Kieran McGeeney caused a stir last week when he criticised what he called the “degrading” treatment of Ulster Gaelic football from certain sections of the southern media, the portrayal of the northern game as over-physical and cynical. McGeeney even suggested that supporters could end up becoming segregated if the current trend continues:
I hope we don't get to the point where we are segregating our supporters because of where they are from. But if we keep talking the way we do, people will see that (segregation).
McGeeney claimed that in his experience, playing football south of the border he experienced a level of physicality “far in excess of the physicality that you get from northern teams."
One current inter-county star who is very well qualified to comment on what it is like to kick leather on both sides of the border is Cork defender James Loughrey. An All Star nominee at half-back in 2013, Loughrey moved to Cork that year from Antrim and successfully made the switch between the two counties. Speaking to Balls, Loughrey refused to be drawn on McGeeney’s ‘anti-northerners’ theory. But the Belfast man dismissed any suggestion that southern teams are innocent waifs, to whom defensive, physical play is an alien crime against their beloved free-flowing, attacking football:
Traditional Ulster football...has gradually filtered down. When you play club teams down here, they play men behind the ball, sweepers, withdraw their forwards and play exactly like a lot of northern teams would. It isn’t a good spectacle. But it isn’t (a case of) once you’re over past (the border at) Newry you’re into that (style of play).
Loughrey doesn’t notice any difference in terms of physicality in the Munster championship compared to that of Ulster-“the games are tough, but there’s tough games in every provincial championship”-and shares an interesting theory as to why there is perhaps more focus on the nature of Ulster football compared to other provinces:
The Ulster championship...is very well supported. I would say that’s the reason why I think there is a lot made out of it. I do think the way it’s marketed by the Ulster Council and the support all the games get, is really the reason why it’s so good. There is a bit of an aura around it...because of that, I think.
Speaking to Conor Neville of this parish recently, Niall McCoy of ‘Gaelic Life’ highlighted the “fanatical support” that Ulster football fans demonstrate each year. While lamenting the “disgrace” of how Ulster hurling has “just been let go by the wayside”, Loughrey sees the crucial difference between the Ulster and Munster competitions as one not of difficulty, but of following:
(Cork) played against Clare, against Tipp, against Kerry, they’d be as hard as games up above. The Ulster championship is great, I think, because the fans make it so great.
Returning to the topic of football’s ‘physicality’, the Mallow clubman points out that it is not just football that comes in for harsh criticism:
Even last week after the drawn Waterford-Clare game, there (were) a lot of people complaining. Maybe in the off-season, football is viewed as the poor cousin of hurling, but hurling gets a bashing too.
And as for certain ex-players and their tendency to portray a given era as a kind of long-gone football utopia that modern generations struggle to match, Loughrey shrugs it off, pointing out that it is “the same in every sport” and highlighting the dubious proclamations of well-known sage Eamon Dunphy as an example that “everyone glamorises the era (when) they played.”
On the physical nature of Gaelic football, Loughrey uses the instance of a club game played the night before to elucidate how he feels games should be conducted:
The referee said before it: ‘Lads, belt away. I’m gonna blow for a free. But anything else, just work away.’ And it was a very physical game but there (was) no dirt in it. Boys were hurt, boys were sore. But at the end of the day that’s what Gaelic football is about. It should be played hard-hitting, at a fast pace. And if referees are willing to do that and both teams are prepared to take advantage of it, you will get good spectacles.
Amen to that.