Who on earth is the fastest man in the GAA?

Could the likes of Jack McCaffrey or Sean Murphy have been another Paul Hession?

 

We were leafing through our match programme in Parnell Park last Sunday when the subject turned to raw speed.

There is no more futile debate than arguing for or against the merits of one sport or discipline over the other, except when it comes to covering the flat out ground as fast as humanly possible. 

So the suggestion from one corner that Meath forward Eamon Wallace is possibly the fastest man in the GAA – or at least was – deserved some attention. Wallace actually won several Irish sprint titles as a youngster, and there’s no telling how far or fast he might have gone in athletics had Gaelic football not got in the way.

Wallace looked a little off the pace against Louth on Sunday, some of his raw speed possibly stripped due to a torn cruciate in 2014.

Either way, line up the fastest men in the GAA right now and my money would be on Seán Murphy, the Carlow midfielder who put in a man-of-the-match display in last Saturday’s defeat to All-Ireland champions Dublin.

Murphy’s raw speed had actually been flagged in advance by Carlow manager Turlough O’Brien, who knows a thing or two about sprinting (his wife Mary, along with her sister Patricia Amond, won a pocketful of Irish women’s sprint titles in the 1980s). Murphy is in his first season with Carlow and, had football not got in his way, might well have won a few Irish sprint titles too.

Some people I know are crying over how many athletes are lost to the GAA, especially as raw speed becomes an increasingly central component, in football and hurling.

Jack McCaffrey makes me cry every time I see him run with a football, as does Darran O’Sullivan, and sometimes Ryan McHugh, and while hurlers are slightly handicapped by their stick and helmet, Richie Hogan against Jack O’Connor in Wexford Park this Saturday evening is just one on-field race worth watching. 

If Martin O’Neill is left lamenting any lack of raw speed in Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Austria that can likely be pointed at the absence of the injured Shane Long.

For all the justifiable claims that Long was equally deft at hurling during his teenage years in Tipperary, his sporting foundation actually lies in athletics, and his underage years with Slieveardagh AC, where he won a string of national titles, including an under-16 double over the 100m and 250m hurdles in Tullamore, back in 2002. 

National record

God knows how many of these players might have impacted on Irish sprinting, had their game – or rather destiny – not got in the way, although this is tempered by the fact Ireland’s still fastest man, Paul Hession, might well have been lost to the GAA, given he hailed from Athenry, that hotbed of Galway hurling. 

It’s now 10 years since Hession first laid claim on that title of Ireland’s fastest man, running a national record of 10.28 seconds in June 2007 in Greece. Three weeks later Hession improved it again to 10.18, in Finland, a time which for better or for worse has stood safely untested in the 10 years since. 

“In one sense, the more the record is broken the better for Irish sprinting,” Hession told me, not long after running his 10.18. “But when I finish, I want to make sure it will be very hard for someone to break my records . . . I would still like to be the Irish record holder in 20 years’ time.”

Hession could hardly have imagined his record would still look so safe 10 years on, and might well last 20 years. Irish sprinting has a history of improving in small increments, and before Hession first broke the 100m record, only six other men had broken it since the era of electronic timing started in 1971: Vinny Becker, Colman O’Flaherty, Derek O’Connor, Gary Ryan, Neil Ryan, and Paul Brizzel.

Hession retired in 2014, moving straight back to the medical profession he’d put on hold while concentrating on athletics, and that void left behind is becoming increasing apparent. He was a rare talent – in many ways the anti-stereotype of a sprinter – but had the attitude to go with it, never afraid to take on the best, something that was either shared or rubbed off on the likes of David Gillick and Derval O’Rourke.   

I remember the look of disappointment on Hession’s face when he fell one place short of making the 200m final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the race where Usain Bolt would further announce himself as the fastest man on earth.

Hession believed he belonged at that level, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why he got there. His 200m record of 20.30 also stands from 2007 and since then it seems Irish sprinting hasn’t so much flat-out plateaued but gone downhill. 

For all its tainting with steroids and cockiness, global sprinting is back on an upward curve: that still breakthrough 10-second barrier has now been broken by 123 different athletes, including 10 in 2016 and 12 in 2015, more than in the previous four years combined, and including a first ever for China, when Su Bingtian ran 9.99. 

And on Wednesday, on the opening day of the American college championships in Eugene, Christian Coleman won his semi-final in 9.82, the equal-ninth fastest of all time. At 21, and a student at the University of Tennessee, there is already some fear Coleman might soon be lost to American football. 

Whatever about knowing how many Irish sprinters are lost to other sports, there is an easy way of deciding the fastest man in the GAA. Get every county to nominate their contender at the end of the season, and line them up for a series of 100m sprints, McCaffrey possibly even hosting them at UCD.

Only hang on, haven’t we lost that track to a car park?

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