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Martin McHugh: ‘Don’t Forget About Gaelic Football’

Most of the fallout from the 2015 GAA Congress surrounded hurling. So it meant that there was little cause for discussion on RTÉ’s episode of League Sunday on March 1st seen as it was all football on show that weekend and very few of the motions in Cavan were related to football.

Martin McHugh of Donegal was on the panel that night and expressed concerns that football was being neglected at Congress. Does he have a point? Are people forgetting about football?__________________________________________________________________

Gaelic Football is under massive scrutiny at the moment. A Football Review Committee was set up a few years ago, chaired by Eugene McGee in an attempt to solve what some people saw as issues in the game. There were a few motions put before the 2015 Congress but none of these had a real chance of passing.

There is no doubting that football has transformed in the last number of years. Blanket defences, strides in strength and conditioning, the fame attributed to modern day GAA has led to significant changes. Have things changed for better or for worse? That’s a question that many people will answer differently.

McHugh’s words did contain a lot of home truths. It probably did raise the alarm that football is being neglected to a large extent. The main reason why football has been forgotten about is due to the fact that all counties, bar Kilkenny, have a team competing for the All-Ireland title.

Add London and New York to this means that 33 teams are entered into the draw at the start, all with the same goal of lifting Sam Maguire. Whether this goal is realistic or not is not what is in question here. It is the fact that all counties enter the summer with the same maximum reward available.

From the outside this shows that football is in a healthier state than hurling. There are a lot of counties that don’t have a decent amount of hurling clubs, not to mind competitive hurling counties. But does the fact that there are 33 counties playing football mean that they are all competitive? Absolutely not.

There are a lot of weak counties in football at the moment and McHugh’s comments evolved around providing some assistance for these weaker counties. There are a number of counties in Ireland that begin each year without much chance of winning their provincial title, let alone the All-Ireland.

Recent history also shows that only teams in Division 1A of the National Football League during the spring serve any realistic chance of winning the All-Ireland come the summer. Again, making things uneven in football and McHugh seemed to echo a view that work could be done to make football a much more level playing field.

So the main reason for everybody having a view of football being fine probably derives from the fact that more people play football than hurling all over the country. But there are a lot of problems in football at the moment. Well, problems may seem like an extreme word, but everyone would admit deep down that football is not as good as it used to be.

Joe Brolly was very vocal in his views on the current game. And while people agreed or disagreed with his views, anyone would have to admit that there was a lot of sense spoken. His term “indentured slaves” was possibly a bit over the top but there was one point that really stood out to this writer.

Brolly criticised the amount of training that takes place nowadays. People can debate about whether players do too much or too little but his next point was very true and very valid. With training levels at an all-time high and movements forward in sport science and conditioning, the game of football should be at its peak.

And it most definitely is not. Football has gone backwards over the last few years. It is a very poor spectacle and lacks an awful lot of quality. People point to that defensive systems and win at all costs mentality. These may be an influence but both of these factors are understandable from a management point of view. If players are willing to buy into it, then that is fair enough.

However, the quality of skill level in football these days is very poor. Hand-passing has taken over from kick-passing, which led to motions in the latest Congress to limit the number of hand-passes in the game.

These realistically would not work, and the amount of hand-passing is too easily criticised. In a game where possession is key, hand-passing is a much safer way of keeping the ball, particularly when working the ball out of defence. It is the lateral and slow-paced hand-passing that lessens the quality of the game.

The quality of kicking these days is poor, and there is no getting away from that. In teams attacking plays, it is blatantly clear that a lot of elite footballers are not comfortable kicking a football. A lot of players receive a ball within shooting range, and the last thing that enters their mind is to shoot. And if they do shoot, the ball can end up anywhere.

That is the main factor which backs-up Joe Brolly and would be this writer’s main criticism of modern day football. Defensive systems and win-at-all-costs are part of sport, but there is no excuse for poor skill levels.

With the amount of time that is being put into training in Gaelic games at the moment, the skill levels should be at an all-time high, and they are not.

A big change has come from managers and underage structures. What appears to be happening in football is that athletes as opposed to footballers are being recruited. People are looking at the athleticism of players and they are trying to turn them into footballers by working on skill levels as they develop.

The best example of this is current Dublin midfielder Michael Daragh MacAuley. MacAuley is a two-time All-Star, two time All-Ireland winner and was the 2013 Footballer of the Year. He sums up the modern game. He is an incredible athlete. He is big, strong and has great pace. Basically, he is a powerhouse.

But look at his skill levels. In his opening years, he rarely even attempted to kick the ball. It was all hand-passing. He has improved, but his kicking still leaves a lot to be desired. But is he one of the most effective footballers in Ireland? Most definitely. Would he make any team in the country? Probably. This is just one example, there are many more.

So what can change? It is hard to change the playing rules to help to improve the game. Suggestions have come in for football to be changed to 13-a-side. This may help to create more space for kicking and allow less congestion with the defensive systems.

Can the number of hand-passes be limited? It is a very hard thing to bring in. Firstly, it will make life even more difficult for a referee to count each on every pass, as well as keeping an eye on the play, the clock and everything else.

A tiered championship is another possible positive move but it would be likely to receive heavy opposition from a lot of parties. A quick comparison to hurling may help to make this sound more feasible.

Kevin McStay often refers to it on The Sunday Game. He mentions how every county in Ireland breaks their club championships into Senior, Intermediate and Junior.

A small rural club would struggle to compete with a big city club for instance, and the tiered championship makes it more competitive for everyone. Clubs play at the level they are capable of playing, so should it be the same for intercounty teams?

Let’s compare it to hurling here for a second. People are constantly raving about modern day hurling while they are criticising football at the first opportunity they get. But why can it be, that hurling is in healthier state than football? Some may argue otherwise, but the quality of hurling as a game and as a spectacle is definitely higher than football at the moment.

Maybe one of the main reasons is down to the tiered championship. There are a lesser amount of teams playing hurling at the highest level but the best teams are playing against each other all the time. This leads to games being more competitive and of a higher quality.

The hurling championship is compelling from May all the way through to September, while the football championship really does not get up and running until August. This is due to a lot of dead rubber games with very high winning margins. Would a tiered championship improve this? It probably would.

Weaker counties will argue that it won’t help them in any way, but in the long run it probably will. They will have a more competitive championship with better games. They will have a better chance of silverware and with an adequate promotion/relegation system, the football championship would be more competitive and more entertaining for everyone.

So Martin McHugh was some bit justified when he said ‘Don’t forget about football’. A lot of time and effort has been put into hurling in recent times and football has been neglected to an extent. A lot of the weaker counties could benefit from funding and resources to help create a more level playing field.

Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

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