SOMEHOW each year the GAA manages to succeed in spite of itself. Here we are in the middle of June and the championship already feels like it’s been going on too long yet it hasn’t even begun in earnest yet.
A few weeks back we were treated to the cauldron-like spectacle of Donegal and Tyrone in Ballybofey and ever since the GAA has been drip-feeding us one tiny morsel of good football after another. It’s as if the championship has gone in to some mid-summer hibernation, briefly appearing to brighten the horizon like the glorious sunshine that appeared for a week.
It has ever been thus. To those who bemoan the lack of competition in the championship, your voices are merely echoes of a recent and a distant past. I wonder if it were possible to turn the clock back to 1980 and survey the GAA-public what those supporters would tell us. Each year, as the GAA lurches forward relentlessly, we forget that Kerry and Mayo and Dublin were handing out regular hidings to the minnows back then too. In fact Kerry did such a number on Clare one year that it was christened the Milltown-Malbay Massacre. Really what hope did Clare football ever have when that chapter was written?
The sight of two forlorn football managers on the Sunday Game two weeks ago was a vision of what the GAA has become. In Waterford manager Niall Carew and Westmeath boss Pat Flanagan, two genuine football men were made to look pathetic. Flanagan was still white as a ghost from the mauling his side received against Dublin earlier that afternoon. Carew wore the look of an old Irish bachelor who realised too late how lonely life really is. As football counties go, Waterford is almost as isolated as Kilkenny. The league apart, what does the championship have to offer them?
The same could be said of Westmeath only that they operate in a bigger province where the chances of meeting a team they could beat are much greater. Leinster, for most of the GAA’s existence, has only ever had one superpower. Two behemoths in a six-county province like Munster is just too much for the local shopkeeper.
I don’t recall the same voices for change being amplified in 1980. No one seemed as bothered about the state of the inter-county game back then, maybe because we were all consumed by the club championships once the county side were beaten.
Ever since that great Kerry team revolutionised football, the game has changed by accident rather than design. Any innovations in the GAA over the last 30-odd years have usually been reactionary moves in response to the increasing professionalism of the inter-county game. The game’s elite got bigger and better, naturally enough, while the GAA struggled to deal with a major minority who were driving the game forward.
It is in the nature of elite sportsmen, in any game, to pursue something to the limit but the mistake the GAA have made in the intervening years is to assume that the inter-county game is representative of the GAA as a whole. It’s not and never has been.
You only have to consider the number of players involved at senior inter-county level. Think about the number of senior inter-county players from your club, if any. Now think what percentage of the players in your club they account for: 1, maybe 2 per cent?
In 1980 how many elite senior inter-county football teams were there? Three, four? This year Mayo, Dublin, Donegal and either Cork or Kerry look best placed to make the All-Ireland semi-finals. How much has really changed in 33 years?
The point is that the elite are still the elite and below them there is another world of Gaelic football that is almost entirely divorced from them. Waterford and Westmeath were just two examples highlighted by the Sunday Game. They could also have chosen Leitrim and Antrim.
Beyond the 32 counties of Ireland, there are thousands of clubs who play in another parallel universe. The further you go down in each county, the more players you find yet the GAA works like an inverse pyramid, forever catering for the top one per cent while everyone else operates in splendid isolation, as if drifting below the surface like the body of an iceberg. It is unseen and unheard yet the GAA depends on those anonymous souls for its very existence. If inter-county football ended forever tomorrow the GAA would still go on but destroy the club game and you destroy the GAA.
The GAA does not need a new structure for the inter-county championship, the GAA needs a complete overhaul. When the championship finishes next September, they should call a halt to proceedings and go into conclave. Summon Pope Francis if they have to but no white smoke should be seen until a new GAA emerges with a brand new fixtures calendar and a prominent place for the game’s majority. There is no need for a truth and reconciliation process, they just need to erase the past and devise a plan for the future that takes account of the world as it is, not as the GAA imagines it to be.
When all is said and done, sport is simple. It is about players playing games. At inter-county level we have too many games between teams who shouldn’t play each other and too few games between teams who should play each other. It’s an easy fix.
The clubs of Kildare are not entered into the one competition because if they were half of them would lose all interest in football. Imagine if the Kildare club championship was played along the same lines as the All-Ireland inter-county championship. Down south, instead of Cork and Kerry you’d have Athy and St Laurence’s. Instead of Waterford getting pummelled every year, it’d be Castlemitchell or Grange.
The GAA have inadvertently created an unfair game and it’s high time they stopped cheating their members.