Spare a thought for cats' poor relations.....Footballers
IT was with no small sense of envy that I watched yesterday's All-Ireland final. Tipperary and Kilkenny tearing into each other made for great entertainment and a great spectacle. Frees were hard-earned, as they should be, and it struck me that the culture of Gaelic football needs to change towards the awarding, conceding and earning of free-kicks.
I've quoted the rule on the tackle before in these pages and I've made the point previously that its interpretation varies greatly from one referee to the next -- even from the early stages of the league to the white heat of the championship.
That's not a complaint I've heard from hurlers whose sport appears almost self-regulating. The collisions can be huge, but as long as they are fair, no one bats an eyelid. If we could apply that attitude to football and perhaps persuade referees not to blow at the first sight of hefty contact, then we'd have a vastly improved product.
Kilkenny's dominance was the hot topic of discussion last week. More than a few people made the point that their dominance in hurling can be attributed in part at least to the fact that football is all but neglected down there.
Everyone agrees it's the poor relation, but that's not to say there's no talent for the big ball down there. There's the famous 1997 example when reigning All-Ireland minor champions Laois needed an injury-time goal to escape the Cats' clutches. Someone called Henry Shefflin hit 1-2 that day, while Michael Rice was at corner-back. The history books show that O'Moore Men would hardly have a glove laid on them as they marched to a second successive national minor crown from there on.
Kilkenny also shocked Louth in the 2005 Leinster minor championship, their first win in the grade in over 40 years, and that underlines that the structures just aren't in place to nurture that talent.
But can you blame them? Absolutely not, and they are far from the only county around who obviously favour one sport over the other. They are pumping resources into something that has been very good to them and equally it must be hard for them to justify the upkeep of a football team.
I had my own near miss with Kilkenny. It was the winter of 1994, I was in the early stages of my Sligo career and we travelled to Nowlan Park for a league match. There was around 7,000 people there when we landed, watching the end of the hurling match which was the 'curtain raiser'. When we emerged for throw-in, there were exactly five people left in the stand -- and two of them were my parents! That day we were pushed all the way and won by two points 1-10 to 1-8.
We played them more recently in Markievicz Park and we won easily enough. I spoke to a couple of their players coming off the field and there's not much you can say without coming across as patronising. After all, we were in the same division as them at the time.
There were at least half a dozen very decent footballers playing for them that day, but they are swimming against the tide. It has to be the most thankless job in the GAA, which is they deserve plenty of credit for sticking with it.
Changing attitudes is the greatest challenge for the minority sport. I played a little bit of hurling myself in Sligo (I was brutal, if they saw me with a stick in Kilkenny they'd presume I was an umpire) and the club won a couple of championships in the early 1990s, but most people preferred to concentrate on football.
With little or no success to shout about, Sligo football was the poor relation in Connacht and beyond, something I noticed when attending International Rules training. The lads from the bigger counties would have the attitude that you were from Sligo, so you couldn't be any good.
When everyone's telling you you're useless, it can be hard to shift that tag. Kilkenny's hurlers are the most celebrated group of sportsmen in this country and rightly so after some of their performances in the last few years. Their footballers will toil in the coming league campaign, with almost no chance of success. I've been in that sort of situation with Sligo in the dark days. It's an awful place to be -- and that truly is a whole different ball game.