Ailing football needs an innovator on the inside

Just months after a riveting 2001 football championship had captured the public imagination with the advent and novelty of the backdoor, Ger Loughnane proclaimed in his book, Raising The Banner: “The biggest problem with hurling is that it is in danger of being swamped by football.

Ailing football needs an innovator on the inside

"The GAA is a contradiction in that it is made up of two games that are in competition with each other. People say it is soccer and rugby that are the competition, but I was involved with a dual club for a while and I know that it is football.”

All these years on and, while the kernel of Loughnane’s argument — that, participation-wise, huge swathes of the country remain a hurling wasteland to the indifference of much of GAA officialdom — remains valid, there’s a sense now that, spectator-wise, it’s now football that is being swamped by hurling.

With the bombardment of extra games in the provinces, hurling barely let football rear its ugly head for most of May and June and even though hurling folk feared that the big ball would take over once it was thrown in for the Super 8s, the first round of the new format only saw football once again shown up as the ugly sister to its beautiful sibling that had been on view in Thurles.

It’s a trend that has caused Tomás Ó Sé, for one, some anguish and, in turn, Anthony Daly of this parish some mirth, the hurling snobs on Leeside vaingloriously reminding the Kerryman in their midst of the brilliance of God’s game and the gross inferiority of his own.

Football and hurling are and will always be connected and compared. The same association governs both games.

Most GAA people follow both games. Even Loughnane regularly references his huge admiration for football people and managers, from Kevin Heffernan to John Maughan to Jim Gavin.

The games are played on the same pitch, with the same goalposts and the same scoring system and, not unusually in dual clubs, by the same people, watched on by the same supporters.

Ger Loughnane
Ger Loughnane

Then, of course, there are many significant differences between the sport, the most significant one, at least now, being this: You can score from 80 yards in hurling, but you can’t in football. That more than anything is why there is currently such a discrepancy in the satisfaction levels of both sports as a spectacle.

In truth, Gaelic football has become more like the two other sports referenced by Loughnane, soccer and rugby, where the challenge is to break down a retreated defence and break the gainline, since teams are modelling their defensive setups from those sports and others.

While the expectation and reality of Gaelic football is that it remains a much higher scoring sport than those previous two, the tedious manner in which scores are now being created as well as stifled is turning people — and players — off.

Last Monday, Fermanagh footballer Tomas Corrigan was a guest on the GAA football hour podcast on SportsJOE.ie during which he had a fascinating if concerning conversation with resident anchors Colm Parkinson and Conan Doherty.

Corrigan spoke about how he stayed watching Kerry-Galway last Sunday only because he knew he was going to be on the show the following day.

If it wasn’t for that commitment, he’d have been watching a lot more of France-Croatia. For him, even the clash of two of the sport’s most traditional flair merchants typified a lot of what is wrong with football today.

Defences are just so well organised and everyone is back that to get through the defences, patience is the name of the game. Teams, now, to be successful have to be patient, but it’s terrible to watch.

“A couple of years ago, I was watching Olympic handball and I was thinking, ‘that’s exactly what Gaelic is now’, because everyone is back defending, there’s a little pass across and back, across and back, then one lads get it and [eventually] he tries to make an inroad [and shoots]. It’s so boring.”

Tomás Corrigan
Tomás Corrigan

In other words, as Parkinson duly observed: “So, even when the score goes over, there’s no huge applause, because you’re nearly bored by how it was worked!”

Corrigan hails from a great football family.

His two brothers are also on the panel, while their father Dom managed the county and remains one of the top club and colleges coaches in Ulster. Yet, Tomás — a small, explosive, tidy forward — had to concede the game is not the one he grew up and dreamt of playing. Which is probably why he wasn’t let play — or at least start — in this year’s Ulster final.

When I started, it was more 15 on 15 and you probably put your best players in the forwards for them to get scores, but now, if you want to have the biggest impact on the game, it’s wing half-back. A corner-forward might now only get three or four touches of the ball a half.

While Corrigan was quick to add that he still enjoyed playing the game — “because you’re focused on stuff and thinking of your job” — he said it often struck him watching a game back how spectators put up watching it in real time. “It’s an ordeal to sit through some of the matches.”

Parkinson was even more forceful in offering a similar viewpoint. He’d seen too many stalemates, too many backward and sideways passes, too many anti-climaxes, to declare

anything else but: “It’s dull and it’s shit. Honestly, it’s shit!”

Parkinson, unlike many other and more prominent pundits, isn’t one to romanticise his own playing days. When he looks back on the likes of the 2004 Leinster final, he’s astonished by how pedestrian it was.

The games Dublin, Kerry, and Mayo have served up against each other the past six seasons can stand against anything football — or indeed hurling — has offered up before.

Colm Parkinson playing for Laois in the O’Byrne Cup in 2011
Colm Parkinson playing for Laois in the O’Byrne Cup in 2011

The game and its players are now far stronger, faster, more skilful. “It just needs a few more tweaks,” said Parkinson, “to bring that bit more traditional shape that we had back then and plant the modern game into that.”

For that to happen, he correctly identifies that the onus is on administrators, not coaches. Coaches are only obliged to make their teams as competitive as possible. Administrators are obliged to make the sport as complete a spectacle as possible.

That distinction was probably best made by Jason Sherlock while promoting his autobiography last October.

The Dublin team that he has coached for the past four seasons have for the most part being superb ambassadors and servants to their sport with their invention and flair and skill. Last month when we interviewed Denis Coughlan, the former Cork dual star bemoaned that football had “completely lost its identity”, but that Dublin were its one saving grace.

Yet, when asked by Newstalk’s Joe Molloy about the closing moments of last year’s All-Ireland final, when their forward line systematically hauled down Mayo players — which Coughlan found “despicable” — Sherlock said it was up to the game’s legislators to punish such an infraction more severely if they felt it merited it.

Sherlock comes from soccer and basketball and, not only is he able to see what elements of those sports Dublin can apply, but also those they can even make more hay with, because the rules of football allow them to take such liberties. In basketball, there’s a 24-shot clock.

When you cross the half-court, you can’t re-enter it. In football there’s no such restrictions, so his team can play keep ball like they did for the last five minutes last Saturday evening against Donegal.

Last season, the outgoing Playing Rules Committee, chaired by Jarlath Burns, brought in some welcome rule changes that helped reclaim some of football’s lost identity that Coughlan bemoaned, most notably with the mark for a clean catch from a kickout that travelled beyond the 45, but as Parkinson and Corrigan pointed out, there are other interventions the game needs.

Parkinson advocated a mark for forwards, as there is in International Rules, which Michael Murphy and Conor McManus availed of so well last autumn. Parkinson also called for a limit of three consecutive handpasses.

This also applies in International Rules and Pat McEnaney clarified for him that referees have little difficulty keeping track of it. Mickey Whelan, the godfather of Dublin coaching, has gone even further, suggesting we should maybe get rid off handpassing altogether, at least at underage level.

There are numerous other possibilities, such as having a limit for how many players can be defending inside the 45, but what counts is that some interventions are made to increase the enjoyment of the sport for spectators and players, alike.

Burns’ successor is an interesting choice. Derry’s David Hassan, as well as being a former dual star for Derry, is a professor in sports policy and management and fills numerous worldwide academic roles.

He is perfect to provide the lateral, bigger-picture thinking that this role demands. Also on the committee is former Cork manager Brian Cuthbert, his fellow countyman Frank Murphy, the GPA’s David Collins, former Meath player Seamus Kenny, Antrim official Alec McQuillan, former Leinster chairman Michael Delaney, and Croke Park games manager Pat Daly.

Frank Murphy
Frank Murphy

As mentioned, more lateral, bigger-picture thinking and external experience is required. Someone who thinks like a coach would be seeking the loopholes and flaws in the system for his team to exploit, but would now be guarding against them for the greater good of the game. A bit like Leonardo DiCaprio teaming up with Tom Hanks at the end of Catch Me If You Can.

Jason Sherlock is still befuddling opponents, if not the authorities, but a free agent like Jim McGuinness would make the perfect candidate.

Otherwise, there’s not a hope football can catch hurling.

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