Dual and darlin' players, unfortunately, belong to rare auld times
On Gaelic Games:Fuelling the energy and commitment Liam O’Neill brings to the presidency of the GAA is a strong dose of romanticism, but he rarely lets it get in the way of practicalities.
Last week, the president and Cork’s Teddy McCarthy had an exchange on one of the more recurrent causes célèbres within the GAA – the dual player and his apparent imminent extinction.
Some of the most fabled achievements in GAA history are rooted in dual achievement – the late Taoiseach Jack Lynch – the first player to win Railway Cup medals in both codes, Dublin’s Des Foley, who emulated him but on the one day, and McCarthy himself, the only winner of two All-Ireland senior medals in the same year.
The president diplomatically rejected the less temperate elements of the criticism and endorsed the right of players to pursue dual playing careers.
“Are we putting the players first?” he mused. “If we are putting players first, they should have the freedom to play whichever sport. They are amateur games, after all, and my wish would be that a player who wants to play both codes should be facilitated.”
The president may have uncharacteristically erred in the direction of sentiment on this, as it’s not clear to what extent dual players can be facilitated any more.
Most obviously, there is the issue of managers putting pressure on talented footballers and hurlers to ditch one of the games and Liam O’Neill is right that such pressures are unfair. But that was not the thrust of McCarthy’s criticism.
Even if the accusation the GAA was motivated by greed in establishing the All-Ireland qualifiers format is unfounded, there’s no doubt it is a large contributory factor in making dual status essentially untenable.
The issue has been in the news recently with Cork’s Eoin Cadogan bringing down the curtain on the latest attempt to keep afloat a career in both games and opting for the county footballers. He did so as Damien Cahalane was making a similar commitment and while hurling talents such as – in particular – Aidan Walsh and Ciarán Sheehan steadfastly continue to concentrate on the big ball.
Football partisans might point out that down through Cork history this has happened, but more usually the other way around, with good footballers being waved off in fond regret like Richard Dreyfuss stepping into the space ship at the end of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind before blasting off to a more advanced civilisation.
There’s similar tensions in Dublin where a cohort of young players have played in both All-Ireland minor finals, but on the evidence to date, football, unsurprisingly, is exerting a stronger pull.
Whereas the sentimental ideal of playing both of the Gaelic games at the highest level continues to have appeal, the reality is that it’s no longer possible.
So who should facilitate it?
First, it’s worth re-capping on why the football qualifier system was introduced. The national interest was served not so much by the additional gate receipts, but by the enhanced promotional opportunities for the game and within a year for hurling as well.
Yet, it was primarily to prevent teams training like lunatics for one championship outing after which their summer would be over. It has achieved that and more. For counties keen to have a run
in the qualifiers, the opportunity has presented itself for them to have longer summers than ever before.
So who should be facilitated – counties, such as Sligo, Fermanagh, Westmeath, Wexford and Limerick or the handful of individuals lucky enough to be from counties capable of giving them a realistic chance of fulfilment in both codes?
The calendar-year league innovation has also undermined dual players, but, again, should all counties again undergo the strung-out inertia of a seven-match schedule played over six months so a small number of players can more easily take part in both competitions?
Then there is the quality of performance. It is exceptionally difficult to hurl to potential at an elite level when also involved with the football team. In the past and pre-qualifier days, Cork players such as Jimmy Barry-Murphy, Ray Cummins, Brian Corcoran and Setanta Ó hAilpín all decided at some stage of their dual careers to concentrate on hurling.
Corcoran was Hurler of the Year in 1992 and 1999; in all of the intervening years he was a dual player.
Dublin’s Conal Keaney has played both at senior inter-county level and, having concentrated on football for a number of years, switched his attention to hurling. Speaking to the Evening Herald recently he said: “You could probably get away with it, but are you doing yourself justice? At the end of the day, you are probably better off sticking with one and giving it 100 per cent.”
Ironically, the players best equipped to try to play both codes are third-level students – the very demographic (with college, under-21 and sometimes even minor eligibility) most vulnerable to burnout and competing demands from different coaches.
The feats and achievements of dual players mentioned here and others such as Johnny Nevin who, shielded from the dazzle of September, contributed to Carlow in both codes during a long career, are a celebrated aspect of GAA legend.
But times move on and there is a bigger picture.