.
And suffice to say, Eugene McGee does not think modern Gaelic football is wonderful.
When previewing last autumn’s International Rules series, McGee attributed Ireland’s poor shooting the previous year not to the players’ tentativeness in half-fearing a late tackle but to the diminishing skill level of the current player.
“Scoring points from play used to be second nature to nearly all inter-county footballers but … this is largely a forgotten art,” McGee wrote in his weekly national newspaper column. “Maybe ‘forgotten’ is not the right word because there was nothing careless about the decision to largely abandon point-scoring from play. It was the managers, in the main, who decided that attempting points from 30-50 metres even when unmarked was too risky for the modern ‘safety-first’ approach.”
It is a recurring theme in his columns: Gaelic football isn’t as good as it once was, managers and coaches don’t know what they’re doing, particularly to the game itself.
This week eight years ago he declared: “Many people are pessimistic about what the 2004 championship has in store… as in recent years Gaelic football has undoubtedly declined in quality and the level of entertainment it provides for spectators.”
Last winter he suggested the skill level was no better than it was 40 years ago, as if corner backs back in the day were as skilful in both the tackle and on the ball as the likes of Marc Ó Sé, Ryan McMenamin and Keith Higgins.
As a full-time football correspondent for a national Sunday newspaper for the entire noughties, this writer repeatedly made the point that the game could be an even better game than it already is.
What is worrying though is the notion — and myth — popularised by the likes of McGee that football isn’t as good as it once was.
As Mickey Harte and Kieran McGeeney remarked last week, no such golden age of football existed. There was never a time in the 20th century when scoring points from play used to be “second nature to nearly all inter-county footballers”.
Corner backs might have kicked the ball more but it wasn’t all they used kick and when they were kicking the ball they were lumping it rather than passing it.
Football has undoubtedly undergone a huge transformation in the last 20 years, from a predominantly ball-propelling game to a ball-possession game, without sufficient debate or legislation but studies show that there are just as many scoring chances created and taken now as there was back in those supposedly glorious, innocent days when there were no massed defences.
McGee will go down as one of the greatest coaches, managers and commentators in the history of Gaelic football. But it’s 30 years ago now since he won his All-Ireland and over 20 years since he coached or managed at a high level. It has to be asked: why should someone who is so removed from, and has such sceptical regard for, the current game and its managers with all their “army of specialists and safety-first tactics” be entrusted as the man to review and reform it? What now qualifies him for the job ahead of tens of others? Why did O’Neill not opt for someone like Mickey Ned O’Sullivan who is still at the coalface of the game? Or Billy Morgan who is still coaching at Sigerson level? Or Anthony Tohill? Or Pat O’Shea, an All-Ireland winning coach only five years ago who has played a brilliantly-policed sport like basketball at international level? The inescapable suspicion is that O’Neill has chosen someone who is of his own generation and his own way of thinking. When Mickey Harte wrote in his Irish News column that O’Neill’s “boring” comment insulted coaches like him who “invest huge amounts of our time helping create the best performances of the current era” and how the president was unduly influenced by “a few who have direct access to the airwaves and print media and regurgitate this fallacy” that football is worse than it once was, he was thinking of a commentator like McGee.
O’Neill could be an inspired president for football. Unlike some of his predecessors, he’s in this job not so much for what the presidency can do for him but what his presidency can do for the GAA. As his work with the 2009 experimental rules showed, he has the conviction to weed out the cynical fouling that still mar our games, especially football.
McGee too has a deep love for the game that could still serve it well.
But he will need to be a lot less sceptical about suggestions for “speeding up the game” and co-opt people who believe the game could be even better than it is rather than it isn’t as good as it once was.