GAA Football

Kicking Out: Football fixed itself - hurling mightn't be able to

29/7/2018 Limericks Gearoid Hegarty and Corks Colm Spillane Picture Seamus Loughran

IMAGINE what shape the wheel would be in now if GAA people had invented it.

Do you think it looks round enough? Maybe a flat edge somewhere would be a good idea?

Ah no, that's too flat, let's round that a bit. Maybe it'd be better as a square? Though if we make it a square, do we have to change every instrument that uses a wheel?

All sports make changes but no sports seem to second-guess themselves and disagree so religiously as Gaelic football and hurling.

We've had a year out followed by two weeks of hurling and one weekend of football.

Hurling, it seems, would be as well going for a square wheel, because theirs definitely isn't right.

Football is through its experimental stage and seems to have decided that if you leave it alone for long enough, it might actually just fix itself.

There was very little wrong with Kerry at the weekend. Having self-flagellated themselves around Páirc Úi Chaoimh in November, they appear to have realised that their own way was maybe better after all.

The new era of Tyrone football suggested as much realism as fantasism. The only truly natural forward in their starting line-up against Donegal was debutant Paul Donaghy, who kicked ten points.

His late piledriver from 50 yards whipped up the storm on social media, but his best score was actually in the first half. Blocked off his natural right foot, he just turned 180 degrees and burled one over off his left instead. A two-footed man like that could be a serious asset.

Tyrone have tried the defensive stuff for long enough to be sure now that it doesn't work in the really big games. Donegal just learned the lesson quicker, moving away from it since Declan Bonner took over, though they've yet to translate it into the language of true All-Ireland contendership.

Mayo never bothered trying it, instead playing Joker football, a maniacal game equivalent to dangling half-off the edge of the cliff with a crazed smile, daring anyone to try and push them off.

Dublin don't seem to need to bother kicking much ball or doing any of the traditional, puristy things that fend off criticism. They're still held up as the beacon-carriers because they rack up 20-plus points a game against everyone, so even though it's as much about pace and power, you can't really argue.

I was as pessimistic as anyone in the recessionary years of 2011 to 2015, wondering where the door was that would allow us to find a way out of the black hole of defensiveness Jim McGuinness had created.

It felt like: Right, teams have learned that if you put 15 men in front of their own goal, the other team will struggle to score. How exactly do you counteract that?

Turned out that, unsurprisingly, there are smarter people than me out there. And in Dublin continuously holding their end of the bargain up to the point that everyone realised you'd have to climb up to meet them rather than trying to bring them down, football retained a high-bar even in the drab years.

Now we're looking at an All-Ireland series where the five serious contenders – Dublin, Kerry, Donegal, Tyrone and Mayo – are all approaching the games with an emphasis on front-foot football.

They will all press up on the kickouts, they all play with men kept up the pitch, they will aim for that 20-point barrier each time they hit the field.

Yet for all the wailing over rule changes (some of it rightly, though), some of the alterations have helped. The black card is, no matter what any manager or player tells you, is a necessary evil.

If nothing else, it has killed stone dead the dangerous trend of emptying men when they've just popped the ball off. But mostly it's made defenders that bit warier about plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face cynicism.

Taking kickouts to the 21' has allowed teams to push up that little bit more easily and what we actually have now is a sport that isn't all that far off fulfilling its potential.

Yet just a couple of years ago, the doomsday predictions were going the other way. The hurling championship seemed to be a nauseatingly endless stream of You Only Thought Last Week Was Good.

Who could forget when one of the games of decade between Clare and Galway wasn't even the best game of the weekend in 2018, beaten out the gate by a Limerick-Cork semi-final that was as exhilarating a sporting spectacle as I've ever been lucky enough to attend.

Now the whole sport is threatening to eat itself. Not enough goals. Too many points. Sliotar is too light. Too much handpassing. Too easy to score from distance. Too defensive. Too many rules. Too many new rules. Too many bad rules.

And worst of all now, simulation. All the hurling saints, have mercy on us.

It's actually quite funny watching from the outside as they queue up to denounce the new black card penalty, claiming a sport that once lifted you involuntarily from your seat when Paul Flynn found the top corner of the Cork net doesn't need a fix for the fact that the banty hens up the lane here have more teeth than a hurling championship now has goals.

What it didn't need was the farcical advantage rule, which the GAA really should take upon itself to review. It can hide behind processes and rules but when Anthony Nash's penalties were threatening to smash skulls, the loophole was found and the rule changed mid-season.

Hurling's other problems aren't so easily solved. Men were never anticipated to be as big, powerful, athletic and skillful as they now are. Glorified free-taking contests, as Jackie Tyrrell coined them at the weekend, is not a trend like football's defensiveness was.

When you see the Mayo goalkeeper last week scoring a point from his own 13-metre line, you know there's something has to change.

The GAA has resisted messing with the weight of the ball or the dimensions of hurls but those might be the only fixes for a sport that is in a far more real sense of trouble than football ever was.

As it stands, the next few years will be football years.

Hurling might actually have to reinvent its wheel.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

GAA Football