PADDY HEANEY: Football action must speak louder than pundits’ words

A family friend, who spent about 40 years in America, was a regular visitor at Lincoln Financial Park, home of the Philadelphia Eagles.

By his own admission, Sean would freely state that he often enjoyed the ‘tailgate parties’ much more than the game itself. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this popular American pastime, a tailgate party involves eating food and drinking a few beers from the back of a car.

In the GAA it’s called boot eating, but the tea is replaced with beer, and ham sandwiches are replaced with the contents of a small supermarket, all neatly packed into a couple of humongous cool boxes.

Apart from the beer and food, Sean really loved the live pre-game shows. Again, he believed the analysis, discussion and animated debates usually eclipsed the three hours of gridiron.

Not everybody is as honest as Sean.

By my reckoning, a significant percentage of the people who tune in to watch Gaelic football matches are now more interested in listening to the pundits than watching the actual play.

Comments made by Colm, Joe and Pat set the agenda for the remainder of the week. Indeed, their most famous remarks now provide the epitaph for a particular summer. “Puke football,” © Pat Spillane, 2003. “Small men can’t referee big games,” © Colm O’Rourke, 2007. “I want nothing to do with that,” © Joe Brolly, 2013.

We shouldn’t blame Colm, Joe and Pat for the gross amount of attention which is focused on their analysis. It’s not their fault. If the games were good enough, the action would speak louder than the words which surround them.

The pundits have simply stepped into the void which has been left by games which lack genuine entertainment value. In the absence of sublime skill, flowing football and edge-of-the-seat excitement, the punditry has overtaken the play. This is a sorry indictment on Gaelic football because when sport is performed at its very best there is no need for any further accompaniment.

The best sports commentators have always understood the power of silence. When presented with action that came from the heavens, Dan Maskell (tennis), Ted Lowe (snooker) and Brian Moore (soccer) knew their was no need to fill the airwaves with constant noise.

To support my argument, I would point to last year’s All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Kerry. It was a great game, jam-packed with individual brilliance, acts of heroism and spellbinding excitement. However, there was another telling feature about that match. In the days and weeks that followed how many people were talking about Colm, Joe and Pat? The truth is, no one cared about what they said about the game because it didn’t really matter.

It was a glorious game of football. A tantalising illustration of what Gaelic football can be, the thoughts of Colm, Joe and Pat were rendered redundant.

Sadly, we have not been able to say that about many games in recent years. Rather than celebrating great occasions, we have been drawn into petty, little sideshows. Controversy has become the chief currency. Argument has overtaken entertainment. The studio has supplanted the pitch.

Growing up in a house alongside a father who had a grave intolerance for most pundits, I grew accustomed to watching sport with the volume turned down so low that it was virtually inaudible, (the notable exception being horse racing). Watched under these conditions, you learn that great sport survives on its own merits.

Hopefully, if the early signals are accurate, this summer should provide us with more games watched with the volume turned off.

The black card is making a difference. Research conducted by The Gaelic Life has shown there has already been a marked difference in the volume of points that are kicked from play.

Across all competitions in 2013, 30.06% of scores came from free-kicks. Since the black card was introduced, the number of points coming from placed ball has been reduced to 14.7%.

While all the media attention focused on the Sean Cavanagh foul, the deliberate collision which is transforming the game. In the matches, I have covered since the New Year, most of the black cards offences were for third-man body checks.

When players don’t have to engage in a scrummage before they make a supporting run, the effect on the game is incredible. The astonishing fitness of the modern county player, allied with rules which allows them to run rather than wrestle, has created a different spectacle.

After three weeks of rain, the pitches are soft and heavy.

Yet, look at some of the results from last weekend. Tyrone 2-15 Mayo 0-16 (70% of scores came from play). Kerry 0-14 Derry 0-16 (70% of scores came from play). Cork 0-16 Kildare 1-12 (84% of scores came from play).

The reason last year’s Dublin and Kerry game was so good was because it was played in the right spirit.

But the evidence of the past decade tells us that anybody relying on teams to play the game in the right spirit is either plain stupid or downright deranged.

The black card, which punishes cynicism, has provided managers with the encouragement to play the game properly.

Admittedly, it’s early days. But the initial evidence is very promising. The real proof will arrive during the summer.

Come the championship, if we are spending more time talking about the play rather than the pundits then we will be able to say a new era in Gaelic football has begun.


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