BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Forget the naysayers, football’s still worthy fare

Conor McManus celebrates his goal against Kerry.

"To one’s enemies, I hate myself more than you ever could." — Alain de Botton

For the GAA, it has been a summer filled with self-loathing. ‘Newbridge or Nowhere’ was bad enough but the controversy over the Liam Miller charity match and Páirc Uí Chaoimh has laid bare the love-hate nature which so many have when it comes to a national organisation of which they are members.

Touchy in the extreme when their games of choice are criticised by those who lean towards the association or rugby versions of football, they seem permanently locked in a torment of their own over Gaelic football. Conflicted souls flogging themselves for their sporting sins, like the Opus Dei assassin Silas in the Da Vinci Code.

The ‘big ball’ has become everybody’s guilty pleasure and repent they must.

This wallowing in woe is way beyond tiresome. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy every time a game develops into a cagey chess match or a non-event.

The sport is gone, we are told. Too defensive. Way too much thuggery.Too few teams capable of putting it up to the Dubs. Too few spectators clicking through the turnstiles.

Martin McHugh’s views were especially damning this week. The Donegal man claimed that Ulster coaches “destroyed the game”.

Martin McHugh
Martin McHugh

He bemoaned the fact that those in charge of teams have decided that defence is the priority, even when this is the foundation stone for team sports the world over.

You could certainly argue that too few coaches build beyond that but Bernard Jackman explained last summer that it takes a year to get a defensive system right in rugby. That is in a professional sport with a much more structured and static format. How long must it take a coach working with amateurs in a fluid game like Gaelic football?

We need to look outside the box to escape this inner turmoil.

As an indigenous sport, there is an understandable tendency to see Gaelic football, with all its ills, as a one-of-its-kind patient. As an organism infected by a virus that is unique to these shores. The reality is that sport in general is undergoing the same sort of metamorphosis regardless of geography or rules. Nothing is as it was.

Pick a team game anywhere in the world and you won’t be long digging up a mound of criticism.

Change, basically, is bad. The most high-profile bitching was Donald Trump’s lamentation on rules introduced by the NFL to combat serious physical injury to its players, concussion included.

Because you know, today if you hit too hard — 15 yards! Throw him out of the game. They had that last week, I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom! 15 yards. The referee goes on television, his wife’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game,” Trump said.

“They’re ruining the game.” Different context but it sounds familiar.

The days of man-on-man are gone but not all that far in the rear-view mirror because Gaelic football — and hurling — are only in their adolescence. Just 15 years have passed since Tyrone made Pat Spillane puke and the face of the game was changed forever. That’s the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.

Rugby’s big bang moment came in 1995 when the game went professional. For all the hand-wringing over the oval ball, there is an undercurrent of acceptance that union is still experiencing something of an accelerated growth in an era transformed by improvements in sports science and the influx of money through big business.

That understanding needs to filter through to Gaelic football.

The game’s critics need to play catch up, to take off the blinkers and the rose-tinted glasses, and accept that this is where we are and that the sport is moving at pace further down the road. Defensive blankets aren’t stitched in the manner they were even five years ago. Coaches are evolving and systems with them.

And anyway, has this year’s championship really been all that bad?

This observer has reported on 10 senior inter-county fixtures so far this summer and the worst of them was the one and only hurling game: the drawn Leinster final between Galway and Kilkenny in Croke Park. The nine football ties have, bar one, ranged from intriguing all the way up to Grade A entertainment.

Among the highlights have been a superbly competitive meeting between Tyrone and Monaghan, Carlow’s defeat of Kildare, Waterford’s first championship win in seven years, Kildare’s redemption song in beating Mayo at St Conleth’s Park, the shooutout in Portlaoise between Roscommon and Armagh, and Kerry’s Houdini act in Clones.

Carlow players celebrate their win over Kildare
Carlow players celebrate their win over Kildare

How does all that square with the narrative of doom and gloom?

The only dud seen first-hand was Donegal’s stroll against Fermanagh in the Ulster final but no game has gone by without a moment of magic here or there and we would do well to remember that many a mundane game in the World Cup just passed was rescued by an act or two of beauty that took the breath away.

And some said Russia 2018 was the best tournament in decades.

Okay, so this writer’s sample size is ridiculously small and open to counter, but so too is the deluge of criticism over the Super 8s. Strip the eight games to date down and you have one stalemate, four decided by three or fewer points and another by five. It’s still football, folks, just not as we used to know it.

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