IN his book The Happiness Trap, Australian psychologist Russ Harris might as well have been writing about our relationship with Gaelic football.
Generally, we’re deeply unhappy with how the sport looks. Giving out about it is a national past-time.
Most people would agree that they want it to change. They just don’t know how or what to.
Harris’ theory is that half the problem with humanity is that there’s an internal expectation to feel happy all the time, when in reality happiness is not the natural emotional state of a human being.
It would remind you of the one Tommy Tiernan used to tell in his stand-up routine about the Irish trad session that would rise to the point of near-crescendo, and then fall back down because the musicians decided it was time for a sad song.
“You need a bit of sadness. You couldn’t be happy all the time. Not in this country anyway. You’d have no friends for a start. ‘Aw here he comes, the happy f***er.’”
There is no lasting state of happiness when it comes to Gaelic football.
But the sweet-spot where the X axis of improvement would meet the line from the Y axis of unpredictability was something sport didn’t realise it was speeding past until it was in the rear-view mirror.
Athletes the world over have not yet peaked in terms of what they can achieve, but most of the major sports have been left imbalanced by the advancements in performance.
Structures and rules that had done the job for hundreds of years have been bent and twisted out of shape by sports science.
There are loads of people out there that that’s a good thing for. The industries supported by elite sport continue to grow. Players themselves have been never been fitter or faster or stronger or more educated in their own field.
The single biggest thing that has changed in Gaelic football is the physical level that players are at.
Through the access to professional S&C coaches and nutritionists, a world of information and help is available for free.
Take Louth, for example. As much as Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin have made the major difference, nobody in that camp would understate the impact Sharon Courtney has made.
The former Monaghan ladies’ captain came on board as their nutritionist. They went from a talk on nutrition every few months to having an expert on-hand at training in Darver once a week, and on the end of a phone any day.
The body composition of so many of their players has changed dramatically in the last few years.
They’re fitter and faster, so they can play a very different type of game than they’ve been used to. Reaching a Leinster final and the Sam Maguire competition represented significant improvement.
That kind of work has transformed Gaelic football and hurling because players are now able to cover greater distances during games.
In a piece on Brendan Rogers back in May, Gaelic Life journalist Mal McMullan revealed that his Slaughtneil clubmate had covered 17km in last year’s Ulster final, where he put Michael Murphy on the back foot and kicked 0-3 himself.
There is nothing as sure as if players are able to run, they’re going to run.
For those that wish to put up diversion signs for the path that Gaelic football is on, that is the single biggest barrier.
Players have the legs to both attack and to get back and defend, all day.
No matter what rule you impose, it won’t stop lads being able to run 12, 13, 14km in a game. And if they can cover it, they will.
There’s almost nothing you can do about it.
Whatever can be done is being approached wrong.
There’s too much stick and not enough carrot.
Let’s take the shot clock, the preferred method of many for solving Gaelic football’s problems.
What that whole idea says to me is we’re gonna punish you for having the ball.
And so it is absolutely riddled with unintended consequences.
If a team has, say, 60 seconds to get a shot off, the opposition will just bring all their players back knowing that it’s a very short time for which they’ll have to defend until they’re guaranteed they’ll get the ball back.
There would be virtually no reward for a team pressing the ball high up the pitch, or for pushing up on the opposition’s kickouts when you’re guaranteed you’ll get possession back after a minute.
Gaelic football has tactically outgrown its body.
Beating the team in possession with the stick rather than offering them a reward for positive play will do nothing to alter the prevailing negative mindset within coaching.
Don’t let anybody tell you that Gaelic footballers nowadays are anything less than vastly superior to what has gone before.
It’s not that footballers can’t kick a point from 30 yards. It’s that if they had 10 goes at it, most might between five and seven of them, and that’s too much of a risk, so they’re told not to do it.
Instead they work the percentages, get the ball closer to goal, get it to the shooters. Make it 85 or 90 per cent sure you’ll score before you go there.
The attacking mark has helped improve the amount of kick-passing we see yet it’s so deeply unsatisfactory that everybody hates it, despite it doing exactly what it said on the tin.
When the GAA brought in a rule to outlaw the back-pass to goalkeepers from a kickout, coaches devised a set-play where a second man would come and take the ball instantly, and that would allow the ball back to the ‘keeper.
That’s what our coaches do. They do it with absolutely no thought for the game or the spectacle. Naturally enough, all they care about is winning.
Yet the Kerry-Derry game, or Tyrone-Monaghan in Ulster this year, showed that when both teams want to play on the front foot, it can still produce magical games under the current rules.
It doesn’t generally because of the mindset of coaching and the fact that any potential solutions thrown up by rulemakers are generally dripping in negativity.
Which brings us back to the shot clock again.
What about the same idea only instead of taking the ball off the attacking team after 60 seconds, you reward them with two points for a score if it’s converted within say 20 seconds of them taking receipt of the ball?
Make it four or five points for a goal and encourage teams to take the game-changing risk rather than fisting the ball over the bar.
Encourage teams to move the ball faster and to take risks and offer real rewards for those that do it.
What we saw in 2023 isn’t really what we want from Gaelic football.
We’ll never be happy with the game. It’s always gonna require work to keep some form of aesthetic balance against the sport’s traditional values.
Being truly happy with something all the time is, as Russ Harris argues, totally unnatural.
We don’t know what it is it that we do want, and we’ve absolutely no idea how to get to a destination that we can’t agree on.
More carrot, less stick is the only way we’ll ever get close.