Can a soccer player learn to play GAA in a week?
I have never touched an O’Neills ball in my life, but how hard can Gaelic football be? I drop down to my local GAA club in London for a game
Two predators in light blue shirts immediately appear as I bend down awkwardly and lose the ball under my feet. I get a smash on the forearm from one of the big lumps, something which I can still feel as I type this three days later.
I’m called into action again soon after, and I keep a difficult ball in at the far sideline and then thread a decent pass infield, which sets my team-mate free for a shot at goal. I then get my hands on the ball in a bit of space and manage a cross-shot from out wide, which might just about look like a neat pass.
We dig in to some spirited defending after a third goal gives us a strong lead. The final score is a flattering 3-7 to 1-6 win.
Toasting our victory in the Gateway pub in Reading, there’s time to reflect on some of the differences between playing soccer and Gaelic.
The first thing is the ball. It’s noticeably heavier. Gaelic is played fast and you’re constantly on the move. There seems to be more running and fewer stoppages.
My first 35 minutes felt longer than any 45-minute half I’d played in soccer. Because points are on offer from a distance out, you have to mark players hard and stick with them, whereas in soccer it’s possible to double up with a teammate, or mark zonally in many areas of the pitch where the action isn’t taking place.
Kicking, which I always thought I was pretty good at, is a different game with tired legs. The presence of defensive players throwing themselves at you makes it hard to maintain your balance – and a cool head – when lining up a shot at goal.
The “fluid” nature of some rules is notable. Indiscretions seemed to be waved on by the officials, ranging from players taking five or six steps with the ball in their hands (the maximum is four) to consecutive bounces being waved on to punches landing without fuss.
Did I find myself out of my depth in my first game? Absolutely. But after my first taste I am definitely a convert. I feel happy to have joined a tough and competitive sport where the motivation for playing at any level is never in question.
But I won’t turn my back on soccer just yet. Soccer is slicker and less messy. And you don’t have the insurance policy of being able to hoof it over the bar for a point should you not fancy going for goal.