You have won the war, Hurling Man — you’ve put football to the sword with summer magic
WE are all Hurling Man now. In the middle of the fourth century the Roman Emperor Julian tried to counter the spread of Christianity by promoting the old pagan religion. He failed and his final words, as he lay dying after the Battle of Samarra, were, “Vicisti, Galilaee,” (You have won, Galilean). After this summer all I can say is, “Vicisti, homine iaculatur.” You have won, Hurling Man.
No-one will ever again be able to claim that football is just as good a game as hurling. We can’t even claim that though it doesn’t seem all that attractive at first sight, it has a great personality.
In a few years’ time I think we’ll look back at this year as marking a watershed in the relative fortunes of football and hurling. For the first time since 2009 the hurling semi-finals drew a bigger crowd than their football equivalent. This is the first time this has happened when Dublin were in the football semis.
Television viewing figures told a similar story with 997,000 watching the two hurling semi-finals (replay excluded) as opposed to 898,00 watching the football semis. Again, this is something new. The football semi-finals saw attendances drop by 22 per cent and viewing figures fall by 35 per cent.
The new championship structures have a lot to do with this. Hurling’s new round-robin system has been a massive success, providing one classic after another. Even though we’ve seen more hurling championship games than ever, the only complaint is that there wasn’t enough of them as most people wished the Limerick-Cork semi-final could have gone to a replay rather than extra-time.
Hurling’s stock hasn’t been so high since the mid-1990s breakthroughs of Clare and Wexford. Football, on the other hand, probably hasn’t been this derided since after that 1983 final between Dublin and Galway when the fighting was marred by outbreaks of football. Even then it was one controversial match, rather than a whole season, which led to the general disillusion.
This disillusionment was greatly exacerbated by the Super 8. This year’s football championship reminded me of what Dr Johnson said about
Paradise Lost, “No-one ever wished it a moment longer”. It proved that you can have too much of a bad thing. As we sceptics pointed out before a ball was kicked, the Super 8 was doomed to failure because the teams were not there to make it work. There’s no point praising the abstract good intentions of ideas which are never going to fly in the real world.
As football edges ever closer to a zero point of negativity, hurling has thrown the shackles gloriously off. It seems bizarre now that not long ago some commentators suggested hurling might follow football down the road of caution and blanket defence. This year defences have been shredded and teams have played with an extraordinary freedom, as though borne along on the wave of enthusiasm which has grown larger with every wonderful week.
Hurling has also benefited from its competitive balance. Perhaps Galway will make it two titles in a row this afternoon but at least seven teams will set out next year with genuine All-Ireland-winning hopes. Maybe I’m being unkind to Wexford there. And who knows what there might be to come from a Dublin team who lost their games against Leinster’s big three by a total of five points.
The closeness between the top sides was obvious in the National League where four of the six Division 1A teams finished tied on six points apiece. It carried on to a championship where three semi-finals produced a replay, two bouts of extra-time and one single-point win. The provincial championships produced four draws and seven games decided by three points or less. This alone would have provided excellent entertainment. When coupled with a stratospherically high standard of play, it made for sporting nirvana.
There’s no reason to suspect that the next couple of hurling and football championships will be very different. And that means that hurling will inevitably grow in popularity as that of football declines. These things happen. Baseball was once ‘America’s Game’ but has now been superseded by American football. Cricket, once culturally central in England, grows ever more marginal. People prefer the sports which they find more exciting. They’re growing ever less sentimental about tradition.
That’s why hurling won this summer. Market all you want and restructure all you want but people recognise quality when they see it. On the semi-final weekends they voted with their feet. You can’t expect them to do otherwise.
Will that do, Hurling Man?
TV viewing figures are down for football