Christy O'Connor: GAA teams must be prepared for the pressure of penalty shootouts

Gaelic Games culture wasn't build around the tension of penalties to decide a game but with more matches than ever there's no choice but to adapt
Christy O'Connor: GAA teams must be prepared for the pressure of penalty shootouts

Cork's Darragh Flynn converts a penalty in the U20 All-Ireland hurling final win over Galway at Semple Stadium. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

AT the end of the Croatia-Japan World Cup round of 16 clash in early December, Claire McNamara asked former Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given for his thoughts on the clash eventually won by Croatia on penalties.

Considering that the vast majority of players had come straight from elite leagues around the world, where they had arrived into the tournament in the middle of those leagues, Given felt that it would be better if there had been be no extra-time and for all the knockout matches to go straight to penalties.

“We have to get a winner somehow,” said Given. “Do we need those extra 30 minutes? Did we see that much quality to justify playing out those 30 minutes? Probably not. There is just that hype around penalties.” 

Picture: AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
Picture: AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan

It was a fair point in a condensed tournament in the middle of a hectic season. Unlike every other World Cup, the players don’t have a whole lot of time off afterwards to relax and go on holiday as they are straight back into their domestic leagues and other continental championships.

Soccer is the one game comfortable with penalties because it has been part of its culture for so long, but penalties is always a hot topic in elite sport outside of soccer.

When Munster and Toulouse drew after extra time in the Champions Cup quarter-final in early May, the tension was shot through with confusion. Everybody was aware that a penalty competition was going to decide the tie but not everyone was sure of the format because the practise has been such a rarity in rugby.

Previous penalty shootouts - the Leicester Tigers/Cardiff Blues 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final, the Argentina/Wales 2010 World Rugby U20 championship, the Biarritz/Bayonne promotion game to the Top 14 in France last year – were all under different formats from the Champions Cup back in May.

There is never an easy way to lose a game, especially one so big, but acceptance is all the harder again when shootouts have never really been part of rugby’s culture.


The GAA is now dealing with a similar issue. The Clare-Limerick Munster quarter-final in late April was the first time it happened in the football championship. The drama was electrifying but the cost for Clare was devastatingly sudden and concussive. That game wasn’t live on TV but the debate was a lot more heated and intense after Galway defeated Armagh on penalties in the All-Ireland quarter-final in June.

One of the biggest challenges for players is adjusting to the culture change penalty shootouts create. 

Yet the strange atmosphere in the ground when a shootout is taking place provided the clearest evidence of how tricky that adjustment is even for the public.

In a condensed season, the public wanted more football games, not less. There will be more championship matches next year under the new format, which will mean far less scope again for replays. And probably more penalty shootouts.

Penalties also decided the Munster minor hurling final between Clare and Tipperary. There is a strong case to be made for penalties being considered too much of a burden on 16- and 17-year-olds, but the biggest argument against them, full stop, is that they are not part of GAA culture.

That is a flimsy case, not just because penalties are a necessity in a more condensed championship, but because the culture of the GAA has radically changed across the board in recent years. Both on and off the field.

 Oisin Hennessy, Bandon goalkeeper, picks the sliotar after saving a penalty against Inniscarra last season. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Oisin Hennessy, Bandon goalkeeper, picks the sliotar after saving a penalty against Inniscarra last season. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

The counter-argument again is that the pressure alone associated with taking penalties is pushing even more of a professional culture on an amateur game, the very notion of which is despised by many in the GAA.


Many people see elitism as the opposite of the GAA’s amateur ethos but the concept of amateurism ceased long ago. Elitism has always been part of the GAA because it is an intrinsic part of all competitive sport. The inter-county, even club championships, are heavily populated by players who think, behave and perform like elite athletes.

Trying to cover all bases in an amateur game is never easy but it is something hurling and football teams have become accustomed to. Replicating match-day pressure is impossible but players can at least work on technique and routine as a safeguarding mechanism if they are forced to step up in a shootout.

Many supporters still want that second day out but a proper fixtures calendar gives clarity to everyone. That will be even more important than ever next year with even more games in the football championship and Tailteann Cup.

There will always be caveats. In one of his columns for Sky Sports over the summer, Peter Canavan said that, while he has no issue with penalties deciding club games, or inter-county matches in provincial championships and qualifiers, Canavan doesn’t believe there should be penalties from the All-Ireland quarter-finals onwards.

However, Canavan still accepted the modern reality, especially in a split-season format. “It’s not like penalties are not part of Gaelic football,” he said. “Some people are suggesting that we're only doing it because it's a soccer thing. But whether we like it or not, it is part of our game. And I can see why penalties are used.” 

Dealing with culture change is never easy to accept. But every team has to realise that the culture has radically changed. And that penalty shootouts are going to become a lot more common.

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