In recent weeks a text from a friend, much younger, early 20s, drew attention to the 1995 All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Galway and Clare being shown on television at the time. This match took place before he was born. The text came with a sniffy judgement on the quality of the hurling, like he had stumbled across some ancient civilisation, a primitive species foraging with basic implements.
The current pandemic has given new life to those dormant matches from the past, rediscovered like scratchings on the walls of the cave, unearthed to some for the first time and to others after enough time to maybe surprise even their own assumptions. Was it that slow? Was the striking that poor? My, look at all that ground hurling!
For the purposes of amusement as much as scientific discovery, we set ourselves the task of examining games at decade long intervals beginning in 1980 with that year's All-Ireland final between Galway and Limerick. Forty years is a long stretch in any game's history and evolution. Hurling has indeed changed a great deal, mostly for the better.
And this current void, when the hurling windmills ought to be at full tilt, is ample time for reflection. Seconds after the throw-in in the 1980 final the ball broke in front of Jimmy Carroll, the Limerick midfielder. He whipped on the sliotar with ample time to rise it. Nowadays, where possession is king and impulsive swings of the ash scorned, he would be facing an enquiry. Such was the spirit of the times.
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In the first half players pulled on the ball 51 times. They rose the ball to hand on just 44 occasions. Over the whole game players pulled 104 times, with 81 lifts.
The game had great coaches and thinkers but a great deal was left to chance and abandon. The Limerick goalkeeper Tommy Quaid had the wind to his back in the first half and opted to go as long as possible, down the middle, even when that route didn't bring much in the way of tangible rewards. That wasn't his responsibility; it was up to the players out there to win their own battles. Michael Conneely also went long and mainly central. Nobody passed any remarks. Now goalkeepers are scrutinised microscopically on the accuracy and impact of their puck-outs, a vital weapon in game strategy.
There was one avant-garde deviation from the norm, the accepted principle that the longer ball was best. In the first half a free from Galway centre-back Seán Silke went short to Michael Connolly in the middle of the field. From there, after a Connolly solo, it made its way across the Limerick goal where PJ Molloy gathered possession and worked his way in before hitting the net.
To see a player look up and pick out a player was not unheard of but it went against the grain. Players didn't do dinky stick passes. The standard of striking for points from distance, with some notable exceptions in Eamonn Cregan, Noel Lane and John Connolly, was conspicuously poor.
In the 1990 final (Cork versus Galway) the ball was lifted to the hand more often than struck on the ground, the balance now leaning in the other direction, 75 to 38, and there was more high catching. But the first goal, after just 48 seconds, was never in the hand of any player after Ger Cunningham's puck-out. Brendan O'Sullivan contested in the middle of the field and when it broke Mark Foley and Ger Fitzgerald pulled in succession. John Fitzgibbon flicked square towards Kevin Hennessy, who stunned the ball and struck off his left past John Commins. The last of Cork's five goals, from Fitzgibbon, was also a ground stroke.
Even when Cork, then reigning All-Ireland champions, lost to Offaly in a thrilling 2000 All-Ireland semi-final, ten years later, ground play was far from extinct though waning. In that game the ball was lifted 102 times, pulled on 48. Cork's third point, from Joe Deane, came after a sweet first-time ground stroke by Alan Browne that moved the sliotar in a second or two from the middle of the field. Offaly hurlers, about to head into an appalling decline, were the last great ambassadors of the ground game. Within a few years Cork were winning All-Irelands with a short-passing game based on running and carrying the ball. The 2010 final had just four pulls on the ground. Last year's final had three.
You don't have to go back too far to find hurling that looks a poor imitation of the modern game with its dizzy scoring levels and stunning technical virtuosity. Hurling keeps changing and adapting but has managed to do so without relinquishing its innate appeal.
Noel Lane played in both the 1980 and '90 finals, and can see how the games don't age well. But allowances need to be made. "There was some wonderful hurling as well and some wonderful striking and some great matches back in the '70s and '80s and I suppose great hurling for the time that was in it and great players at that time also," he says. "I think that we came from an era of ground hurling - ground hurling was still very much part of the game, and I suppose a critical thing is that the hurley was designed for ground hurling, it had a small thick 'bás' maybe of three inches in width, it was nearly like a club, that was meant for getting good contact and the quick ground ball.
"And I suppose the hurl wasn't as conducive to good, clean striking off the hand as it is now. I have seen it myself obviously with young lads in the club and that, the hurleys they're using have a bigger 'bás' and they're lighter and more designed for that player.
"The other thing would be the ball. The ball was bigger and it had big rims on it and you had to really hit it on the meat. And you could be lucky and unlucky and sometimes if you did not hit in on the right spot it looked like you were topping the ball. Whereas nowadays the ball is lighter and more round. Having said all that we hurled to play, if I could say it that way. They were different times. Whereas they play to perform now more."
The game's physical wear and tear in Lane's playing days also impacted, with less television scrutiny of rough play off the ball. "Back that time you could have a couple of slaps got before the ball came," he explains. "So there's a number of things, there's a thousand things between then and now. Sometimes when you look back you would cringe but at the same time there is a huge argument to be made that it was a better game that time because it was man-to-man, there was more ground hurling.
"That is not being disrespectful to hurling now, it's a wonderful game. It's a different game, played by different people, that are doing drills, that are conditioned, that have different hurleys, different sliotars. Much more time to practice, much more coaching, much more science and all that."
Cregan was Limerick's star player in the 1980 final. He couldn't bring himself to watch the match, saying it was hard enough to lose it once. But he has seen enough back matches to know that some don't hold up well to current inspection.
"Sexton Street (Limerick CBS) played in an All-Ireland colleges final in 1964," he recalls, to illustrate. "I happened to see it on television one night on something or other and I couldn't believe how bad it was. To Limerick people and Sexton Street people it was a fabulous game and a great game and the hurling was marvellous. I remember going on to a ball and pulling on it and it travelled six yards."
The skill level in hurling has never been as high, proving Ring's forecast to be true that the best hurlers were yet to come. "My father's mantra was that you must be able to strike the ball properly, left and right," says Cregan. "In order to do that you must practice. When I looked at some of those games, the striking was dire. Some of them just hit the ball and it only went 30 yards. And some of them would half hit the ball. And they weren't under that great deal of pressure. They were in space."
But one man's free expression is another's ruination. More defensive tactics, designed to stop and stifle, have inevitably been developed and put into practice. The game isn't as easily manacled as football because the ball can be moved more quickly and over a longer distance but there are understandable fears that excessive meddling and tactics will contaminate hurling's purity and lessen its appeal.
"Some of the skills are gone now," says Cregan. "That is a pity. You don't use all the skills in one game. But I will use the example of being with the Connollys in Castlegar, when I spoke to a group of young players there. This was on a Saturday and Limerick were playing the following day. I said it is a pity that forwards have to catch every ball that comes in. I said, forwards don't do the unexpected anymore. What's wrong with the ball coming in and you just letting fly? The following day Limerick were playing, Aaron Gillane did exactly what I was talking about the previous day. It caught them all by surprise. As a forward you need to have little things like that which will out-fox the backs."
He is talking of Gillane's brilliant goal against Waterford in the National League final of 2019. That is a perfect example of the tension between the free-spirit that is an essential part of hurling and the modern attempts to exercise more control and play the percentages. Gillane flicked the ball to the net, delivered from the Limerick '65' by Tom Morrissey, after a short puck-out to Richie English on the 20-metre line. Short, short, long, goal. The lead up was a classic sample of the modern approach, the goal was an act of pure opportunism and individual wizardry. It will be talked about for a long time after various tactical game plans have been ripped up and forgotten.
Gillane, to apply the strict logic of the modern game, could have been crucified for not trying to control the ball first and increasing the percentages. But how can you legislate for that kind of instinct and radical nature. Why would you want to?
"You don't want to see that individual style taken from the game," says Lane. "So many players have done brilliant individual things, from all counties, it's important that we hold on to that. There are players still out there who have those magnificent touches."
Cregan enjoys the way Limerick play now, though at times they execute one or two passes too many for his liking. He accepts it is a sign of the times. "I was always one of those guys who would look up the Fitzgibbon Cup each year and see how many Limerick players are playing with all the other colleges and generally it would only be ten or 11. Before the All-Ireland of 2018, 29 had been to third level that I saw on the programme. They would be into the modern way of doing things. They are into technology and their preparation is exceptionally good. That's their thing and that's how they do it and they're doing a great job."
Tomás Mulcahy was man of the match in the 1990 hurling final, a high-scoring match that ended 5-15 to 2-21 although he reckons Seán O'Gorman was more deserving of the accolade. By chance the 1990 final came up in conversation last Friday with a fellow Cork man. "And he said to me, 'Sure ye were a bunch of very average hurlers'. I started laughing, I said, 'You are probably right, we were very average, we still managed to get 5-15 on the day'."
A few weeks ago the game was shown again on television. "I think it was the start of our lockdown and it was lashing rain outside on a Sunday afternoon so everyone was stuck indoors and the text messages were going around," says Mulcahy. "And I got a text from Dr Con Murphy to see would I ring two or three individuals to say, 'Don't turn it on until a quarter to three - you won't want to see the first half'.
"I sat back on the couch and I watched it and I was giggling to myself big time, because everything was long in terms of puck-outs, Ger Cunningham was hitting the ball as long as he could, and the same with John Commins in the Galway goals. I don't think there was a short puck-out. The amount of ground strokes was frightening, how we delivered the ball so quickly, and it didn't have to go to hand or be caught off the air. Once it broke you let fly and the inside forwards were so accustomed to that. That to me epitomised the way the game was back then. But it was no fluke, that is the way we trained. You kept the ball going."
Already the game had moved on from his first All-Ireland final in 1983. "I was on Dick O'Hara. I came across Ger Henderson. Ferocious but very honest players. But a different style of game, you weren't talking about putting ball into space, you were standing man-to-man and may the best man win."
One of the best goals ever scored was by Jimmy Barry Murphy in the '83 semi-final against Galway when he pulled mid-air and overhead, hitting the roof of the net, an astonishing act of timing, wrist work and hand-eye co-ordination. Would that goal happen now, with the emphasis on handling the ball, and possession? Or would John Fenton's goal from the ground four years later against Limerick in Thurles? The short answer is no. Not from that distance, though goals from the ground still happen, as Seamus Callanan showed when lashing a venomous ball into the Wexford net last year.
"Skill levels have massively improved," says Mulcahy. "I would hate to see players restricted from expressing themselves. We've probably seen players walking away from panels over recent years because of that. I have seen exceptional players not fulfilling the role that they are best at. I get annoyed about that. I feel guys should be allowed express themselves, it's a game of skill and a game of beauty. Scoring goals off the ground was our strength. Offaly were very strong at it. And suddenly we changed because the game changed."
Cregan raises the variations in the slioatrs in his ime, having been accustomed to the McAuliffe sliotar in Munster which had thick ridges before having to switch to an O'Neills for the All-Ireland series in 1973. "I couldn't hit the bloody ball 40 yards, it was a completely different ball from the McAuliffe sliotar, we went into a semi-final against London and we only barely won that."
The sliotars are lighter now, players are faster, the hurls are shorter and bespoke. The game has never been as quick but, then again, no pre-rehearsed move or modern gym programme will help put the ball in the net more lethally or magnificently than Fenton did in 1987. As with anything, we have lost something along the way but gained a great deal as well.
"I would say some of the younger generation, including those playing now, are looking back at some of this archive stuff and saying that it was cat," laughs Mulcahy, already feeling like a relic from the past.
Sunday Indo Sport