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OPINION: New legends are needed to shake up softball

In the first of a series of new weekly columns, Paul Fitzpatrick looks at the 60x30 game and how it can be rejuvenated.

A couple of years back, GAA Handball came up with a quite catchy promotional tag for the 60x30 championships – “Where legends come alive”.

As four-word slogans go, it packed a decent punch – it was short and snappy and conjured up images of mythical warriors battling it out.

Personally, I wasn't keen on it, though, and here’s why: if someone or something ‘comes alive’, it must mean they are dead in the first place, or at least lifeless and lethargic.

And yet, it’s easy to see why that image is out there. The glitz and glamour of the World Championships, with the presence of foreign players and the attendant media of interest, gives 40x20 an advantage; the fact that wallball remains dazzlingly new, that it has put down roots in new countries and the presence of a magnificent arena like Breaffy House also outshines the ‘big alley’.

There is a suspicion that 60x30 handball is like a boxer, out-pointed and out on its feet, staying alive through muscle memory alone, waiting for the bell to sound.

So is the 60x30 game, to use Babs Keating’s famous line, “dead only to wash it?”. I don’t believe so, although it could certainly be seen as the sick old man of our sport.

Sickness, though, isn’t always terminal. In the case of 60x30, I fervently believe a recovery to full health is very achievable.

For the purposes of clarity, we should explain that when we refer to '60x30', we are talking about softball. Hardball, in our opinion, is finished in its current guise.

Some will be aghast at reading those words but the facts don’t lie. There has not been a hardball tournament organised in living memory, anywhere, and just 0.3% of the overall membership entered the All-Ireland championships last year.

I'm no hardball hater - I played it on a few occasions (badly) - but the interest is just not there and hasn't been for a few generations. 

Handball has always evolved and while traditional aspects should be protected where possible, there is no push for a return to outdoor handball, best-of-seven ‘rubbers’ or even (as was the case up until the 1960s) allowing players to kick the ball. 

Why not - they were all core aspects of the sport at one time? Well, handball moved on, like all sports do. Down All-Ireland-winning footballer, the late Joe Lennon, who was an Ulster handball champion and promoted the game strongly in Gormanston College, has written extensively on this topic in relation to football, for example.

One of his earliest memories of football, he once wrote, was watching his father take sideline throws (borrowed from soccer) rather than sideline kicks. The GAA outlawed them in 1945. Nobody minded.

If we are honest, hardball has been struggling for the longest time, many decades in fact.

(Above: The opening of the 60x30 court in Croke Park in 1970.)

Last week, in an old copy of the now-defunct Gaelic Sportsman magazine from the tail end of 1950, I came across an article about the handball season which had just finished. National Secretary TJ McElligot had compiled his report and it was reproduced in full in the magazine.

It was a different era – counties like Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Down and Tyrone were not even affiliated and the game was primarily played outdoors – but a lot rings true today.

A couple of lines jumped off the page for this reader.

“During 1951 I hope that all counties will try and increase their entries for the hardball championships,” McElligot wrote.

“Otherwise, there is a danger that we shall have to cancel the All-Ireland and promote only provincial championships... The title 'All-Ireland champion' is scarcely earned by the player who plays but two matches”.

That’s more relevant than ever to our sport today. Ignore the noise: hardball, as it is currently organised, has no future.

The worry is that softball could drift the same way. Wexford player Gavin Buggy made the point a couple of years back that there is a “missing generation” in the 60x30 game and a trawl through the archives confirms what he believed.

Since 1998, 16 All-Ireland Minor Singles champions have been crowned. Just three of those took part in this year’s All-Ireland Senior Singles Championship. Buggy was right.

Nothing hurts a sport like sameness. One of the fundamental attractions of sport is that anything can happen – it is a diversion from the mundane, everyday goings on in our lives.

But when a sense of inevitability creeps in – again, witness the All-Ireland SFC – the game will suffer. In football, attendance figures have plummeted and there is growing unease about where the sport is going; 60x30 handball knows this pain all too well.

Two giants – Robbie McCarthy and Eoin Kennedy – have shared the last 14 All-Ireland 60x30 Senior Singles titles. Outside of those two, no new player has even made a final since 2008 and even then, it was the late Ducksy Walsh who came through the field, having been in the final on umpteen occasions before.

I attended that match to see Ducksy in a final but the point is that while it was amazing to witness the great man back on the big day, it was hardly novel.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece on this website where I quoted Bruce Springsteen’s line about “wasting another summer praying in vain for a saviour to rise from these streets”. It was a touch poetic maybe (mea culpa) but it encapsulated what the grand old game of softball needed – new blood to emerge on to the scene and shake things up, to challenge the old order.

McCarthy and Kennedy are magicians, big court sorcerers whose skill level is off the charts. But sports survive because they regenerate. Kids see the man and want to be – and beat – the man and so the cycle continues.

While the very talented Gary McConnell and Paudi Quish have made the last four and given the championships a great boost this year, for the most part, the minors have not come through, as we’ve pointed out. But it’s not too late.

The new arena at Croke Park will help – what Egin Jensen once described in a post-final speech as the ‘theatre of dreams’ at Ceannáras at present has become dilapidated and out-dated for a 21st-century sport – but the handball community themselves must move quickly to address the issue and seek solutions.

The new proposals being floated by a workgroup, under the chairmanship of former GAA President Liam O’Neill, around the Clár and other issues have suggested introducing a separate 60x30 Féile, on a different weekend to the 40x20 and wallball versions, which has been warmly received around the country.

That is one hugely positive step and will improve the situation but more is needed. More clubs must get their facilities up to scratch and organise more tournaments. Maybe a link-up with Basques can be restored to add the international dimension. Whatever it takes, let's do it.

Exponents of the softball game now what a wonderful code it is but if we are honest, a lot of clubs and counties have not done enough to bring it along. It’s no-one’s fault; the rise of 40x20 and, latterly, wallball, caught the sport unawares and while they were hugely positive developments, there is room for 60x30, too.

Forget ‘legends coming alive’, which evokes images of old-timers dusting down the gloves for a crack at an archaic game. The big alley needs new legends and it’s up to us, as handballers, to foster them. Over to you...