It may seem modern and dazzlingly new but, in many ways, with the rise of the One Wall code, handball is going back to its roots. The 1990s marketing slogan of ‘any ball, any wall’ appears prescient in hindsight given the surge in popularity of this most ancient form of the game.
One Wall handball – recently rebranded as ‘wallball’ – is the young, brash punk of Irish sport and it is providing an image makeover for a game which has, at times, slipped out of the public consciousness.
Over 300 Irish schools have embraced the game in recent years (courts can be constructed for as little as €500) and it has grown across the continent to the point where there is now a European Wallball Tour, attracting top amateur players from France, Italy, Belgium, the UK, the Netherlands and the Basque Country.
The top-ranked exponent on that tour at present is Tyrone’s Conor McElduff, a 23-year-old who has emerged as the dominant Wallball player in the country. Next week, ‘Duff’ will travel to Minneapolis as a key member of GAA Handball’s official squad for the World Championships and, he told Balls.ie, his sights are calibrated on one man only – Timothy ‘Timbo’ Gonzalez.
Timbo, a native of the Bronx, is a hustler in the New York fashion. Handball is a street game in the Big Apple, where there are 2,000 courts across the five boroughs, but Gonzalez – a Red Bull-sponsored, full-time handballer – looks like the sport’s best chance of leaving its ghetto reputation behind and making it to the mainstream.
That’s what I want, I want to play him, that’s been my main goal ever since I last played him in Belgium just before Christmas, he beat me in the final of that.
That has been driving me ever since, just to get one more rematch and especially on a world final stage, that would be perfect. I want to get another crack at him and just test myself against the best.
The Breacach clubman has been in the form of his life this season, beating off the best players in the country in warm-up tournaments in Inis Mor and Mount Talbot (Roscommon) before sealing his place on the Irish squad with a third successive Irish Nationals victory at Breaffy House, Castlebar in June.
Since then, he has cranked up his preparations, including taking on local players two at a time. Whatever it takes, McElduff is willing to try it.
I’ve just been doing an immense, insane amount of training, just handball every day, day in, day out. I’ve had James Doyle from Armagh coming up and helping me out with games as well, the likes of Eamon McRory, Paddy McRory, all those dudes coming up and playing me two-on-ones.
It’s been handball 24/7, watching games, trying to get ready for this as best I can, to take down the Yanks.
Handball originated in Ireland before being carried overseas by emigrants but the One Wall version took root in Depression-era New York, where unemployed men would play for a few cents against a wall at Coney Island when the tide was low. The game grew from there and New Yorkers remain the world’s best, perfecting an aggressive, attacking style. The game is particularly popular in poorer neighbourhoods, where public parks are thronged in the summer.
That ‘ghetto’ background has held the game back in ways but it is beginning to clean up its act and sponsors are taking notice (Timbo is on record as saying the game saved him from "gang violence and drugs". The charismatic Gonzalez - who makes his living from sponsorship, tournament winnings and lucrative money games - recently featured in a TV series with basketball star Blake Griffin and has become the poster boy for the sport, with a large social media following.
This video, explaining his roots and the background of the game in New York has over 2.5 million views.
Against all that, on the court, the gap has closed. Whereas in the past, the cool percentage play of the top Irish players came up short – the Irish tended to play too defensively while the New Yorkers looked to end the rally at every opportunity – the best from these shores have now refined their approach.
When McElduff takes on Gonzalez – should they clash – he will fight fire with fire.
To be honest I think we play pretty similarly, only he’s just that bit stronger, that bit more used to fast-paced ball, more used to angles. With the Irish, it’s a bit more straight, they’re all good players but there aren’t as many angles, not as much thought goes into using the court.
Whereas me and Timbo would use the court a lot more. He’s a bit faster, a bit stronger at the minute but I still think I have a few wee things I can just take him down with.
In the last two or three years, the standards have risen so much. We have seen a few Americans play and we know that if you can’t end the rally there and then, you have to at least angle him out to get the set-up then on the next shot.
McElduff and his Irish team-mates fly to the States on August 7. The Tyrone man senses a changing of the guard is imminent. The world awaits.