Straight away, you could tell something was off.
At Friday lunchtime, an unexpected email from Croke Park dropped with no forewarning. That was unusual given the content, as it contained no less than the GAA’s strategic plan up to and including 2021. It ought to have been big news but was released with no fanfare ahead of the busiest and most important weekend of their calendar thus far. Journalists weren’t even invited to the launch.
In this game, that’s often an attempt to hide from scrutiny and a perusal was confirmation of this. Reading, what instantly came to mind was Joan Burton and Vincent Browne on Apres Match.
“At ground level, on the ground – at grassroots level, on the ground – what people are clearly saying is they’re frustrated on the ground, and they’re angry on the ground, and they want an alternative.”
“What is the alternative?”
“The alternative we would bring is a change. A change of policy. A change of direction.”
“Specifically what change would you bring to what policy?”
“We have developed a range of policies to bring to the table – a range of issues, a range of policies – that are ready to be implemented.”
Style over substance. Shallow words over deeper action. This at a time when both substance and action are craved around all levels, from Dublin on the throne to rural clubs left to rot in the gutter.
The biggest threat right now, pulsing through every nerve and sinew of the association, is elitism. Most works its way up, from poor to rich, weak to strong, club to county, have-nots to haves. It’s essentially the church model of those with the most passing around a collection bucket, hoovering up finance and all other resources. And it was clear that won’t be changing over the next three years.
But there was one saving grace via such inaction, for intercounty football at least. Any time this right-wing GAA make a move, it usually bolsters or worsens that sorry and sinful chasm. It means that in their case, doing nothing around what is bad is still better than actually making it worse.
Talk of formats in football at this time of year may be overdone, but it is a sign of things not working. On a sweaty June weekend we could do with learning more than that Kildare still have pride, than that Down don’t, that what was once steely self-confidence in Tyrone is now arrogance, that Carlow needed more than two wins to be the story of summer, that there’s no point in paying to watch your identity humiliated by Dublin.
Such dreadful storylines are sadly washed over by hurling but, while the small-ball game is a threat to its cousin, it’s not for the reason you think.
The new hurling championship format, especially in Munster, has fired out classics and intensity and a craving for more of the best matching-up against the best. Plain and simple, it has been the most glorious sport we’ll witness this year. But during these feasts for the few, how often have you considered the rest?
Across the weekend, Cavan and Fermanagh, Tyrone and Monaghan, Wicklow and Derry, Kerry and Laois all had their seasons ended without so much as a glance. Twenty of the 35 counties in the championship are already finished until 2019; in fact by the fourth Saturday in June, just 12 of those 35 will still be playing.
That doesn’t close the gap, rather it reinforces it. Out of sight, out of mind.
This, of course, is nothing new. Hurling has long acted like CEOs in a Michelin restaurant, slapping each other on the back about their profitability, never caring or sharing when it comes to the misery outside.
What this season and this structure has done though is found a way to make people believe the game is in good health when such a measurement needs to be taken around the openings for the rest, rather than closed doors by the best. Protectionism doesn’t scream thriving sport, nor does washing hands of the majority.
That’s not to knock any of the brilliance but it is to look at the holistic picture. In one sense, what this hurling championship has thrown up is the notion that the marketing of elitism is working and people are buying it. That’s dangerous for it’s also contagious when GAA, unlike other sports, will implode if it just takes care of the books and the bank account. Which brings us back to football.
A confession. A few years back, the idea of a tiered football championship seemed not only a good one but a vital one. Sure, many managers of struggling counties spoke out against it, as it turned from a whisper into louder chatter, but there was so much to tip the scales the other way.
Grading works well at club level where a junior championship means a lot to the victors; sports are about effort and where you find yourself; games would be more competitive and there’d be fewer tonkings.
However, that was at a time when the likes of the Ring and Rackard Cups were in their infancy, when counties playing in them were lining out before big games, when there was TV and highlights and updated tables and available results and an effort. It didn’t last and what they’ve proven, as years have moved on, is they aren’t about a leg up, rather they are about keeping down.
As one example, on their way to the 2014 Christy Ring title, Kildare were asked to play six weeks on the bounce. Not only that, after winning the final they were told to make it seven and told to play away to Westmeath for a chance to be a top-tier county. Exhausted, they lost.
This year is no different. Munster cannot lose a ‘real’ team because of the unique safety net and with Offaly gone from Leinster there are screams to help them when others that have worked harder and better get no help.
The Ring Cup winners don’t get rewarded with more than a trophy as they’ve to win a play-off with Antrim just to get what they’ve already earned. It’s still stacked and the barrier to entry is so high that it’s beyond most, but make the grade and it’s hard to get out.
That should be a forewarning for football which, somehow, is the game of the people.
Still, with so many great games, and with football struggling and relatively boring, and with the Super 8s to come, there’s the danger it will follow suit. Down being throttled by Donegal, Sligo being taken apart by Galway, Clare chasing air against Kerry will only increase the calls. But football doesn’t need that as splitting the championship is destructive rather than constructive, a way to exorcise the demons the association doesn’t really want. It’s admitting defeat, showing there’s no need or at least no will to fight for those that are struggling, but are just as important as the rest.
Not everyone can or will always be good, but they must be given that chance and that opening. Casting them adrift does the opposite and forces them to throw in the towel. Crucially, having little chance at something is still better than having some chance at nothing.
For now, football has been left alone to die a slower death rather than drive a stake through its heart. Don’t listen to the talk though and don’t buy the glitz and glamour of hurling’s format. A future in football needs to be about making those not good enough a bit better. Not about taking away all interest and hope.