GAA Football

Cahair O'Kane: A bit less of the coaching manual and a bit more of the coliseum is what football needs

Limerick's Gearoid Hegarty comes under from Cork's Eoin Cadogan. There was no hiding place for Cadogan when he struggled, and that's hurling's way. You do your job, or you sit down. Picture by Seamus Loughran

WHEN all have danced or skulked their way down the winding concrete pads back to shallow earth, Croke Park looks a very different place.

An hour after the final whistle, all that’s ever left is the sound of a few milling stewards, the tap, tap, tap on the keyboards of anxious journalists, and the wailing of the herring gulls that swoop hungrily in on the aftermath.

Even the most euphoric of days ends with that silence. For a good half hour after the game yesterday, a 100-strong pocket of green hung to the back of Hill 16, putting their own twist on a few from the playlist of its usual blue-clad incumbents, but even they come to the point where it’s time to go.

The walls could do with the rest. Coming up on 135 years of the GAA’s existence, there are few weekends that would ever compare to the one we just witnessed.

Clare’s remarkable recovery against Galway went from a game of the ages to not even being the game of the weekend.

There may yet be more to come, in Thurles on Sunday or back on the Jones’ Road in three weeks’ time. Regardless, this one will go down in the annals as arguably the greatest hurling championship of all time.

It’s not a claim to be made lightly, but when else could have matched it for quality, consistency and drama?

1998 is the one most commonly held to the light, to the point that it has its own documentary ‘The Long Hot Summer’, but its mythology is grounded more in the myriad of controversies than the actual quality of the games themselves.

2013 brought a new age order and 2014 returned the old in breathtaking fashion, but none of them touch this.

The Munster championship this summer produced so many outstanding games that it’s hard to remember a bad one. Leinster offered as much as is expected of it. The All-Ireland series has easily held up its end of the bargain.

In a World Cup year that also saw the introduction of the Super 8s in football, this summer of sunshine will always be synonymous with hurling’s peak.

It doesn’t change where football is at, rather just brings it into a sharper focus.

The big ball has been the one that’s given us the Dublin-Mayo rivalry that will become legend, and it’s offered up its share in recent semi-finals.

The net’s just wider in hurling. The round robin system came into force at a time when all five teams in Munster were of roughly the one level, all of them with genuine All-Ireland ambitions.

Its great success as a spectacle owes much to offering no second chances or soft playoffs to Tipperary or Waterford.

A great hurling game will always tower over a great football game. It just will. That’s not to beat up on football, but rather to acknowledge the fact that hurling retains more of its attractive ancient qualities.

There’s nowhere to hide. Big men standing up to big men. You get given a job, and you do it. If you can’t do it, tough. You’re either left hung to dry, or you take a seat.

It’s merciless, even cruel for the players. For fans, there’s the inescapably warm feel of the coliseum about it all. You can try to remove yourself, but the drama, the emotion, the rawness pulls you in.

Just the way football used to be.

But as both have evolved, they’ve taken different paths.

There are fewer goals in hurling now, fewer chances even. More emphasis on possession, a bit less of the hit-and-hope stuff, and a lot more long-range scoring. Not all that different in that respect.

But you can’t shut down a 100-yard scoring zone so often your best chance is still to have a cut. If you’re good enough, you’ll win. If you’re not, you’ll lose. For the growing tactical nuances, it still remains a fairly black-and-white game.

Football isn’t that. The 35-yard ring in front of goal is generally accepted as the barrier outside which you’re into pot-shot territory. It’s much easier to shut down, and that’s why the sport has the aesthetic problem that it does.

Part of its style is owed to the sheer volume of mismatches, with the weaker hand doing all it can to defend itself, but the format itself is only one part of the problem.

To be blunt, there’s the worrying possibility that, in Mayo’s absence, nobody will give it thick to Dublin from here on.

Mismatches are unattractive and in an era where possession is king, even the best have found a way to make winning ugly.

Dublin were absolutely entitled to bag about on the ball against Donegal, but that doesn’t sell tickets or compel eyes for the next day.

Is the greater need that we get a couple of great games at the tail end to act as a thick double-coat of emulsion over it all, or that the weak are given those means to defend themselves in the face of physical and financial juggernauts?

Coaches have their own ends to protect and are entitled to do so, but football needs spectators to want to watch it, and the numbers that are doing so are dwindling.

Football’s elite is a more closed bracket than hurling’s, with eight genuine All-Ireland contenders in the latter this year compared to what, three, four in football? That’s at a real stretch.

That’s where you have to start looking past formats and look at other ways of weaning the game off the anti-depressants.

It may well be time to get to work on football’s lockjaw and force it to open up. Because while there are occasional signs of the game’s inclination to do so of its own free will, it remains consumed by fear.

Scoring averages are up but the methods of score-building can be gruesome and mind-numbing. And then when one team gets a lead, the surface area is so big that they can hold the ball for three, four minutes at a time, draining the life from even the biggest of games.

It’s good coaching, it’s smart football, but it’s unattractive. It will exist until the rules forbid it.

And if it doesn’t change, who knows how far the public’s tolerance for it, and thereby attendances, will sink.

Change could bring about a few trimmings in the short-term, but in the long-term, coaches will come to terms with their inability to rely on sheer weight of numbers and go back to strengthening the basics.

No shame in stealing a few pages from the camán code. A bit less of the coaching manual and a bit more of the coliseum is what football needs, or it will find it hard to emerge from hurling’s lengthening shadow.

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