NEIL McManus retired this week. I was at St John’s for the Waterford and Cork games last season and was riveted. In the Waterford game, Neil missed a penalty with the last puck that would have won the game for Antrim. But what a game. What entertainment. In the Cork game, we basked in wonderful hurling for another 70 minutes, Cork pulling away near the end. But we were entertained. Inspired even.
Watching the hurling is almost unbearable. With his corner back being butchered by Gillane in the Gaelic Grounds just over a week ago, and Brian Lohan standing there as though he were blindfolded, I texted Marty Morrisey. “Has the corner back got naked pics of Lohan?” Marty texted back, “No comment” and several laughy faces.
Marty is the voice of Gaelic games. He is an electrifying commentator. But when he is doing the Gaelic football, he is reduced to sounding like the Bingo caller at an old people’s home.
Marty: And Armagh come away with the ball, Forker plays it back to his goalkeeper, who is happy to hold possession. He solos on the spot and then fistpasses it to his corner back as Derry retreat into their defensive formation. Eamonn, the Armagh goalie is seeing a lot of the ball today.
Eamonn: He certainly is Marty, on my count that’s his 43rd possession.
Marty: The interesting thing about this game is that it is Kieran McGeeney’s 86th game in charge of Armagh, which is some record when you think of it.
Eamonn: It certainly is Marty, very few managers can boast that sort of tenure.
Marty: Forker comes forward now, thinks better of it, sends it back to his goalie, who solos forward himself. It’s very hot out there Eamonn, how will the players cope in the last quarter?
Eamonn: Certainly Marty, there are going to be a lot of tired bodies out there. That’s when mistakes can be made and the winner of this one could boil down to who makes the fewest mistakes.
Marty: Absolutely Eamonn, and now Stefan Campbell has come back into the Armagh half of the field to take the fistpass. He solos forward at speed on own of his trademark runs, but runs into a wall of Derry defenders. He gets the fistpass away. Great work by O’Neill to win that. He turns and kickpasses it back to his goalie who is now patrolling along the halfway line. This is something we are seeing a lot of now Eamonn.
Eamonn: Certainly Marty, the role of the goalie has changed completely. He needs to be a complete footballer now.
Sound familiar? When however Marty is doing the hurling, our most thrilling commentator is left trailing in it’s wake. Then, he is merely an excited spectator, his awed reactions transmitting themselves to the viewer. Watching the hurling on Sunday was like watching your son fighting for the middleweight championship. I jumped up and suddenly realised I was standing in the living room, before sitting down. I held my hands over my face. I shouted at the television. I groaned and twisted on the sofa. The glamorous brunette told me umpteen times to sit still. From start to finish, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.
In Munster, Clare were the better team but a sideline tragedy was unfolding. By the time the switch was made, it was too late. Limerick were alive when they should have been dead. Clare had leaked vital confidence, a confidence that was crucial against the dominant team of this era. A confidence that every giant killer must have down the stretch. Limerick meanwhile were delighted to get to the championship rounds intact. They are cold blooded killers and this is where killers thrive.
After that, there was only time for a quick cup of tea before the second course. Like Freddie Kruger re-appearing at the window, the Cats never die. That epic last 60 seconds was a symbol of their heart. Their absolute committment to the battle. Their refusal to spare themselves. Their refusal to accept defeat when all seems lost. I was up and down and up and down and shouting and gesticulating like a lunatic. Then the ball swung across, the kick clear, Buckley. Then sitting on the sofa shaking my head and laughing. Elated. There is hurling. And there is Kilkenny hurling.
Hurling is a spectacle, an entertainment, a joyful adventure of courage and skill and do or die. The hurling fraternity go to the games with their hearts beating fast and leave them needing to lie down. Not only are the games vastly entertaining, but like Gaelic football before the spectacle was ruined, we get a hundred talking points from every game. It inspires us. We want to chatter about it and send texts to each other saying “Holy Jesus did you see that?” and “Clare are throwing this away” and “I can barely watch.” Meanwhile, in modern football the talking points are neither here nor there and no one really cares. We are becoming estranged from the game we once loved. We might go to watch our club or county out of a sense of duty. But we might not. When we watch on telly, we do not have to wait to half time to make a cup of tea. We are quickly restless after the throw in and more often than not, we start flicking round the channels.
The GAA hierarchy has, as is their habit, stuck their heads in the sand and hoped for the best. The game will evolve into something better. Coaches will wake up one morning and all decide to play entertaining football. Somehow, it will become exciting again, all by itself. Like magic.
A whole generation of young players don’t know any better as this is all they have known. Sweepers and holding possession and going backwards and not kicking the ball, soloing and handpassing and soloing and handpassing and don’t for Christ’s sake take any chances or make a mistake. As things stand, the only thing keeping it anyway watchable is the miracle that is David Clifford. The rest is boring, predictable sameness.
I watched a bit of the Ashes this morning between Australia and England and I swear there is more buzz from the cricket crowd nowadays than there is from a Gaelic football crowd. The football games over the weekend were tense and exciting near the end, but were played in the modern boring formula. Long stretches of holding possession and nothing in particular happening, then the odd burst of action, then back to the risk free holding pattern.
The cricket ones have one significant unfair advantage over us. They can get pissed at the game, with the bars in the ground opening two hours beforehand. I went to Lords once and although I had no idea what was going on, halfway through the day I was so pleasantly drunk I was shouting when the rest did. I even heckled the singer during the tea break. Des Fahy King’s Counsel, Drumragh’s only cricket expert, brought me to the game and said afterwards he was never going to bring me back. To top it off, I missed the flight home. The game was neither here nor there. It is the occasion that is important. This is what has happened to gaelic football, so the sooner we have bars at all grounds serving throughout the game the better.
In hurling, you must put on a show. You have no choice but to express your skills. You have no choice but to go for it. In hurling, entertainment is compulsory. In football meanwhile, entertainment is irrelevant. In football, with the rule makers refusing to act, you can only bore your way to victory.
When even our greatest commentator is struggling to make Gaelic football sound remotely interesting, our game is in serious trouble.