Gaelic football and basketball make for intriguing combination
Ronan McGarrity and Aidan O’Shea will play for Sligo All-Star’s in division one cup final
Kerry footballer Kieran Donaghy: his return for a winter season with Tralee Tigers has helped to generate a hugely enthusiastic local crowd for the club’s Superleague games. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
The presence of Sligo All-Stars basketball club in Saturday night’s division one cup final against Neptune in the National Arena is significant in two ways.
It marks a welcome return to prominence of the game in Sligo town, one of the traditional strongholds of Irish basketball. And it magnifies the increasing crossing points between Gaelic football and the hoops game.
In the Sligo All-Stars team this season are two of Mayo’s best-known football sons: Ronan McGarrity, a classy midfield force for the county for more than a decade and also Aidan O’Shea, around whose formidable frame the immediate future hopes of an All-Ireland title revolve.
One of the most common critiques directed at contemporary football is that it is “like basketball”. The comparison is supposed to be derogatory and is often made by people who have no real idea of what basketball is about other than involving the use of passing a ball by hand. Gaelic football traditionalists have for several years now been in a flap over what the hurling writer, PM O’Sullivan, unforgettably termed the “nostrum of the hand-pass”.
But the hand-pass is only the beginning of the crossover between basketball and Gaelic football. You only have to look at the warm-up drills to see how thoroughly the thinking and patterns of the American game have seeped into the coaching practices of elite Gaelic football.
The return of O’Shea to the sport in which he excelled as a teenager is the latest in a long list of athletes who moonlight either as Gaelic footballers or basketball players, depending on where your loyalties lie. The return of Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy for a winter season with Tralee Tigers has helped to generate a hugely enthusiastic local crowd for the club’s Superleague games.
Donaghy’s national profile means that his influence is comparable to that which Liam McHale had in the years when he spent the summer at midfield for Mayo and the winter starring in the midnight sun dances that were Ballina basketball games. McHale was kind of a pioneer and took a lot of criticism for playing both sports. He was adamant then that basketball helped his football and argues that the same is true for today’s players.
“I think that decision should have been made about four years ago,” he says of O’Shea’s return to basketball. “It is a smart move by him. Look, when [Joe] Brolly said that Kieran Donaghy was the best full-forward in Ireland – and he was – he was playing basketball. He was unmarkable for a while. Then he stopped playing basketball and his agility and foot-speed diminished.
“Okay, he was a few years older too but I know myself that after a basketball season, I would always be a couple of metres quicker and could jump higher than after a football season. You lose some of that agility and quickness. You just do.”
When Sligo returned to national league, their coach Shane O’Meara picked up the phone to McGarrity. O’Meara is from a Gaelic football household: his father Pat is a Kerry man fluent in decades of the Kerry rosary and his brother Con played midfield for Sligo. At 6’5” Shane was also a candidate for football but became engrossed in basketball as a teenager, playing national league with Sligo until the club folded.
Along with Glen Monaghan, he has spent the last 10 years reviving Sligo basketball at underage level: Oisín O’Reilly, one of the national schoolboys who came along to their training is now an Irish international and point guard for the team. O’Meara knew O’Shea from playing basketball in Castlebar but was surprised when the Mayo man made contact with him with a view to joining Sligo for the winter.
“I didn’t know what to expect. But I felt it would do no harm to have another big guy at training and if it helped Aidan, great. Then he turned up and he was well skilled and has a good IQ for a guy who hadn’t played for a while. And he has really helped because one thing we are short on is big guys.
“He isn’t as tall as some of the post-players out there but he has a lot of strength. Funny, we played Ulster Elks in the very first game and he nearly got his jaw broken from a Lithuanian guy with an elbow. I thought he was concussed. And a lot of GAA guys who came to see him play that night were a bit shocked. They weren’t expecting that. There is this perception that it’s not physical.”
Speed of hand and footwork and knowing how to defend are the obvious advantages to be drawn from basketball. O’Meara remembers being at a conference on defensive play in Dublin and noticing the Armagh duo of Kieran McGeeney and Enda McNulty sitting in the audience. “They were still playing then but they were switched on to it fairly early.”
By that stage, other dual players were coming through and illuminating the game with a distinctive kind of play. Dublin’s Jason Sherlock emerged in 1995 as a different kind of full forward: a darting sprite who ran at defenders from oblique angles.
Unique skill set
Ten years later, Jack O’Connor had the vision of utilising Donaghy’s unique skill set – an old-fashioned ball winner with exceptional peripheral vision and unquestionably the best assist-passing repertoire in the championship – on the edge of the square. The move shifted the destination of the 2006 All-Ireland southwards. Donaghy was both new and a throwback: he reminded some of Eoin “the Bomber” Liston.
In Sligo, O’Meara was forever hearing his father saying that Mick O’Dwyer used to send Liston off to play basketball in the winter. In the Kerry towny-towns of Tralee and Killarney, the basketball-football link was common anyhow, with everyone from Weeshie Fogarty to Pat O’Shea fluent in the American game.
There was a similar overlap in parts of Dublin: Karl Donnelly was one of the great Irish basketball players who broke through to play football at a high level, while Michael Darragh MacAuley is the most obvious underage basketball star to have a lasting impact on city football.
But there are examples all over the country, from Galway’s Kevin Walsh to Limerick’s John Galvin to former Longford player Trevor Smullen. The Ballymahon wing-back was a superb basketball player and was used by Longford as an attacking, linking, wing-back. It is a common role now but fairly radical then.
Smullen is the strength and conditioning coach for Longford this season. But what interests him are not so much the individual similarities between the games as the overall imprint of basketball on the thinking within Gaelic football.
“I think there has been an infiltration of the American way of thinking about space and movement from frees or set plays,” he says.
“For instance, maintaining possession is critical in basketball. That has entered the thinking in Gaelic football: if you turn the ball over, you probably aren’t going to win the game. Teams just don’t want to give away possession. If you have the ball, the other team can’t score.
“If teams press high, opposing teams would rather work the ball through the hand to the 45 rather than risk the kick. And statistics have come into Gaelic football in a big way: the kick-pass is more risky and if you turn the ball over closer to your goals the chances are it will lead to a score. All of that thinking comes from the American side of things.”
Smullen believes that the risk element has led to the influence of the hand-pass – along with the fact that teams now apply defensive pressure throughout the field. But he also sees an influence in general play. He recalls watching Dublin playing a championship game in 2015 and noticing the forwards running patterns recognisable from his basketball days.
“There would be a criss-cross at the 45-metre line and there would be a hand-off offence . . . and all just delaying time until something opened inside. It was very recognisable at the time . . . and I just remember going yeah, okay . . . this is interesting. Eventually you would see the defence make a mistake or a player having the opportunity.”
McHale says that as far back as 1996, the Mayo team were running screen-and-rolls from dead balls – that is, a player acting as a shield against a team-mate’s marker so that the team-mate can get free for a vital couple of seconds. “Then whoever sets the screen keeps moving away from the ball.” More recently, he has noticed Premier League sides using it in corners. The black card has probably killed the screen in football but set plays from the kick-out have become common place.
McGarrity is 35 now; twice the age of O’Reilly. But McGarrity is such a quietly excellent basketball player that his influence over Sligo’s season has been immense. But O’Shea, too, has been a revelation. As it turns out, he won’t be available for Saturday night’s game: an ankle-roll at training has left him sidelined for the short term. But his immediate absorption into a sport he hadn’t played at a serious level for over a decade surprised O’Meara.
“Aidan adapted very quickly. I underestimated him. One of our plays at the start, we kept fairly simple because he was on the court but he took it a step further and got an easy score himself. He watches an awful lot of basketball . . . he knows any player or team in the NBA and is a huge fan.”
McHale sees the potential for set plays off dead ball situations. When he coaches kids, he notices they learn to run patterns and plays easily. The schools’ basketball finals have been on in Tallaght this week: all of the best teams can slip easily into four to six different defences, know all the rotations in as many different attacking plays and have put in countless hours learning how to press – and how to beat it.
It is more difficult for adults to absorb that stuff. But he is a big advocate of teams hitting the basketball floor a few times a week in the down season – and not just to fine-tune the hand-pass.