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Gaelic Football Styles & Systems: How Overseas Athletes Adapt

Gaelic football has long been a global sport but do styles differ from country to country?

From Dingle to Abu Dhabi, clubs are in operation the world over. While it’s safe to say the best standards will remain close to home, the Gaelic football styles and tendencies of foreign athletes stand to them in their own way.

The same theory can be applied to Ireland. The Ulster football stereotype often portrays the ‘six counties’ to prefer a rough and tumble style as opposed to the aristocratic approach of Kerry.

The key difference here however is that styles differ in Ireland because of long-held beliefs in one’s system. Across the water and further afield, styles are dictated by the players’ previous athletic endeavours.

Gaelic football in the UK

For years, the United Kingdom has offered Gaels a lifeline in times of trouble. Employment opportunities, quite often, comes as part of a package deal with a particular GAA club.

The UK has a long history of Gaelic games. Sam Maguire captained the London Hibernians to five consecutive All-Ireland finals between 1900 and 1904.

Clubs have been in existence as far back as the 19th century. More than 100 years on, many rely on homegrown talent as opposed to the travelling bog-man.

Tir Chonaill Gaels are one such example. Started in 1962, the 16-time London champions boast All-Ireland winners James McCartan and DJ Kane as former players.

However, the modern-day TCG, back-to-back London champions, boast a team primarily made up of homegrown talent.

Killian Butler doesn’t believe Tir Chonaill Gaels play the game differently but that playing a number of sports concurrently can help the UK-born players.

“At TCG we’ve got a good spine of boys who’ve come up through the underage ranks. Probably 12 or 13. However I wouldn’t say we play the game differently it depends on who you are playing against.”

“In saying that, the thing with playing Gaelic football in London. You’re not tied to one club or sport at a time of the year (in the same way you are in Ireland). You can go off and play soccer, rugby and other sports freely. They all help your development.

“I would have played soccer at a decent level growing up. There are pieces of everything, I played a lot of sports. In school, I’d have been on the cricket team, I was part of the tennis club. There were football and rugby growing up. Our styles come from everything. It’s tough to pin it down to one thing.”

Premier League Swagger

For those who have watched Butler in action, his style of play stands out. In many ways, he mirrors a soccer player playing Gaelic football.

Not that that’s a bad thing. At the end of the day, he’s London’s scorer-in-chief.

“Killian’s probably got the attitude and the swagger of a Premier League footballer,” UK-born GAA journalist Conor Martin tells us.

“I think that’s what he needs. He’s such a lovely guy off the field but on the pitch, he’s got that swagger and he knows how to keep defenders on their toes. Also, the way he’s built, he’s really athletic. I’ve seen the effort he puts in in training, it’s all hard work.

“He’s got that swagger, which comes from having that confidence in his abilities. It’s probably something that’s more commonly seen with soccer players.”

Soccer’s influence

Having grown up watching Gaelic football from a UK standpoint, Martin believes that, in the case of soccer, most players are able to transfer their skills successfully to Gaelic football.

“In Gaelic and soccer, you’re always trying to be aware and look out for that pass. So you’ve got to be aware, you’re always on the ball. I think if you can play soccer, nine times out of 10 you can probably adapt to Gaelic football pretty well.

“I’ve seen it with lads who’ve got no Irish in them at all. The most tricky thing, to begin with, is the hop and the solo. At any age, if you’re not used to it, it takes people a while when you’re used to having the ball on the ground all the time.

“I’ve seen a lot of soccer players. They learn the basics and merge it with their soccer skills.

“Aside from soccer, rugby has a big influence as well, probably more so with the backs because they are used to the rough tackles as well as kicking from the hand.”

Like Butler, Martin believes that the availability of other sports in the UK gives homegrown talent an opportunity to shine on the Gaelic field.

“I think English-born kids who have grown up around different sports and not solely GAA, I think a lot of these sports have helped them get used to the game.

“At the end of the day, they’re always going to need some help in a sense. But other sports that we’ve grown up with here really sets you up for the physicality and stamina. It goes hand in hand. Once you get used to the game, the rest goes like clockwork.”

Gaelic football in the USA

The most influential sports in the UK involve kicking which helps with Gaelic football. What about America though?

While the states boast a plethora of different sports, the majority require hand-eye coordination as opposed to kicking skills.

New York footballer Shane Hogan believes the number one and two sports, American football and basketball, help compliment their GAA skillset.

“Yeah, I think they do, especially basketball, the hand-eye coordination is always there,” Hogan says.

“The ability to execute leaping and lateral movements. All the kind of movement that you need to be a good Gaelic footballer translates to basketball.

“American football as well and being able to mark your man and track runners. They all feed into the skills that’ll help build you into a good Gaelic footballer. I think playing as many sports as you can as a kid helps shape you into a good Gaelic footballer.”

Basketball’s influence

Adam Robertson didn’t know what Gaelic football was until he was 27 years old. Five years on, he’s vice-chairman of Houston Gaels.

A former basketball player and coach, Robertson sees a lot of transferrable skills between the two. For him, this helps American-born players survive in the world of Gaelic football, even if their kicking skills aren’t up to scratch.

“I think the basketball skills, the raw skills, are very transferable to Gaelic football. The majority of Americans who play for the Houston Gaels played basketball and that’s the skills they rely on.

“When I started playing. The only thing I knew in my head was from (American) football and from basketball, which is a lot of one on one offence, very individualised, how you’re going to attack your player or defend your player. A lot of Americans don’t grow up playing soccer or rugby or any sports that rely heavily on their foot skills. You come into the sport where maybe 70 per cent of it is foot skills.

“So what that does is, you develop and create your own skillset that you rely heavily upon. Whether that’s dribbling between the legs, setting up screens, driving into the lanes or pivoting.”

What he does find frustrating is the instinct to kick the ball long.

Sounds like Dublin

“I’ve noticed a lot of the Irish guys, they take the ball and they want to kick it long. In basketball, if you lose the ball, the team that turns over the most loses the game usually. 

“So you have Americans who come in playing Gaelic, and they don’t want to do long kick passes or long hand passes because the chances of those being turned over are significantly higher.”

From listening to Robertson, the parallels between the Dublin footballers and basketball begin to become more evident.

We’ll leave the last word with Ben Geaghan, another member of the Houston Gaels. London-born to Irish parents playing Gaelic football in America, our perfect candidate.

Geaghan sees rugby as more transferrable to Gaelic football than soccer however he cites a lack of mobility in rugby as a disadvantage.

“Your rugby kicking style can be quite effective in Gaelic football, kicking for touch and kicking for the posts. It’s actually kind of easier in Gaelic football with a round ball that you can drop into your foot.

“Then when the ball is in free play you can use your soccer skills but that can be a disadvantage in that you’re not automatically programmed to pick up the ball. I think there’s a mobility challenge though. Rugby is a lot less mobile than Gaelic football with the jumping and the running, it is a really mobile game. Rugby is a lot more static and stationary.”

Dogged

With regards to US sports, Geaghan believes Americans are dogged and athletic which means they can adapt to Gaelic football surprisingly well.

“The Irish lads are slicker, they are cleaner.

“It might just be a function of the Americans that stick with it and are noticeably good, they’re like high-pressure athletes. They are dogged, fit, athletic, maybe not super skilled, in kicking at least, but they are fit and up for it.

“Compared to some Irish players over here who rely more on their skills. In some ways, they can appear a little lazier compared to the high pressure, dogged American players that we have.”

It’s a debate that could go on and on. One thing is for sure, from soccer to basketball, rugby and American football, there’s no doubt that overseas players are using these talents to get them by on the GAA pitch.

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