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Hurling snobbery or hurling evangelism?

Diarmaid Williams discusses the reaction to this past weekend’s hurling extravaganza, in a nation where hurling often plays second fiddle.

This week has heightened some annoyance from non-hurling people about the enthusiasm being expressed following the weekend’s hurling semi-final extravaganzas. In the immediate aftermath, Twitter was awash with claims of it being the “greatest sport in the world” and other such rhetoric. Needless to say this didn’t please many in the football fraternity, nor those outside of the GAA altogether.

I can’t speak for the so-called hurling snob because I don’t see myself as one. But is it truly the best game in the world? It’s impossible to say, but maybe I am in a good position to judge. Three sports have dominated my life since childhood: Gaelic football, soccer and hurling.

I have won far more playing Gaelic football, despite my club largely being a hurling stronghold, and represented the county briefly at intermediate level before injury ended that progress, like so many before me.

I have played association football at club level since the age of 13 and now at 42 have just concluded another season. The high points of this involvement were winning the Clare schools senior title, and playing in Munster Cup and Leinster Senior League. Up until two months ago I was still playing Veterans League football in north London and now that I have returned home after 10 years will be looking to maintain this hobby over the coming winter.

I finished up playing hurling after a season in London at the age of 35. The body wasnt up to it any more and the standard at junior level was frenetic but poor.

I didn’t win anything like the same number of titles as in Gaelic, a minor championship runner up and a Junior A championship being the high points of my career. I played all up the A grades, senior and intermediate club in Clare, then later Dublin senior club and finally in Longford, before being exiled to London.

So what’s the difference between the three in my experience?

Gaelic football was a lovely game to watch and play in the 80’s and 90’s and even into the early 2000’s when I played it. Now I find it, bar the odd game, fairly unwatchable. The high fielding and kick passing that used to be there in the old days are not as visible now and it looks a bastardised version of basketball. A few rule changes, such as on the number of passes inside one’s own half, might sort it out but for now, it’s not a great spectacle.

Soccer is a fantastic game to participate in, and it’s probably why I have never given it up. It also helps that there are veterans’ competitions so you get to play with your age bracket rather than trying to keep up with youngsters.

It can be a great game to watch, but too often it’s ruined by unimaginative play, with a preference for tika-taka tactics designed to put opponents and spectators to sleep. On those occasions where flair and creativity get a look in, it can be tremendous. Maybe when the tika-taka fad dies we might again get exciting players to dominate again – such as the Matt Le Tissiers, Paul Gascoigne’s and Diego Maradona’s.

If I had a choice of three events representing each code to attend right now and all three were on at the same time, say an All-Ireland hurling final, the Champions League final and the All-Ireland football final, I wouldn’t hesitate in going to the hurling final.

You are almost guaranteed a huge, aesthetically pleasing, big-hitting, super skillful and ultimately memorable day at the Liam McCarthy decider. That’s not a given in the other codes. Maybe that will change some day but for some reason hurling seems immune to some of the pragmatics that afflict its fellow field sports.

It’s something to do with the level of skill involved and the pace at which the game must be played. Because much can go wrong between ball, stick and hand, you can’t really get away with playing a ball around in the corner and winding down the clock.

The nature and rules of the game and the involvement of the hands, and it’s aerial dimension all contribute to a unique and wild playing and spectating experience.

Even the most put-out football follower should understand why hurling people get so passionate about the game, especially after the weekend that was. A lot of the immediate reaction might by hyperbolic, but it truly is a special game.

For me, it’s more than just the above though and that’s primarily due to my experience of playing hurling in Longford. The game up there is being curated by just three clubs, maybe four in good times and a dedicated but small hardcore of people. Gaelic football is number one and things have happened over the years in terms of the promotion of hurling that has irritated me greatly.

Scheduling club championship games the weekend the county team was due to play, and generally not putting anything like the same effort or resource into the development of the small ball sport. Hurling is often seen as a threat or hindrance to the county’s football fortunes.

Hurling people distrust the GAA hierarchy because what’s going on in football-oriented counties is perceived as being replicated at a higher level. There was for example some paranoia about the lack of hurling originally set to be played in the month of July, while the Super 8 stage took centre stage.

Gaelic is an easier game to pick up, requiring just a ball and a group of people, and it has been the majority game in the country for primarily that reason. There are also far more administrators and chiefs with football backgrounds as a result.

Hurling people after the weekend we have had point to their sport and it’s not enough for them to say – ‘Hey kids look – want to play a great game like that?’

And I think it’s partly down to the lack of promotion or stimulation the game is being given around so much of the country. People are taken with the game but there seems to be some problem translating it into participation in the areas where it is weak. It smells of unwillingness by those in power in various county boards to really get the game off the ground in schools and juvenile clubs just because it hasnt been the tradition to play it there. Well tradition has to start somewhere.

Maybe that’s why some hurling people might have lost the run of themselves. It may be down to a frustration at this stifling of a game which really should be flourishing in every corner of the island.

The GAA have seemed impotent or just unwilling in challenging county boards to up their game in developing hurling. There is no question that the knowledge exists that would help put the game on a firmer sustainable footing in places like Leitrim and Louth and Derry. They just need to follow through.

It baffles the hurling person that there is so much appreciation of the sport in football heartlands but it doesn’t prosper. It should surely follow that this interest would manifest in participation, but there is resistance to be overcome in bringing it proactively to schools and parishes where it has long been neglected.

In three weeks time, Limerick and either Clare or Galway will be competing in the game’s showpiece and they share just 14 titles between the three of them. That’s not a lot of catching up to do if you’re from Kildare, Westmeath, Down or Sligo.

Personally I hope to see the day when a Longford-Tyrone contest at Liam McCarthy level is not unbelievable.

By degrees, incrementally, this great game can triumph over pettiness and petty officialdom to be played competitively throughout the land. And then we can truly debate what is the greatest sport in the world.

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