Gaelic football’s dead. Again. Can anything bring it back to life?

Joanne O’Riordan: Evolution says we’re always improving. That hasn’t happened here

Survival of the fittest: Mayo’s Chris Barrett  and Galway’s Damien Comer at MacHale Park. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Survival of the fittest: Mayo’s Chris Barrett and Galway’s Damien Comer at MacHale Park. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

Just in case you didn’t get the memo, or missed it because as it was being issued you became obsessed with another sport, Gaelic football is dead. Football has actually died so often I’m surprised it hasn’t become one of those dumb memes where people tweet that a celebrity has died. But this time it really is dead. The game has become so dull that it has defied the evolutionary law that the human race gets progressively better as time goes on.

As the head coach of the Golden State Warriors put it, “The game gets worse as time goes on. Players are less talented than they used to be. The guys in the ’50s would have destroyed everybody. It’s weird how human evolution goes in reverse in sports. Players get weaker, smaller, less skilled. I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”

Gaelic football reportedly died in 2012, with the introduction of Donegal’s blanket defence; again a few years later, when Tyrone modified the system; and again during a Donegal county final in Ballybofey that ended with a 0-7 to 0-5 victory for Kilcar over Naomh Conaill. The latest death notices were posted following Galway’s win over Mayo at MacHale Park earlier this month.

Football is an incredibly simple game. All you have to do is outscore the opposition. How you choose to go about this is another question entirely

How is it that Gaelic football has been pronounced dead so many times? Is it our lack of acceptance that a sport, along with the times, gradually redevelops itself and evolves? Or is it just because aesthetics play a huge role in distinguishing a good game from a great game? And if that’s the case, who says what is good football and what isn’t?

Life is not about winning. It’s about existing, and trying to do that well. But football is all about winning. Trust me, I lost five finals, and merely existing in the final is not at all satisfactory. Football is an incredibly simple game. All you have to do is outscore the opposition. How you choose to go about this is another question entirely, and something people seem to forget when they go to watch their beloved sport.

Some teams set up incredibly defensively, as Galway and Mayo did a few weekends ago. Some may try the brand-new expansive football, where you fly out of the traps like a crazy greyhound tearing for the finish line – cast your minds back to the first league game between Donegal and Kerry.

What you have here are two completely different brands of football. One is good and attractive; the other is filled with backwards passing, recycled possession and awkward silences in the crowd until an old man stands up and shouts to kick the ball.

The issue now becomes one of aesthetics. And so we come to it: what is good football. What brand of football do fans “deserve”? I am just going to say it: I don’t mind a decent defensive set-up with a solid transition in attack.

You should first seek to control the defensive phase of the game by surrendering possession in favour of spatial compactness, both vertically and horizontally. And on the triggers, of which there are many – a misplaced pass, an imperfect touch, a bouncing ball, a player receiving while facing their own goal – they press aggressively.

I don’t mind how the game is played as long as my team wins. I know that’s not fun, and I know it can be ugly and narrow-minded, but why flog a dead horse?

As soon as you recover the ball you look to attack, to catch the opposition still asleep and on the back foot. If the path to the goal is blocked, switch the play to the open side, to create space for the forward pass. To be the perfect transition team you should always be looking to go forward when in attack. After all, the goal is forwards, and the open space is in front of you.

If the forward pass is closed off, no problem, as by now your team should be thinking collectively. Like a school of piranhas surging towards their prey, you should all be moving towards your opponents, to flood the space. The movement looks effortless when perfected.

I don’t mind how the game is played as long as my team wins. I know that’s not fun, and I know it can be ugly and narrow-minded, but why flog a dead horse? Sometimes open, expansive football can kill the soul. Yes, my team may rack up an insanely high score, but in a way it’s all in vain when you’re outscored because you haven’t bothered to think defensively.

It’s an unpopular opinion, a trivial hill I’m willing to die on. But Luther Ingram was right when said that if loving you is wrong maybe I don’t want to be right. For now, football isn’t dead. It’s evolving. And it’s time culture evolved with it.

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