With the All-Ireland hurling final going to a replay for the first time in half a century, David Farrell discusses the fairness of this system
Last Sunday saw an exceedingly rare event; the replay of a major sporting final. In fact, it was an event that hurling hasn’t seen for over 50 years, and it struck twice on the first Sunday in September. We were treated to the knowledge that both the senior and minor hurling titles would come-up for contention again. This has led to people questioning this inconvenient and increasingly uncommon practice.
Replays weren’t always the rarity they are today. Traditionally, we would see teams have another go and renewing the battle, rather than condensing the action into extra-time in the event of a stalemate. This is, of course, still the case in the initial rounds of the FA Cup and throughout the GAA Championship in both codes.
Today, it feels like it’s just the old-fashioned GAA that see the usefulness of replays. These matches offer the smaller teams hope of pitting their wits against the games brighter lights again and offering them another shot at glory. While this romanticism is not a genuine practical consideration, it plays to the heartstrings and allows teams and fans to dream rather than leaving it to a brief bout.
It allows fans and players alike to believe that the next day they will be able to give a fuller account of themselves and not see the moment of crowning glory be condensed into anything less than a 70 minute battle and testament to the power of their game. Although some believe it defeats the purpose of a knockout-style tournament.
Nowadays, in most major sports, there is a system whereby things are wrapped-up succinctly, quickly and conveniently. Whether it be extra-time or, if things progress far enough, penalties. Some believe that there is an unfairness involved in penalties feeling that it devalues a game to mere nothingness, while others love its cut-throat and dramatic nature.
The main argument for these methods is they allow for a sudden resolution of the game and means we don’t see a season drag on. The battle is condensed, pushing every player to their physical and mental limits. Teams put their seasons on the line for one single day, making that leap to glory a far shorter, and therefore tougher, ordeal. This is the modern expectation of professional sports and their penchant for play-off finishes.
But why, in this increasingly money-driven world, are replays becoming so rare and uncommon? Why not go for another match and get all the associated financial benefits? Why has professional sport not tried to replicate these games and take the atmosphere and money making ability of big games and have a do-over?
Perhaps, in professional sport, it is no longer possible to facilitate extra fixtures, like the GAA can. The GAA owns and controls Croke Park and can open it to play any game it wishes at any time. With the growing demands of the professional game, this is not possible in other sports.
In the modern game, the authorities like UEFA and the NFL use ‘host cities’ to stage their marquee events. This means that the final is played, and decided, in a neutral stadium, limiting the final to that city and that event. But beyond this minor detail, both sports have intense schedules and need players to cease playing beyond certain dates.
This is much more urgent in football’s case, with the myriad of international and club tournaments to be resolved, with some rounds of one competition taking place only days after the final of another. This tight schedule, and the increased rigours of a professionally competitive game, offers a more practical reason for the preference of a speedier resolution. It is in this way that replays often feel out-dated in relation to the current demands of top-level sport.
In truth, the build-up to the All-Ireland replay did not mean any less to the fans in attendance or the teams, but certain pundits and casual spectators felt the need to argue that it lessened the importance of the game. They claimed that to have it rolled out for a second time, and see renewed pageantry, makes it less of a unique occasion.
What they forget is that replays allow these herculean men to give the fullest account of their abilities and to make-up for their past failings. This situation gives us the chance to see a winner earn their title the only way they know how, in a full 70 minute game.
To put an entire season into extra-time is justifiable in an effort to get confirmation and its inclusion, while not ideal, is understandable. The issue in this debate will always be though, what if you draw the replay or extra-time? The answer in football is penalties.
This solution is one that is unloved and unwanted by most, but accepted. The recent achievements of Manchester United and Chelsea in clinching the Champions League on penalties mean no less to the players or fans than those of Barcelona.
Yet, in the hearts and minds of others, and even in the accounts of certain statisticians, a little asterix will be attached with the statement “penalties”. It almost feels cruel to allow an entire season, sometimes even a lifetime, of anticipation to be decided by a series of semi-scripted kicks. A replay, or even extra-time, relieves the fans of this horror and grants the players a chance to win or lose as a team.