You have won the war, Hurl­ing Man — you’ve put foot­ball to the sword with sum­mer magic

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GAELIC GAMES -

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

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