Minor miracle required to revive football in Kilkenny
Just one player turns up for county minor football trials
No football team excites as much comment or criticism as the eternal strugglers from Kilkenny and the news that just one player showed up for minor trials will provoke further hand-wringing about the state of the big ball game throughout Noreside.
The constantly bleak standard of Gaelic football in Kilkenny is a GAA puzzle which never ends. Nothing sums up the unspoken friction between hurling Gaels and football Gaels as the varying standards of both games in the county. Kilkenny football has become a metaphor for awfulness. Sometimes it is worth checking the score of league games just to wince and it was the succession of terrible defeats which led to withdrawal of the senior team from the league.
The apparent readiness of the county board to allow its Gaelic football culture to remain in a comically miserable state infuriates many Gaels who interpret it as a reflection of their lack of interest in football in general. Football Gaels can be very sensitive about the sense that hurling Gaels believe their game to be superior.
Kilkenny can make the perfectly reasonable response that they don’t go about lamenting and criticising the state of hurling in those many counties where Gaelic football is the ‘first’ game. And it is an unassailable point: there is a common sense that while hurling will flourish where hurling always has, there is a duty to improve the standard of Gaelic football right through across the island. In Kilkenny that isn’t happening and if the poignant image of just one lad showing up for county trials is a yardstick, then it isn’t going to change any decade soon.
Technically, there isn’t any reason why Kilkenny men can’t be good at football. There is no reason why the balletic grace and sinew with which black and amber teams play hurling should turn to clumsiness as soon as they attempt to kick a football around the place. Wasn’t DJ Carey, one of the supreme stylists and goal poachers of modern hurling, known to moonlight as a footballer every so often?
It isn’t too hard to imagine that if the current Kilkenny hurling team had been practicing football rather the stick game since boyhood they could make a formidable team. Brian Cody has the look of a big, uncompromising full back full stop – in hurling or football. And let’s imagine that Cody steps away from managing Kilkenny next year. And just say he is approached to give “a dig out” to the Gaelic football side of the house and he makes improving the game his pet project? There is probably no doubt that such a figure who generates such monumental respect would be able to influence youngsters on the joys of taking up ice hockey if he wanted.
Maybe some other former hurling greats who were handy at football could come out and give clinics and sell the idea those games can complement each other.
But the problem is that they don’t. The dual player has now become a romanticised figure of the past. Trying to play both games at the elite level is deeply stressful for the player trying to keep managers in both codes happy. And both sports exert different demands on the body.
Declan Browne, whose decision to play football in Tipperary when he could have been potentially winning All-Ireland medals with the hurlers seems almost heroic in retrospect, has said a game of football left him far more battered than a game of hurling. The relentless attrition in football is draining. Hurling, for all its fierce, close combat, rewards elusiveness and speed of foot. Browne was one of the very rare instances where a player made the conscious decision to play for the weaker team in his county. He just loved playing football and he was a joy to watch.
But how do you persuade most youngsters to opt for football in a county where hurling is the first and last? In some football counties, kids do opt to play hurling instead. Some just prefer the game. Many Kilkenny hurlers embark on quiet winter missions into the heart of football country in Ulster where clubs are trying to promote the game. Many decline any kind of payment for their time and effort. The same is true of other well known hurling people.
Maybe if Colm Cooper or Bernard Brogan are invited to host coaching sessions in Nowlan Park and there is a concerted effort to revive the game it can still be saved there?
But it could be that Kilkenny is an exception. The hurling teams Cody has fielded for the last 15 years have rightly been lauded as a sporting phenomenon.
And it is when Cody begins to riff on what hurling means to him that you begin to get a glimpse into how much the game captures his mind. It is little short of an obsession. And Cody is just one of thousands of like-minded souls in Kilkenny. They are fascinated by the game of hurling in that county in a way which has left little or no room for the sister sport.
Kilkenny is a small county; maybe at some subconscious level they fear the example of neighbouring Offaly.
The Faithful County is one of the most remarkable GAA counties, managing to win All-Irelands in both codes despite its small population. Both Gaelic football and hurling flourish in the county. But for the past decade they have been struggling to tread water in the Leinster divisions and are always up against it now when competing against a superpower like Dublin football or . . . .Kilkenny hurling.
If it is true Kilkenny clubs are discouraging youngsters from showing up for football trials,there is a problem. And maybe the thought of a 17-year-old who wants to wear the county shirt and kick ball for his county standing alone in a changing room will move the county to make a decisionon what to do about football. But something must give: it would be better to reject football altogether than leave it in its present pitiful state.