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Football - History and Evolution

Mayo v Tyrone - GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final

Mayo v Tyrone - GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final

A rough-and tumble form of Gaelic football was common throughout the middle ages, similar versions of which abounded throughout Europe and eventually became the forebears of both soccer and rugby. Though references to Irish Football are practically non-existent before the 1600s the earliest records of a recognised precursor to modern Gaelic football date from a game in County Meath in 1670, in which catching and kicking the ball were permitted. 

Notwithstanding the banning in 1695 of Sunday football (and Hurling) by the Sunday Observance Act, the 17th and 18th centuries provided several detailed accounts of the playing of both codes. The blind Louth poet Seamus Dall Mac Cuarta described a football match played near Slane in the late 1600s between teams from the districts bordering the rivers Boyne and Nanny. Between 1758 and 1766, Dublin newspapers reported games at Finglas, Milltown and Drumcondra.  

Football flourished in many areas in the first 40 years of the 19th century. In Kerry, the cross-country version known as caid was then popular, as it continued to be all through the century. A six-a-side version was played in Dublin in the early 18th century, and one hundred years later, there were accounts of games played between county sides.

Before the potato famine of the 1840s which proved hugely detrimental to all Irish sports, a codified game had emerged in east Munster, but the arrival of rugby union and soccer with fixed rules caught the imagination of the upper classes and native football was in danger of dying out. A particular signpost of this decline was the speed with which the schools of the middle classes adopted and promoted the newly arrived games, particularly in Dublin, Cork and Belfast. All over the country, Hurling and Gaelic football were either discreetly discouraged or openly prohibited by Government officials such as policemen and magistrates, as well as by some Catholic clergy and many landlords. The reasons given for such action varied from fear of violence and insobriety to suspicion of games being used as cover for meetings of various nationalist bodies.

From the middle of the 19th century, cricket began to rival Irish games in many areas. By the late 1860s nearly every town had its own cricket club, patronised by members of the local loyalist community and supported by the local garrison. Yet, while the forty-year period from the famine to the rise of the GAA probably saw Gaelic games nearer than ever to extinction, native games did not die. Limerick was a stronghold of the native football game around this time, and the Commercials Club, founded by employees of Cannocks' Drapery Store, was one of the first to impose a set of rules which were adopted by other clubs in the city. Competition remained localised, with occasional friendly matches against various sides around the county. Of all the 'National Pastimes' which the GAA set out to promote, it is fair to say that football was in the worst shape at the time of the Association's foundation.

In modern times, Gaelic games have formally existed since the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association in the billiards room of a Tipperary hotel in 1884. There, led by visionaries Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin, the first formalised codes and cohesive organisation of the ancient Irish games were initiated, and the seeds planted for what would become Ireland's largest sporting organisation.

The modern game of Gaelic football has evolved to a great degree from the games first codified by the Gaelic Athletic Association. The original core concept of man-on man contests for the ball within the defined framework of a positional game has been added to and eroded to varying degrees over time.

The physical conditioning of the modern player has allowed him to move quickly into space to gain possession of the ball, in many cases uncontested, while a focus on maintaining possession has resulted in the movement of the ball in a more designed manner, giving clear advantage to a team mate. This latter trend has also resulted in the reduction in frequency of use of many of the less controllable skills of both games, for example, the drop kick in Gaelic football, as the use of these may often lead to a more equal contest or the loss of possession altogether. The focus on maintaining possession once you have it has antagonistically resulted in the adoption of defensive tactics designed to concentrate players in front of the scoring area or around the ball when not in possession.

While there is much debate about the value of such tactics to the games, modern coaches seek to position their players against opponents they perceive to have advantages over - whether in the contest or once in possession - maintaining the dramatic combat or duel concept of the games. All the while tactical innovation is sought from far and wide to overcome those of their opponents, and improve their team’s chances of winning.