Friday 28 October 2016

Colm O'Rourke: Modern-day football's about more than gym stats

Time to go back to the drawing board as kids show us the way forward, says Colm O'Rourke

Published 12/02/2012 | 05:00

Last week between Friday and Wednesday I saw seven Gaelic football matches, four in the flesh and three on television.

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The four matches I watched in the cold were three schools games and the Allianz League game between Meath and Monaghan. Then, on Setanta, I watched Dublin v Kerry, Donegal v Down and Kildare v Tyrone.

The contrast between the types of games witnessed was just extraordinary. Some of the senior encounters resembled the Ireland-Wales rugby match (which I also attended) with hordes of players chasing the ball all over the pitch without much in the way of positional play or individual marking. The underage games on the other hand had more of a distinctive shape. Players more or less stayed in their positions, the ball was kicked regularly and the skill level was high.

Which type of spectacle do people who watch a lot of Gaelic football find more enjoyable? As a crusader for legislating for more kicking in the game, readers will know which side I am on and I also feel strongly that those on rules committees have a duty of care to prevent the game becoming something alien to what it was set up to be.

What has happened now is that the game played by different age groups has been turned on its head. When I started playing football our coaches had a difficult job restraining us from chasing all over the field without a care in the world about positions. We were like young calves on their first day out on grass in the spring and getting a kick at the ball with everyone chasing it was a feat in itself. Later on we learned the disciplines of positions, marking, defence and attack.

Now the game at adult level resembles the innocence of youth except that it is supposed to be very sophisticated with ten or 12 players who could play anywhere just chasing the ball all the time with a couple of specialist defenders and attackers. If you could have a camera over a county match now and were able to cut out the ball you might as well be watching a colony of ants all running around after each other in a confined space.

This type of high-energy activity has created new standards for physical fitness, demands on players' time and a sort of fad where the amount of weight a player can lift in the gym, his fat levels and the ability to continue running is given greater credibility than skill. There is absolutely nothing wrong with players being in superb physical condition, in fact it is a given at county level, but when I watched Bryan Sheehan play for Kerry on Saturday night in Croke Park it reminded me that a bit of class is still more important than anything else. Sheehan is not the prototype athlete. It is not that he is in any way unfit but he is a footballer first and an athlete second. Many of the modern players appear to be the reverse: athletes who are turned into footballers. Sheehan plays at a pace and with the sort of composure which is born of nature not nurture.

In fact, that game between Kerry and Dublin seemed a classic case of one group, Kerry, who play in an uninhibited way against another who had to think about things a bit. In a way it makes Dublin's triumph last year all the more remarkable and they, in many ways, are a better example to most counties -- proving that you can reach the top with hard work, excellent organisation and discipline.

Kerry have more natural talent and defeat in last year's final is like a stone grating in their shoe. Part of the rehabilitation process is getting back on the field again and having Dublin in their sights early gave an added dimension to their first game.

This was a statement of Kerry intent. Of course it is only a league match and there are all the other provisos to be included with Dublin not nearly as ready but the form of the ó Sé brothers, Darran O'Sullivan and Paul Galvin is still as constant as the north star. But when Kerry sent for young reinforcements for this campaign, new players like Peter Crowley, Patrick Curtin and James O'Donoghue looked ready, while others who had some game time previously, like Shane Enright and Barry John Keane, have improved. Already it looks as if picking the Kerry team in the summer will be very interesting and the older brigade, with the honourable exception of Mr Cooper, won't want to be away much longer or there will be no way back.

Meanwhile, Dublin wake up to the dawn of the new reality: as champions, everyone wants to do you down. Great champions respond to this sort of challenge with Kerry first to throw down the gauntlet. Expect them to be the last as well.

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