Why condensing All-Ireland Championships is not a solution but a damaging problem
As the 20th anniversary of Saipan drifts into view like an old ghost ship from a seething yesteryear, lists are compiled of enigmatic acts of sporting self-harm.
Roy Keane, were he invited onto The Sunday Game to mark that darkest hour, would surely detonate into full terrifying, throbbing-vein-in-forehead mode at the absurdist condensing of the GAA’s inter-county championships into a Croke Park minute.
Imagining the riotous scene, a Gift Grub sketch forms in my mind.
A seething Keano (uniformed in full Cork blood-and-bandages hurling costume) stuns Des Cahill by hitting Jimmy Somerville’s high notes as he commandeers Bronski Beat’s Tell Me Why in his impassioned plea to the GAA’s fixture planners to explain themselves.
There is a serious point here.
For those of us who regard the inter-county GAA summer as one of the identifying wonders of Irish life, a timeless treasure, flawed yet beloved and glorious, the shrinking of the calendar is at once inexplicable and dangerous.
It feels unnatural and just plain wrong, a tampering with the natural order of one of our priceless landmarks.
Not quite on the same scale as defacing the Book of Kells or sticking a pair of McDonald's golden arches atop Newgrange’s Neolithic jewel, but still a form of unjustifiable cultural mischief.
This year’s championship is such a compressed, over-before-it-begins, sardine factor ten that it is something of a surprise John West didn’t jump in as title sponsors.
With each passing week, the madness of what is unspooling becomes ever more apparent.
No inter-county games in August or September, the traditional fever-pitch months of the season, stealing away the not to be underestimated tradition that sees thousands of excited back-to-school kids dressing up in county colours.
Hurling'a All-Ireland final is on July 17, clashing directly with Open Championship Sunday where Shane Lowry and Rory McIlroy will, hopefully, be pursuing the Claret Jug. The football is a week later, on July 24, taking place when half the population is sunning itself on beaches in the Med.
Drawing down of the shutters on the GAA’s shop window for more than six months even as other sports trade on. A self-destructive flourish that can be compared to Dunnes Stores closing from July to January and handing a gaping chasm in the market to Penneys, Aldi and Lidl.
A split season between club and county worked well in 2020, but that was almost entirely because of a Covid-induced hunger for games after months of inaction.
That outlier has been extrapolated into a thesis that the squeezing of big county games into a few early summer weeks is a coherent strategy.
2020 has been deployed to create a fiction that club games can fill the late summer/autumnal void.
They can’t, they simply don’t have the same reach, don’t attract remotely the same crowds, almost entirely bypassing the non-GAA affiliated sections of the general public who tune into the county games in such huge numbers.
It is entirely possible to marvel at the dedication and commitment of club volunteers, to sympathise with the fixture issues for club players, while still understanding that the club game is not a mass-market product.
I was at an Adult Division Two game in Dublin on a recent sunny Sunday morning (one of the clubs has multiple representatives on Dessie Farrell’s county squad), and excluding subs and management, there were maybe 40 people present.
From personal experience, interest even within GAA circles tends to be fairly parochial – enthusiasm for a club game in Tipp or Kildare or Mayo or Donegal largely confined to locals in pockets of those particular counties.
One columnist this week talked of “the fetishisation of the club game.”
Again, rather than criticising the club scene, the author was among the many befuddled by the taking for granted the unique inter-county experience, the clamour to hide the GAA’s crown jewel at the back of the wardrobe.
The club is, of course, a vital and integral part of the Association’s essence, but those big county days in Croke Park or Semple Stadium or McHale Park are equally central in seducing young people fed a diet of Anfield or Aviva glamour.
In a world where the GAA is competing for a precious resource - the Irish youth - David Clifford and Gearoid Hegarty are powerful recruiting tools.
And yet the clamour is to restrict them to fewer and fewer days in the sun, handing the stage to the stellar talents of Mo Salah and Peter O'Mahony.
A fiction is being peddled that 'real GAA' people somehow couldn’t give a fig about the county game.
Which begs an inevitable question: Who are the TV millions who tune in to Mayo v Kerry or Limerick v Waterford or Dublin v Tyrone or Cork v Kilkenny?
Or the hundreds of thousands who keep the summer turnstiles clicking so steadily (Munster hurling attendances are up significantly on 2019, the most recent year of no Covid restrictions)?
Contrary to a repeatedly peddled narrative, it is possible to be massively invested in the GAA without being an active GAA club member.
Attending county matches, often travelling great distances and spending a significant whack of money on match tickets, accommodation, petrol, food and drinks, is as legitimate an expression of a love for the games as any other.
Think of the colour the travelling Mayo hordes or a Hill 16 or the Clones hill in full bloom have brought to so many summers.
The suspicion here - backed up by a micro-poll of friends, split between club and non-club members - is that the club v county debate has been hijacked by an impassioned minority, while the vast majority would prefer to hold onto August/September for All-Ireland semi-finals and finals.
Self-defeating clashes between the few really standout county hurling and football fixtures are a consequence of the claustrophobia, a marketing strategy that can be distilled down to a single phrase: shooting ourselves in the foot.
Additionally, some of the biggest GAA games of the season are lost in the shadow of rugby and soccer’s showpiece fixtures.
This year’s Munster and Leinster football finals take place on the last Saturday of May.
On the same day, an enormous number of Irish sporting fans will be obsessing about Liverpool v Real Madrid in the Champions League final and/or, should they defeat Toulouse this weekend, Leinster in a Champions Cup final.
Having these GAA showpieces clashing with two of the biggest sporting events on the European calendar – ones that will legitimately dominate the sporting conversation across Ireland all that week – seems so utterly unnecessary.
It is certain to affect attendances and TV audiences and seems unfair to the county players involved.
At the very least, it will massively diminish the sense of occasion.
A small story from last weekend.
Friends from Kerry decamped to one of Dublin’s famous hostelries (a city-centre bar famously frequented in big numbers both by matchday GAA and rugby fans) to watch the Munster football semi-final.
They were among many from Cork and the Kingdom who had dashed from Munster’s dramatic Champions Cup tie with Toulouse at the Aviva to catch one of the most storied fixtures (all be it diminished by Cork’s regression) in both Gaelic games and, indeed, Irish sport.
But Cork v Kerry clashed with Leinster v Leicester and the pub had only one Sky/BT box. The rugby got first preference, though the bar staff did their best to flick to events in Páirc Uí Rinn to keep tabs on the GAA.
A fixture that would ordinarily have a mid-June Sunday to itself – with all the resultant build-up and hype - was beaten into a corner by the big beasts on a claustrophobic Saturday evening.
This Saturday, Dublin host their biggest hurling game in at least three years, a critical Leinster round-robin home fixture against Brian Cody's Kilkenny.
But what happens in Parnell Park, while completely seizing the attention of hurling partisans, will be overshadowed by events across the city at the Aviva, where Leinster will be pursuing that Champions Cup final berth.
Indeed, with Liverpool and Chelsea clashing in the FA Cup final, Dublin’s milestone hurling day will, at best, be the third biggest sporting story of the day for too many in the city.
Of course, club players should not be denied meaningful games on summer pitches (though the fact that even with the condensed season, many counties will still run club campaigns deep into autumn might signpost the real problem).
But squeezing the county season, staging All-Ireland finals in July and tearing down the walls of so many years of tradition is not remotely the solution.
It should not require a foaming Keano on The Sunday Game to hammer home such a self-evident truth.
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