WELCOME to the football factory, where every Gaelic football team looks the same, sounds the same and plays the same. The All-Ireland Senior Club semi-finals on Sunday were the usual chore. The winners, Kilmacud and Glen, spent most of their time trying not to lose. The crowd spent most of our time chatting amongst ourselves. During the first game I went up towards the back of the stand for a pleasant chat with Pádraic Joyce and John Divilly, which was interrupted only by the half-time whistle. Yawn.
Kilmacud had a lot of possession, but as is the modern way, were so obsessed with holding onto the ball and not making a mistake that they did nothing with it. They didn’t want to commit to the attack in case they lost possession. Their fixation was with defending, with Tommy Walsh being double marked just in case. It was maddening watching them, particularly their systematic fouling, which has obviously been carefully rehearsed in training. Kerins O’Rahillys could not get up the field because if they were within arm’s reach of a Kilmacud player, they were gripped by the elbow or shoulder or hand and held for a split second, just enough to stop them.
Once it was clear they were doing this I watched them carefully. They run to the opponent, grip him, then let go, grip then let go, stopping him in his tracks. This contributed to the abysmal spectacle, with Kilmacud often even avoiding a free, so expert have they become at this dark art. If it was frustrating for the spectators it must have been enraging for the Kerry men.
The second game saw Glen playing with virtually an identical system as Kilmacud, save for Kilmacud’s systematic fouling. When I pointed this out to one of the Glen supporters afterwards, he said, “That’s our problem Joe, far too naive.” Which tells you a lot.
Glen employ two sweepers in front of the full-back, with a sweeper stationing himself behind the defender facing the opposing forward in possession. This way, if the forward gets past the first defender, there is another defender waiting to engage him. So, Maigh Cuilinn went sideways and backwards and probed as we sat there chatting. Then, Glen, who are so programmed by this stage that they have lost all freedom of expression, did the same. Sideways, backwards, back to the ‘keeper, sometimes even strolling about soloing the ball. Yawn.
The result of all of this nothingness was that both finalists could easily have lost against lesser opposition. In the 65th minute, O’Rahilly’s floated a dangerous long ball into the square that was flicked on and could have ended up anywhere. Glen likewise survived a last-minute free kick drama. Both came through in the end courtesy of fortunate, almost identical goals, scuffed in fortuitously after the initial shot had been blocked. Instead of playing the game, using their abilities and enjoying the occasion, both teams robotically repeated training routines until the final whistle and became ever more defensive as the game went on. Two very boring games with virtually identical scorelines. 1-11 to 0-12 and 1-14 to 0-14. Awful.
The GAA Rules Committee have done nothing to prevent this systems based approach stifling the game. As the spectacle has been destroyed, they have introduced the mark (useless) and the no pass back rule to the ‘keeper from the kick-out until another defender touches the ball (more useless). The game has been kidnapped and held hostage, with no prospect of early release.
The Argentinian World Cup winner and sporting philosopher Jorge Valdano wrote once that he loved football “because it’s the opposite of science: contradictory, primitive, emotional.” He attacked “the army of people getting close to the game with sophisticated ideas that appear to have the solution to every problem. When football club directors are in a bind, all they want is someone to lie to them offering a version of events that is optimistic and irrefutable, based on scientific evidence.” Those people, he points out, are “winning the battle for football.” So, systematic, risk free soccer is now the norm, and players are “becoming just another piece in the machinery.” This is precisely what has happened to our game.
Science has limitations. It needs to be treated with suspicion. I have warned repeatedly that if the Rules Committee did not make rules to enforce the spectacle, enforce contests and encourage adventure, the battle between humans and science would be lost and our players would become part of a dour machine that is the opposite of sport. We see now that this has come true.
Great sport, in the end, is about courage, imaginative attacking, intuition, self-expression, luck, and footballing wisdom that has been passed down through the generations. As Valdano lamented before the World Cup, “Football once came from its place: Brazil had an identity, Germany had an identity. Now, it belongs to its time. And this is a time of uniformity. All national teams look alike. It all looks the same. Football, as ever, tells us about the world.”
The soul has been removed from our game. A modern Gaelic football team is a factory. The manager supervises the conveyor belt. Players are programmed not to express themselves, but to follow a script that has been endlessly rehearsed.
The Spanish author Javier Marías described football as savage and sentimental, an emotion, a prolongation of life. Last Sunday’s games didn’t prolong my life, but they certainly made it feel a lot longer.
As Tyrone’s treble All-Ireland winner Enda McGinley wrote a few years ago, “I now have a sense of frustration, even boredom watching games. To call a spade a spade, this is not the game I love, nor the game 95 per cent of people love.” He went on to say that “ a revolution is required.”
We all know that. But a revolution will not happen spontaneously. It must be planned.
The GAA Playing Rules Committee is not fit for purpose. There is no shame in accepting this. Its members have done their best and failed. A new panel must urgently be appointed. One that will dismantle the football factory and restore the soul of the game.