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gaa debate 'Other more radical proposals need to be examined' - Pat Spillane on Dublin's dominance

Forget populations, if GAA fix money issue, natural sporting cycles will do the rest

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Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire Cup once again. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire Cup once again. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire Cup once again. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

It might have been Valentine's Day last Sunday - but I'm not in the mood for spreading the love this morning.

Instead, I'm donning my cranky cap and delivering a Sermon from the Mount designed to annoy, generate loads of outrage and secure maximum publicity.

There is no shortage of topics available which are guaranteed to provoke an avalanche of outrage from the keyboard warriors.

Take your pick from Covid-19, justifying Ray D'Arcy's salary, or the integrity of Irish horse racing.

But, as targets, they're too easy. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel.

What about my specialist subject, the GAA?

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Despite Dublin’s huge population, their decade-long dominance will end sometime.

Despite Dublin’s huge population, their decade-long dominance will end sometime.

Despite Dublin’s huge population, their decade-long dominance will end sometime.

I could pen an article about Kerry football and why they can't win an All-Ireland at the moment.

I'm guaranteed two reactions.

Readers outside Kerry would put me down as pro-Kerry, anti-Ulster, and a relic from a different era.

But, inside Kerry, I would be accused of betraying my native county.

Anyway, it's time to cut to the chase.

Today I am addressing an issue which I have been ducking for a long time: Dublin's dominance of the All-Ireland football championship.

Even if this is the best researched and most cogently argued column of all time, I will still inflame the two sides in the debate.

On the one hand, I will be accused of being an apologist for the Dubs - which I am most assuredly not.

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Slaughtneil have been kings in Derry.

Slaughtneil have been kings in Derry.

Slaughtneil have been kings in Derry.

But I will also be portrayed as a bitter Kerryman, who is jealous of the Dubs and looking for a way of clipping their wings - which is not the case either.

Praise

A lot of the commentary on Dublin reminds me of Shakespeare's famous line: 'I have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.'

In the aftermath of their last two All-Ireland triumphs, instead of focusing on the brilliance of the team, a lot of commentators have engaged in endless rhetoric about the damage Dublin are doing to the All-Ireland series.

Let's examine the arguments.

Population and finance are the two big issues which tip the scales so much in Dublin's favour.

Dublin has a population of 1.3 million, which is expected to rise to 1.8m by 2030.

Right now, it has double the population of Antrim, the country's second most populated county and has a bigger population than the other 11 Leinster counties combined - 1,345,402 compared to 1,287,051.

Eleven counties (Westmeath, Laois, Offaly, Carlow, Longford, Cavan, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Roscommon, Sligo and Leitrim) have populations of fewer than 100,000, yet they are competing in the same championship as Dublin.

Self-evidently there is a huge disparity in population, but this issue is simply beyond the remit of the GAA.

And, of course, population does not equal membership of the GAA. Cork has more registered clubs, teams and GAA members than Dublin.

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Ballygunner have won seven titles on the spin.

Ballygunner have won seven titles on the spin.

Ballygunner have won seven titles on the spin.

But, in contrast to the population issue, the 'money' matter sticks out like a sore thumb and must be addressed.

Let's take Croke Park's coaching and development fund, for example.

Between 2007 and 2019, Kerry received €1.2m from this fund, whereas Dublin got €19.2m.

Between 2010 and 2014, the pay-out worked out at €19 per registered player in Kerry, whereas it was worth €270.70 per club player in Dublin.

Dublin's average annual grant from the fund between 2007 and 2019 was €1.4m. Next on the list was Cork, who received €186,561 per annum.

Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, Donegal, Longford, Down, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Tyrone and Armagh all received less than €70,000 per annum.

In 2019, the grant was worth €652.82 to every registered juvenile team in Dublin, whereas, in Cork, it was worth just €143.89.

And the scary thing is that these figures don't tell the full story.

The guts of €40m has been invested in coaching in Dublin in the last 15 years because every euro Croke Park spends on coaching in Dublin is matched by the Dublin clubs themselves.

Next up is the disparity in income between county boards.

Even though last year was an exceptional one, the Dublin GAA board had an income of €3.7m. The next best was the Cork board with €2.3m - a gap of €1.4m.

However, the real story is that 12 counties had incomes of less than €1m - Louth, for example, grossed just €544,911.

Historic

The key question is how much have these factors contributed to Dublin's dominance of the All-Ireland.

What cannot be disputed is how dominant Dublin are, having won eight of the last 10 All-Ireland titles, including the historic six-in-a-row.

They are unbeaten in 42 championship games and have suffered one defeat in the Leinster championship since 2004.

Dublin has won every Leinster final since 2014 by a margin greater than 10 points.

But the attendance at the final has dropped from 62,660 in 2014 to 47,027 in 2019, with a corresponding dip in gate receipts.

So, what are the counter arguments?

Kilkenny, with only the 21st biggest population in Ireland, has won 36 All-Ireland hurling titles, including 11 since the turn of the century.

The current dominant team, Limerick - two titles in the last three seasons - is only the sixth most populated county.

Take New Zealand, with a population of approximately five million.

It is the most successful rugby-playing country of all time, though it has only about 22,000 registered players.

In contrast, France has more than 500,000, South Africa more than 405,000 and England 382,000 players.

And, just for good measure, New Zealand are currently the number one-ranked team in both men's and women's test cricket.

So, success in sport is not just down to the size of the population.

Furthermore, in both Irish and international sport, one team dominating is not unique.

Between them, Celtic and Rangers have won 85 per cent of all the Scottish League titles. The last time the title went outside Glasgow was when Aberdeen were champions in 1985.

The All Blacks have an 84pc winning record against all opponents, while, in US basketball, the Boston Celtics won eight NBA championships in a row from 1959 to 1966.

And Dublin footballers are not the only GAA team to dominate.

Crossmaglen Rangers won 13 Armagh county football titles in a row between 1996 and 2008 and 19 in 20 years; Corofin won seven Galway championships on the spin and went 49 championship games unbeaten.

Tooreen won 17 Mayo hurling titles in 18 years; Slaughtneil completed eight in a row in Derry hurling last year, while Ballygunner won their seventh title on the spin in Waterford to extend their unbeaten record to 38 championship games.

Their average winning margin in finals has been more than 11 points.

Since 1975, Kerry has completed an eight in a row and a seven a row in the Munster football championship.

And if population and money are so influential in Dublin's football success, how come its hurling team hasn't won the Liam MacCarthy Cup since 1938?

They last won an All-Ireland minor hurling title in 1965 and have never won an U-21/U-20 title.

It is also worth noting Dublin has only won one All-Ireland minor football title in 36 years.

Analysing the problem is the easy bit; coming up with workable solutions is far more challenging.

Forget the mad idea of splitting Dublin into two or, worse still, four. It could be a case of being careful what you wish for.

Would the Leinster championship benefit from having two or four Dublin-based teams? Like hell it would.

Equally nonsensical is the idea of the weaker counties amalgamating. It would destroy what makes the GAA unique.

Grants

Lots of issues, such as the population imbalance, cannot be resolved by the GAA. However, there are things the GAA could sort out.

Number one is distribution of the coaching and development grants.

Surely now, Dublin has sufficient financial resources to fund their own coaching programme.

The grants should be awarded to the rest of the counties based on registered players with designated weaker counties receiving extra help.

All bar 10 of Stephen Cluxton's 111 championship games have been played in Croke Park.

This needs to change, but if it did the GAA would have to cut the prices they charge for the corporate boxes and the long-term premium seats in Croke Park.

And, after losing millions of euro in revenue in 2020, and probably doing the same again this year, can you see them going there?

All Leinster matches involving Dublin should be played at provincial venues, but I won't hold my breath.

Other more radical proposals need to be examined.

For example, when the top counties like Dublin and Kerry announce their squad of 35/36 players at the start of the season, other players from these counties could be eligible to be drafted by the weaker counties.

All success in sport is cyclical and Gaelic football is no different. Dublin will eventually be beaten. I don't see them dominating for another decade.

They are slipping, with Mayo, Kerry, Donegal, Tyrone and Galway lining up for a shot at toppling them. Despite their population and financial clout, Dublin can only field 15 players.

The issue is that the other Leinster counties have raised the white flag, opting for damage limitation when they face Dublin, instead of trying to beat them.

So, my message is to reform finance, and sport's cyclical nature will take care of the rest.

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