Colin Sheridan: Innovation not imitation needs to become the name of GAA game

Colin Sheridan: Innovation not imitation needs to become the name of GAA game

GAMECHANGER: Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton kicks the point that birthed a dynasty — and made the idea of keepers loping forward to take frees de rigeur. The upcoming GAA championship is in desperate need of some new innovations, says Colin Sheridan. Picture: Brian Lawless, Sportsfile

On August 18, 1951, Eddie Gaedel took to the plate for the St Louis Browns in baseball’s Major League. His arrival was met with cheers, jeers and no little bemusement from both the bleachers and the opposition dugout. 

As Gaedel faced down Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Bob Cain, he put his bat on his shoulder, adopting a crouched stance. Cain threw four pitches at Gaedel, each one missing his strike zone, an area defined as the volume of space above home plate and between the batter’s knees and the midpoint of their torso.

Cain never stood a chance. Gaedel’s strike zone was estimated to be under two inches, for he only stood three feet, seven inches tall. He was a dwarf who, like many his size, had earned his living as a circus performer and novelty act. 

On that August day, he resisted the urge to swing at any of Cain’s pitches, and in doing so, he walked. Eddie Gaedel tossed his bat and nonchalantly strode to first base, stopping twice to bow to the crowd. Once there, he was replaced by a pinch-runner, his job well and truly done. His final walk to the dugout was met with a standing ovation. He had never played baseball before, and never would again.

Gaelic Football is nothing like baseball as a sport. It is nothing near as technical or as specialised, so innovative gimmicks like that of the Eddie Gaedel episode will never happen. The closest we came in recent times has been the free-taking goalie. Like most novelty acts, it was fun at the start, and had its peak very early in its now tired life, when Stephen Cluxton hit the free that birthed an empire. 

Now, nearly a decade later, we are still being forced to watch as goalkeepers canter 90 yards up the pitch, only to snap-hook the ensuing kick like a hacker on the 10th tee. If only the US government had abandoned more traditional torture methods at rendition sites in lieu of showing Gaelic football goalkeepers miss free after free after free on a continuous loop, the war on terror would’ve ended in a week.

There have been other experiments, but most have sought to destroy, rather than create.

The two-man full-forward line has become, over time, a no-man full-forward line. The libero goalkeeper has evolved into a recycling bin for unwanted possession. Mayo went through a period of playing as many midfielders in their XV as possible, a tactic later adopted by Vicente del Bosque’s Spain during the “false 9” era. 

The short kick-out, another strategy with its origin story in defence, has become the slow play of Gaelic football. Jimmy McGuinness has long been venerated as the Enrico Fermi (Fermi was the architect of the atomic bomb) of football, but to anchor McGuinness with such a pejorative moniker is to ignore two things; he was handed a sow’s ear to cultivate, and, when he got it right, there was plenty of beauty to go with the Donegal beast.

The hard truth may just be that when it comes to Gaelic football and positive tactical innovation, the sport is as resistant as the Church to change.

I once played in a five man full-forward line in college. The quintet in question was so deceptively slow — likely due to academic fatigue (and inebriation) — that flooding the offensive D was deemed the only path to success. It worked, if only because the defence was so dismissive of us playing possum, and abandoned their responsibilities quicker than a character from an Updike novel. We showed them! 

Alas, the tactic was deemed too avant-garde to be taken seriously. This was a time when wearing any colour boot other than black was considered indecent, so expecting a tactic borne out of a want for greater artistic freedom to survive was naive. It was abandoned, sent down the River Corrib in a wicker basket, the game much the lesser for it.

We can only hope with such an outlier of a championship ahead, that some attacking innovation awaits. Heavier ground, no second chances, and the realisation Dublin will not be beaten being played the same old way, will surely push the dreamers in management to think their way around them, rather than bludgeon through.

Any change will do — even the aesthetic. Imagine the excitement of seeing an inter-county manager donning a sharp match-day suit for the first time, Ferragamo shoes destroyed in the Aughrim muck.

Maybe another gaffer conducting his pre-match interviews through Irish, or even better, Spanish via an interpreter. If a team isn’t willing to play mass offence to try and change the outcome, let them at least look and sound different.

As inter-county teams return to training, they must do so knowing to repeat the same mistakes and not risk change is foolish. The basketballer Wilt Chamberlain was a much better free-throw shooter underhand than he was conventional and only changed from the former to the latter due to the embarrassment he felt shooting that way. 

Conversely, Kevin Kelley is a high school football coach whose teams never punt on fourth down, always execute onside kicks, and always go for two after a touchdown. He refuses to conform, and that refusal has yielded eight state championships in football-mad Arkansas.

For James Horan and his fellow “head coaches”, convincing the players to embrace something new may well be the hardest part. Motivation will be key. It’s worth noting that when the dwarf Eddie Gaedel took to the plate, he did so under strict instructions from team owner Bill Veeck not to swing at any of the pitches, thereby causing him to strike out and ruin the trick. 

Veeck was so convinced Gaedel would see stars and swing like Micky Mantle, he told him he’d taken out a $1 million insurance policy on his life, and two snipers were positioned on the roof of the ballpark with orders to shoot and kill him if he even looked like he was going to swing. He didn’t, and the little man left baseball a giant.

Sometimes players just need a gentle nudge.

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