GAA Football

Kicking Out: Hard to shake the primal urges

Derry have stormed to the top of Division Two with the meanest defence in the entire League, and have done it by playing on the front foot. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin 

IT’S only in the last fortnight I’ve discovered the high-octane joy of the Tommy, Hector and Laurita podcast.

They made for a fitting trio to listen to on the way to Navan and back on Sunday, given that Tommy and Hector were both born in the town.

In the episode entitled Eintracht Maumturk, Hector unloaded his dreams of eternal life drilling for gold in Alaska with his mate Clive and a few lads that can drive the diggers.

It spoke to the Neolithic man in you.

For three hours thereafter, Navan was Alaska.

I’ve not felt cold like it in a long time.

Tiernan – who once told a joke that he was so work-shy he’d get blisters from pointing – would have been proud as my bare, shaking paws went out to hard labour in stoppage time, trying to capture what looked like a potential winning free for Meath.

Instead, Jody Morris’ kick swung up into the air and went back out behind him for a sideline ball.

It was as raw and bitter and Irish an afternoon as ever spent at a football match.
And it was great.

With the words of Hector barely audible above the heater set at ‘max’ the whole road home, the devoted Gael still managed to hit on something.

Going back to Alaska, living in a teepee set up on a block of ice, was his idea of returning life to the natural state of a primal hunter.

There’s something in the make-up of a person who devotes themselves to sport that is designed for those moments when you can just unburden your soul and gulder like you’re in an empty Cathedral.

The Neolithic lives in all of us and sport is where we best get to express those natural urges without people looking sideways at you like you should be in prison or hospital or better off in Alaska out of the road.

And then, thinking far too deeply about it, it struck me that therein lies the big issue with Gaelic football at the minute.

In a very basic way, the game is just not raw enough.

It’s just too polished, too coached, too sterile.

There is still so much to love about it.

Scoring rates are higher than ever.

Last year’s Football Leagues recorded the highest score-per-game average on record, at 36.4 points per game.

Championship games averaged out at 37.3 points per game – the second highest since 1887.

Skill levels continue to improve. Coaching standards are exceptional. Fitness and conditioning, off the scale.

Over the last two years in particular, so much of the tactical advancement has been for the good.

Led by Dublin’s great team, with their width and control, teams discovered that it was easier to poke holes in the blanket when you stretched the material.

Teams became less scared of a massed defence and the better ones came to almost relish it, knowing it would be a cruisy day when their opponents would be so concerned by not losing they’d forget to win.

So led by Mayo’s ability to stick with that Dublin team, the smarter opponents worked out that the only way to scratch a diamond was with one of your own.

They led the trend of teams going after the game and that’s now become the norm.

Look at Kerry. They still don’t have great one-to-one defenders, yet they haven’t conceded a goal in the 2022 league campaign because they’re controlling games to such a degree.

Or Derry, flying and top of Division Two. They have the best defensive record in Ireland. The easy thing there is to go “ah, Rory Gallagher”.

Derry go after every kickout the opposition take now. They seek control of the ball, which gives them control of the game. There are no mass defences, no stepping off and inviting teams on. They’re winning games and it’s all on the front foot.

Tyrone’s All-Ireland was won by coming out of their shell.

Armagh’s impressive start to the year has been built on the way they’ve gone at teams, particularly the way they kicked the ball in Croke Park the night they beat Dublin.

The game has opened itself out and become more adventurous.

But for all of that, there are still periods in every game that are borderline unwatchable.

The mano-et-mano contests at which you could lose your eyeballs from roaring so hard that yer man’s “only a dirty [insert county] b******” have been somewhat removed.

You definitely don’t sit on the edge of your seat watching Manchester City toying with the ball.

When the forwards start to go through the phases in a rugby match, you’ve time to make the tea.

No matter what you’re watching, there are spells when you could sleep through it.
In the battle to attract the TikTok generation, with their child-like attention spans, that’s a battle that sport as a whole has to fight over the next 20 years, not just Gaelic football.

But it’s our battle too. And as much good as there is in the game, there is one horrific blight on it.

Keeping possession is a coach’s dream but the Neolithic man’s nightmare.

Any sport has to balance those two needs.

It feels as if we’ve gone too far in favour of the coach.

The massed defences take time to break down. You need to wait for the gap, for someone to sleep in for a second, for the legs to tire covering back and across inside their own 45’.
But it’s so hard to watch.

Speaking to now-Leitrim manager Andy Moran last year, he dissected the problem well.

“The only real fear I have for Gaelic football is that it becomes a very possession-based game.

“When teams do that, it’s not the sport we love. I very rarely give out about tactics but it kills the game, kills the momentum, kills contact, kills big-hitting, kills all the skills we love,” he said.

The nature of score-making has changed and it’s the increased volume of score-taking that keeps the wolves from the door, that allows us to accept the scarring left on most Sunday afternoons by long spells of nothingness.

Most sports would love to have the frequency of scoring that Gaelic football does.

Maybe we can’t have it every way. Maybe we’re spoiled.

But we are what we are. Raw and unkempt and in love with the war of it.

No matter how far we evolve, there’ll always be part of us misses that.

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