LARRY RYAN: Bored by gazing at football’s navel

You don’t spend many hours in front of American TV shows without picking up one or two invaluable life skills; notably the ability to stage, when a suitable crisis point dawns, an intervention.

So, here goes. I have stood idly by long enough as our forlorn friend slouches glumly in front of a mirror, forever agitated by what it sees. Craving a nip here or a tuck there. Bending its back not to draw the free but to gaze again at its navel.

Dear, insecure Gaelic football, with your chronic self-esteem issues; it’s time we gathered your loved ones round to talk this out once and for all.

Though you can always detect a low hum of shame among football people,traditionally the annual festival of introspection doesn’t begin in earnest until the first few weeks of championship throw up a couple of shockers.

But this year they have hit rock bottom early, brows beaten double scores, apologetically mouthing familiar incantations. Blanket defence. No defined tackle. Pulling and dragging. Overuse of the hand-pass.

They have sought succour the only way they know; by forming another committee, just to see how bad things really are. Naturally, the Football Review Group will be chaired by Eugene McGee, a distinguished football man, but one who expresses reservations about the state of the game at roughly the same rate he inhales oxygen. It’s less a think tank than a concern cauldron.

A letter to this paper, penned by Pat Ward from Navan, encapsulates the latest wave of angst enveloping these people.

“Gaelic football is no longer an attractive game. It’s turned into a rugby-basketball game on a football pitch. It’s time we had a football game in which the ball is moved only by kicking it. No throwing the ball by hand or fist.”

Just one thing; that letter was posted in July, 1998. No doubt one could produce piles of similar correspondence that arrived in the orange vans of the P&T. Same as it ever was.

But let’s get down to brass tacks. Firstly, what is it about the blessed hand-pass that so invigorates a Gael’s thirst for self-flagellation? How is it he becomes so repulsed when players safely deliver possession of a football to one another via a series of discrete caresses? And yet, in another code, when a few heavy lads from good schools muster a comparable exchange — without the inconvenient requirement to mime an exaggerated striking action — it is regarded as the apotheosis of sporting achievement.

By the same token, how come a few defensive outings by Donegal can shake the foundations of the Gaelic community so hard?

After all, we didn’t, when Chelsea’s negativity paid off against Barcelona, hear much from UEFA about the need to reduce football, once and for all, to seven-a-side.

So why are Gaelic football people so down on themselves and their game? Of course there may be deep-rooted reserves of self-loathing too engrained to unravel here, but ultimately I think the principle reason we spend too much time fretting about the sport’s attractiveness is straightforward. As a man on pointed out this week — the sporadic nature of championship involvement for most counties means we all watch far too many football matches as neutrals.

To appreciate the importance of this, recall what happens roughly 10 days into any major soccer championship that Ireland misses out on.

Billo, Dunphy and Giles frown through a summit on declining standards of international football, with particular reference to the growing popularity of Playstations and frustratingly improved economic conditions in South America.

But if Ireland are there, we’re far too busy getting injury updates from Tony O’Donoghue. It is, essentially, a matter of priorities.

When you’re on the edge of your seat, you’re not too concerned if the spectacle doesn’t lift you out of it. The idea that patrons attend matches to be entertained is spurious anyway. They do so to support or belong. So surely football’s chief problem, more than anything fundamentally wrong with the game, is a league no one cares about and a championship that leaves too many looking on from the sidelines, grousing.

This is, after all, a game that produces moments as swift, clean and thrillingly clinical as Colm O’Neill’s goal last Sunday, even though, hideously, he was supplied by a hand-pass. So chill out, lads. It’s the moaning, more than anything, that’s boring.


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