A skilful and absorbing sport
Gaelic Football can be described as a mixture of soccer and rugby, although it predates both of those games. An integral sport within the Gaelic Athletic Association, it is a field game played throughout Ireland which has developed as a distinct game similar to the progression of Australian Rules Football. Indeed it is thought that Australian Rules evolved from Gaelic Football through the many thousands who emigrated to Australia from the middle of the nineteenth century.
Gaelic Football is played on a pitch approximately 137m long and 82m wide. The goalposts are the same shape as on a rugby pitch, with the crossbar lower than a rugby one and slightly higher than a soccer one. The ball used in Gaelic Football is round, slightly smaller than a soccer ball. It can be carried in the hand for a distance of four steps and can be kicked or “hand-passed”, a striking motion with the hand or fist.
After every four steps the ball must be either bounced or “solo-ed”, an action of dropping the ball onto the foot and kicking it back into the hand. You may not bounce the ball twice in a row. To score, you put the ball over the crossbar by foot or hand for one point or under the crossbar and into the net by foot or hand in certain circumstances for a goal, the latter being the equivalent of three points.
How many in a team?
Each team consists of fifteen players, lining out as follows: One goalkeeper, three full-backs, three half-backs, two midfielders, three half-forwards and three full-forwards. A game is played over two halves of 30 minutes (at club level) or 35 minutes (at inter-county level). Players wear a jersey with their team colours and number on the back. The goalkeepers’ jerseys must not be similar to the jersey of any other player. Referees normally tog out in black jerseys.
Teams are allowed a maximum of five substitutes in a game. Players may switch positions on the field of play as much as they wish but this is usually on the instructions of team officials. Officials for a game comprise of a referee, two linesmen (to indicate when the ball leaves the field of play at the side of the pitch) and four umpires (to signal scores and assist the referee in controlling the games).
Scoring in the game
A goal is signalled by raising a green flag, placed to the left of the goal. A point is signalled by raising a white flag, placed to the right of goal. Scoring in Gaelic Football is traditionally not as prolific as in Hurling, and it is common for a game to be decided on points scored. Usually the scoring of a goal (worth three points) is decisive in a close contest.
Inter-county football, although still an amateur game, is of a highly competitive nature. Teams from every county except Kilkenny (a hurling stronghold!) enter the National Football League each season. This takes place each year between February and late April and precedes the main annual event, the All Ireland Football Championship. This takes place between early May and late September and is initially organised on a provincial basis (Ulster, Connacht, Leinster and Munster) until the All Ireland quarter finals are played.
The most successful team in Ulster Championship history is Cavan, who have accumulated 39 titles; the last victory coming in 1997. They have also won 5 All Ireland titles. Unarguably the greatest team ever in the history of Gaelic Football was Kerry in the late 1970s and early 1980s, who won eight All Ireland titles in an eleven year period. In 1982 they came within two minutes of a famous five in a row of titles. The team included an amazing array of talent, with Pat Spillane, Jack O’Shea, Eoin Liston and Mike Sheehy becoming household names throughout Ireland with their famous displays.
Ulster has consistently produced famous players throughout the history of Gaelic Football. The Cavan and Down All Ireland winning teams of the 1940s and 1960s were blessed with outstanding footballers, but one particular player has been recognised as being perhaps the finest footballer of his generation – Sean O’Neill of Down. The Newry player won three All Ireland medals in an eight year period and became renowned as being one of the more skilful exponents of the game.
Peter Canavan of Tyrone has undoubtedly been the most famous player in Ulster in recent times. He produced a series of remarkable displays in the 1995 All Ireland Championship campaign that nearly earned his team a title victory, only suffering a narrow defeat to Dublin in the final. The outstanding forward represented Ireland in the Compromise Rules competition held annually between Ireland and Australia, further underlining his quality. He won an All Ireland senior championship with Tyrone in 2003, defeating Ulster neighbours Armagh in an absorbing contest. In November 2003, Canavan was awarded an All Star award for outstanding play, his fifth in total.
Prospects for Ulster Teams in 2005
Ulster teams are among the favourites for the All Ireland senior title in 2005, with recent winners Tyrone and Armagh leading the chase for the Sam Maguire cup. Derry is another team fancied to do well, and with star forward Paddy Bradley in top form have a marvellous chance of winning their first Ulster senior title since 1998. The qualifier system installed in 2001 has been successful in helping perceived weaker teams such as Antrim and Fermanagh gain development from a number of games. It promises to be an exciting summer for Ulster Gaelic Football fans!
© Cathal Coyle 2005