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The great Gaelic debate

Mature people would say neither hurling or football is the more noble pursuit – it’s simply a matter of preference. We on the Irish Post sports desk have no time for such boring maturity. Football v hurling. One is better. Let the arguments fly.

 

 

FOOTBALL IS BEST

By Eamonn O’Molloy

APART from an accent and a strange emotional attachment to red lemonade, whiskey, potholes, land disputes, bogs and shouting jockeys’ names in bookies twice a year, being Irish has left me with desperate negativity as a default setting.

So upon being drawn into a football v hurling debate, I only briefly considered adopting a “live and let live, hurling’s grand, it’s just that I happen to love football” stance in a clever bid to claim the high moral ground. Such an approach is too positive and less craic. Live and let live is not the Irish way.

I don’t hate hurling, not really; I watch maybe seven or eight games a year now, and maybe 20 years ago, when my career as a professional son was at its peak, I watched a lot more. And as someone whose life is dominated by GAA, it is impossible not to feel affinity with people devoted to a similar sport in the same organisation.

Ultimately, however, it is well down the list of my favourite sports. I will be more riveted this summer by even Longford v Laois than, say, Kilkenny v Tipperary. I hear evangelists such as Cyril Farrell or Liam Griffin argue that this makes me an inferior Irishman, and apart from the off-putting insult inherent in that kind of hurling snobbery, I generally shrug my shoulders. I don’t see what they see, and I never will, and here are some reasons why.

I often think of hurling as a sort of version of the Scottish Premiership. There is a small elite that always wins apart from a blip once every 30 years, if we’re lucky. The last such blip in my lifetime was the years 1994-98. As with Scotland’s old firm, if you don’t have an emotional investment, it is deathly boring. When will a county win a first senior All-Ireland, as Donegal, Derry, Armagh and Tyrone have done in football in the past 20 years?

Because scores come easy, a little bit of a gap between two teams becomes a huge gulf on the scoreboard, and thus close matches are the exception to the rule of hammerings aplenty. In 2009, Kilkenny and Cork, the two best teams of the decade, met in the league and the margin was 27 points. This was months after Kilkenny won an All-Ireland final by 23 points. Give me Dublin 0-8, Donegal 0-6 over that any day.

And the scores do come too easy. I am yet to see a football goalkeeper score from his own 21-yard-line. If you love hurling because of the high scores, wait till you get a load of basketball.

They speak of hurling as a vastly more skillful game, but I’ve been to plenty of matches where the loudest cheer goes to the man who charges into a ruck of players who have been wrestling over the ball for up to 30 seconds, manages to rise it, takes a shoulder, at no stage looks up, and belts it as far as he possibly can.

I grew up reading the likes of Vincent Hogan and others talking about how special the Munster championship was. Imagine my excitement when, in 2003, I happened to be in Cork on the day of a Tipperary v Clare encounter and we went along. Imagine my disappointment when it turned out that the Pairc was less than half full, Clare had run away with the game long before the end, and the atmosphere and banter amounted to a couple of Clare boys getting sick out the back of the terrace before the game.

If football has a problem, as Mickey Harte rightly pointed out last week, of too much negativity around the game, hurling has perhaps a deeper one in the macho-man mythologising that goes with it. No other sport in the world that I can think of has TV analysts so eager to run down another game while assessing their own. I am yet to see Brent Pope, for example, declare that an exciting Union game proves the code’s superiority over Rugby League. Yet I have lost count of the number of times that Farrell or Ger Loughnane have greeted that rare beast, a close hurling game, with a snide reference to how much faster and more skillful it was than the previous week’s “pullin’ and draggin’”. It smacks of the insecurity of men troubled by the deep-down knowledge that by any reasonable measure, be it viewing figures, attendances or participation, the vast majority will never see what they see. That in a country where football is the undisputed number one in at least 22 counties, and hurling clearly dominates in no more than seven, the people have long since decided which sport they prefer.

 

HURLING IS BEST

By Ronan Early

IN any debate about the respective merits of hurling or football all you really have to do is mention Jimmy Barry Murphy’s goal against Galway during the All-Ireland semi-final of 1983.

Once you’ve seen it – even though you need to watch the slow-motion replay to really see it – there no longer is a debate. Nothing from the past present or future of the great game of Gaelic football will ever come close to JBM’s astonishing double on John Fenton’s heat-seeker of a delivery. Somebody once told me that this goal elevated sport to the level of art, which I reckon is fairly insulting to the goal.

I once caught a Ryanair flight to Italy to see the statue of David. Fair enough, it wasn’t my idea but I think I benefitted from my brush with culture. I’d swap it in a second to be present for a goal like JBM’s.

Michelangelo’s David is impressive when you see it close; depicts the perfection of the human form extraordinarily well – but not nearly as well as Jimmy Barry; lost in the moment, devoid of ego, deaf to the hum of conscious thoughts, eyes locked on nothing but the ball … One step forward. Pull. Thwack, off the sweet-spot, and into the net.

These moments and the players who provide them are priceless, and I’m lucky to have witnessed a few play: Brian Corcoran, Nicky English, Pat Fox, DJ Carey, Ciarán Carey, Joe Deane, Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh. I’m also lucky enough to have seen some magical games: Cork and Tipp’s replay in 1991, Cork and Wexford’s draw in 2003 and any number of Cork and Waterford tussles from 1999 to 2007.

Comparing that to football is like comparing steak to ribs, freshly squeezed to concentrated, prose to poetry. And I’m not talking about the latter-day mutation of football that I have to stand through most weekends – club teams aping certain joyless county sides, dragging 14 behind the ball while the opposition try and square hand-pass their way through, all the while making sure they don’t commit too many men forward and thus raise all this a half-measure above medieval torture.

No, I’m talking about proper football.

I caught the tail-end of the great Kerry team in the late 1980s and have seen Tyrone, the modern Kerry and Armagh in their pomp. For me, Kerry are the one team that truly elevate football: there is an intelligence and a fluidity to a Kingdom team in full flight that is hard to resist.

When they’re good, they are almost as easy on the eye as an above average hurling team. But they don’t inhabit the same planet as any from a list of Kilkenny, Cork, Waterford, Tipp, Limerick, Wexford, Offaly or Galway hurlers at their best during the last 20 years.

Simply, hurling at the top level is from another planet; it is the sporting bridge between earth and whatever is above. There is a majesty and a purity to the endeavour. Why? I’m not sure.

It could be because it’s so hard. If you’re a strong, athletic man with good co-ordination then you could soon become a decent senior footballer – even if you’ve never played the game before.

You could never do the same in hurling. You might be able to learn the skills quite quickly but the speed of the game means you have to be able to perform them at a ridiculous pace. The hurlers of, say, Laois, Kerry or Kildare are unbelievably skilful but that sliver of a fraction of a nanosecond longer it takes them to make up their minds and perform the task is the difference between them and Kilkenny. That’s a difference of least 20 points a half.

Some say hurling ability is in the genes and the Tipps and Kilkennys just have it. This is outrageous nonsense; what they have is a culture of youngsters attaching a hurley to their arm from infancy and rarely letting it slip. By the time they reach maturity they have clocked up thousands of hours of practice in this most demanding discipline.

Until a host of other counties nurture a similar way of life, they’ll always be off the break-neck speed. Football will always be more popular because it’s a fine game – and a great deal easier.

It’s ludicrously hard to play hurling well; like all great challenges it involves a higher quotient of agony but the pay-off is greater.

Somewhere in Ireland, or maybe even here in Britain, there is a kid knocking a ball against a wall. Someday he will score a goal as beautiful as Jimmy Barry’s in 1983. The kid is knocking a ball against the wall. It’s not a big ball. In Gaelic games, the small ball will always fly highest; soar closer to the heavens.

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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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