Saturday 25 May 2019

'Brolly and Spillane's critics sound like 10-year-olds trying to persuade you One Direction are better than The Beatles'

Darren Daly of Dublin in action against Richard Donnelly of Tyrone and (inset) Spillane and Brolly
Darren Daly of Dublin in action against Richard Donnelly of Tyrone and (inset) Spillane and Brolly
Gaelic football is a spectator sport which at the moment provides very little entertainment for said spectators. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Is Gaelic football the world's most boring field sport? Not yet. But it's getting there. It has potential. One more big push and those apocryphal Americans who used to stream from Croke Park exclaiming, "Mah god Paddy, ah caint believe your game of hurling is so goddamn fast," will soon be saying, "Gee whizz this is the most tedious thing ah have ever seen. And you say they're all amateurs? Wow."

No other field sport could have produced something like the 15-minute spell near the end of last Saturday's Super 8 match when Dublin passed the ball back and forth (mainly back, not a lot of forth to be honest) without making any effort to score while Donegal made only cursory attempts to interrupt the routine.

Almost a quarter of the match was taken up with something which bore no resemblance to normal competitive sport and was, both literally and figuratively, pointless. Anyone who'd left their seat and come back a quarter of an hour later would have missed absolutely nothing.

This was a sustained mockery of Gaelic football being carried out by a side who have in recent years been its great entertainers. It seemed appropriate. Nothing could have better illustrated the parlous state of the game than its very best team giving a prolonged demonstration of its very worst aspects.

Gaelic football can't go on like this. It can't go on like this because it is boring. It is boring the spectators and I suspect it's boring the players too. I'm writing this before yesterday's Super 8 matches had been played. Perhaps they'll turn out to have been thrilling encounters (Monaghan v Kerry obviously was) full of open football. I hope so. But that won't change the fact that Gaelic football is moving inexorably towards a condition of stasis.

After last Saturday's game Dublin's apologists pointed out that they didn't do anything against the rules and that Donegal contributed to the farrago by sitting back and letting them do it. Fair enough. But a game where a 15-minute spell of virtual inactivity doesn't break any rules needs to change those rules.

Tyrone and Dublin tussle during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship

In recent years the GAA has been very keen on structural changes. But what Gaelic football needs is not tinkering with the shape of the championship but the kind of alterations which might prevent it from disappearing down the black hole of negativity towards which it's currently travelling.

A couple of basic changes would prevent a repeat of last Saturday's shambles. You could limit the number of consecutive handpasses to two for a start and prevent teams from playing the ball back into their own half. More radical changes, the introduction of a shot clock and the reduction of teams to 13 players would also improve things, though perhaps the former innovation might speed up the game sufficiently to render the latter unnecessary.

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All major sports have had to make important rule changes to increase their entertainment value. Rugby stopped players from kicking the ball into touch on the full outside the 22. Soccer outlawed the pass back to the goalie. The shot clock didn't arrive in American college basketball until 1984. On each occasion the change was prompted by fears that the pendulum had moved too far in the direction of negativity.

The GAA should follow suit. But any suggestion of meaningful change in Gaelic football is greeted by a chorus of complaint from managers and their acolytes. I've seen it suggested that limiting the number of successive handpasses would be impossible to enforce because 'refs have enough to deal with as it is,' an objection which suggests officials might find counting up to three too much to cope with. I've also read that you can't ban players from passing the ball back into their own half because, bear with me, a player might need to turn back from an opponent and if you made him keep going forward he could get injured.

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Arguments like those remind me of publicans arguing that a smoking ban would be dangerous because women nipping outside for a fag would be attacked by maniacs. Objections this blatantly nonsensical are usually made by some vested interest trying to protect itself. In the case of football, the loudest voices against any kind of reform belong to the kind of dourly unimaginative managers who've gotten the game into the state it's in today and believe they should be allowed to keep going in the same direction until they run it into the ground.

Anyone with the best interests of football at heart should ignore them. Because Gaelic football isn't played for the benefit of managers, or even of players. It is a spectator sport which at the moment provides very little entertainment for said spectators.

You can be complacent and say fans will turn up to support their counties no matter what. But even if that was true the GAA still has a duty to make the experience enjoyable rather than frustrating. And there is evidence that spectators feel increasingly mutinous about the fare on offer.

The current disillusionment about Croke Park as a Super 8 venue is a symptom of this, an admission that the football currently being played is so poor that it can only be made interesting by being brought to provincial grounds where a better atmosphere might compensate for the uninspiring stuff on view.

Watching the first round of Super 8 matches brought me back to 2002 when Dublin and Donegal, and Galway and Kerry met in the quarter-finals. It was a brilliant weekend. On the Saturday the Kerry-Galway and Armagh-Sligo double header drew 59,252 fans while the next day 77,298 watched the Dubs play Donegal and Cork meet Mayo. It wouldn't have occurred to anyone to switch those games to smaller grounds.

Last weekend's games had a combined attendance of 84,431. But the drop in numbers isn't the most alarming change. The 2002 games were hugely exciting, feeding off and contributing to a charged atmosphere in the stadium. Last weekend Croke Park seemed more like an enormous mausoleum. Bad football is bringing the GAA's prize possession into disrepute.

The gormless conformists in sensible ganseys with their incessant blather about innovation and motivation and sports psychology, who love the current game because it's as dull as they are, like to scoff at Joe Brolly and Pat Spillane's repeated assertions that modern day Gaelic football is terrible. They come out with that laughable line about the game 'evolving'. But most big football games these days really are terrible. Brolly and Spillane's critics just sound like 10-year-olds trying to persuade you One Direction are better than The Beatles because they're 'more modern'. Insisting that something is good when it's not doesn't make you a positive thinker. It makes you an eejit.

Not long ago the apologists for contemporary football used to defend bad matches by going on about the great 'intensity' being displayed. But intensity is precisely what the game doesn't have at the moment. What was striking about the Galway-Kerry game was how slowly everything was done. Players spent an awful lot of time shuffling backwards into their own half where they prepared to face the opposition who were advancing into the other half with all the caution of a postman proceeding towards a farmhouse with an Alsatian in the yard. Almost nothing was done at pace. A neurotic and fearful air shrouded the proceedings.

Making things worse is the fact that the basic skills of the game seem to have atrophied because of the way it is being played. I know people who love watching the warm-up of hurling championship games because of the incredible array of skills displayed by the players. Meanwhile, a lot of inter-county footballers can't kick the ball where they want it to go.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the handpass. A new model of Gaelic football where the ball is moved at speed with the hand, as it is in basketball or olympic handball, could be very exciting. But what we're getting now is the worst of all possible worlds.

The American writer and activist David Graeber has written about the phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, whereby in a society where technology should have reduced everyone's workload many people spend "their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be unnecessary. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul."

Modern inter-county Gaelic football, where players spend enormous, ever increasing amounts of time training in order to play worse football every year is a bit like that. Whereas hurling seems like an art form, football resembles one of those infinitely tedious jobs where people are told that if they knuckle down they might eventually get to be Regional Assistant Deputy Vice President of Marketing Resources (Digital). It has become a Bullshit Sport. It is a Game of Drones.

What are we going to do about it?

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