Ea­monn Sweeney

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - SWEENEY EA­MONN

There was no de­mand for re­struc­tur­ing from clubs for the very sim­ple rea­son that they know it will cut fur­ther into the time avail­able to them for play­ing lo­cal cham­pi­onship games.

THE re­struc­tur­ing of the hurl­ing cham­pi­onship is, ac­cord­ing to Water­ford County Board chair­man Paddy Joe Ryan, “One of the worst de­ci­sions in GAA his­tory.” It’s a pretty large claim given that pick­ing the worst GAA de­ci­sions is a bit like rank­ing the great­est Bob Dy­lan al­bums. There are just so many to choose from. This is, af­ter all, the As­so­ci­a­tion which has given us The Ban, the sus­pen­sion of Tony Keady for no good rea­son, the Sky TV deal, the Tommy Mur­phy Cup and sundry other clas­sics. But while last week’s spe­cial congress de­ci­sion may not quite be Blonde on Blonde, it is at the very least High­way 61 Re­vis­ited.

The in­ter­est­ing thing about the ad­verse re­ac­tions to the change is that they’ve come from so many dif­fer­ent quar­ters. There has been crit­i­cism from club man­agers, Bal­ly­gun­ner boss Fer­gal Hart­ley not­ing that, “Other than bring­ing the All-Ire­land fi­nal dates back by a few weeks, what’s there for club play­ers?” and from for­mer in­ter-county stars, Lim­er­ick’s Stephen McDon­agh pre­dict­ing smaller at­ten­dances at games and Clare’s Niall Gil­li­gan mak­ing the im­por­tant point that, “Club play­ers are get­ting a raw deal ev­ery­where and I doubt if the changes will make any great dif­fer­ence. I don’t think there was any­thing wrong with the way the All-Ire­land cham­pi­onship was run. We had great pro­vin­cial and All-Ire­land cham­pi­onships this year and I can’t see the need for change on that front.”

Tip­per­ary football man­ager Liam Kearns de­clared: “I don’t think the plans have been thought out very well and there could be a lot of chaos in re­la­tion to this.” The Meath and Cork county boards have said the changes will make it much more dif­fi­cult for them to sched­ule club fix­tures. There has been a tor­rent of com­plaints from mem­bers of the Club Play­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion. “If you were to give a com­mit­tee the task of de­stroy­ing hurl­ing com­pletely then surely this sys­tem would be seen as a very good plan in­deed,” said Ger Lough­nane. “They might as well go the whole hog and change the As­so­ci­a­tion’s name to the GFA, the Gaelic Football As­so­ci­a­tion.”

It takes quite a bit of tal­ent to unite such dis­parate strands of opin­ion against you but the GAA have man­aged it all the same. But the worst thing is not that the re­struc­tur­ing is a stupid de­ci­sion, it is that it is a stupid de­ci­sion which did not need to be made.

Cast your mind back to the glory days of the hurl­ing cham­pi­onship. Back through the mists of time to the dis­tant past. Or, as it’s also known, last month. I know it’s a long time ago but bear with me and try re­ally hard to re­mem­ber. Can you re­call any­one say­ing that the hurl­ing cham­pi­onship was in a bad way and needed a com­pre­hen­sive re­struc­tur­ing? Nope, thought not. No­body said it.

The best GAA ideas come from the grass­roots, the great ex­am­ple of this be­ing the de­ci­sion to open up Croke Park to soc­cer and rugby a decade and a half ago. Those at the top of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, with the no­ble ex­cep­tion of then pres­i­dent Seán Kelly, ei­ther ran scared of the idea or ac­tively tried to frus­trate it. It was meet­ings at club level which forced the is­sue back onto the agenda at congress and grass­roots pres­sure which led to the GAA mak­ing the right de­ci­sion. That’s how things should be in a demo­cratic or­gan­i­sa­tion whose ba­sic unit is the club.

There was no de­mand for last week’s re­struc­tur­ing from the clubs for the very sim­ple rea­son that they know it will cut fur­ther into the time avail­able to them for the play­ing of lo­cal cham­pi­onship games. This is an idea, like most bad ideas, im­posed from the top down.

Such im­po­si­tions re­flect the feel­ing among the Croke Park hi­er­ar­chy that too much democ­racy is a bad thing. Their me­dia sup­port­ers like to use phrases like ‘un­wieldy de­ci­sion-mak­ing process’. In plain English ‘un­wieldy de­ci­sion-mak­ing process’ sim­ply means ‘putting things to a vote’. Even the cus­tom­ary rub­ber-stamp­ing of Croke Park de­ci­sions by del­e­gates is too much democ­racy for these folks to han­dle. They’d pre­fer ‘a more stream­lined de­ci­sion-mak­ing process,’ which sim­ply means a small group of peo­ple at the top of the As­so­ci­a­tion tak­ing the de­ci­sions for ev­ery­one else, as was the case with the Sky deal.

The Pol­ish po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher Leszek Ko­lakowski once ob­served that the rea­son so many in­tel­lec­tu­als were drawn to Com­mu­nism was that its idea of a se­lect group at the top mak­ing all the de­ci­sions was ir­re­sistible to peo­ple con­vinced they knew bet­ter than ev­ery­one else. Sim­i­larly, the rea­son that so many jour­nal­ists like the idea of dic­ta­tor­ship, sorry I meant ‘stream­lined de­ci­sion-mak­ing’, in the GAA is that they also like to think they’re bet­ter in­formed than the plebs. From their point of view and that of the ad­min­is­tra­tors, grass­roots op­po­si­tion to any GAA de­ci­sion, whether the Sky deal or re­struc­tur­ing, mat­ters not one jot.

This un­earned ar­ro­gance leads to bad de­ci­sions. They’re bad be­cause since their ar­chi­tects don’t see the need to ad­dress grass­roots opin­ion, they haven’t thought their po­si­tions through. Why would you when you have no re­spect for the op­pos­ing point of view?

That’s why the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for the re­struc­tur­ing have been so lamentably, laugh­ably, lu­di­crously weak. Dó­nal Óg Cu­sack’s state­ment that “any change is bet­ter than no change,” may be spec­tac­u­larly vac­u­ous but it’s im­por­tant be­cause it cap­tures a mind­set which has led to many terrible de­ci­sions in this coun­try.

This men­tal­ity is a holdover from the Tiger era when it gave us such gems as the com­puter vot­ing ma­chines dis­as­ter, the pro­posal to spend a bil­lion on the Ber­tie Bowl, the idea that you could hold the Olympics in Dublin, ghost es­tates all over the coun­try and even­tu­ally na­tional fi­nan­cial ruin. When any­one ob­jected to these ideas, the an­swer from the rel­e­vant ge­niuses was usu­ally along the lines of, “Any change is bet­ter than no change”.

It’s as fool­ish a line now as it was then be­cause not all new ideas are good ones. I can re­mem­ber when it was mooted that Croke Park be re­placed by a new sta­dium in Athlone, and later by one in Clon­dalkin. His­tory has not been kind to those ex­am­ples of bold new think­ing. It was once an ar­ti­cle of faith among all ‘pro­gres­sive’ GAA types that the pro­vin­cial cham­pi­onships should be re­placed by an open draw sys­tem. In re­al­ity, at­ten­dances would have nose­dived un­der such a sys­tem and the cham­pi­onships would have been se­verely weak­ened. Yet I can re­mem­ber when the open draw was all the rage.

There was once gen­eral agree­ment among chin-rub­bing types that the prob­lem with Gaelic football was that ‘there’s no tackle’ and that we should im­port the tackle from Aus­tralian rules. Thank­fully this did not come to pass and we were spared the sight of ev­ery player on the pitch do­ing on a reg­u­lar ba­sis what Seán Ca­vanagh did against Mon­aghan a few years back. Gaelic football, it turned out, needed to be less, and not more, like rugby.

Yet the idea that the novel is al­ways good per­sists in some quar­ters. One poor un­for­tu­nate de­clared dur­ing the week that hurl­ing is bound for a ‘brave new world’. Said un­for­tu­nate got very ex­cited about the fact that in this BNW we might have ‘a Le­in­ster hurl­ing fi­nal played in Gal­way.’

That’s what we’ve al­ways wanted, isn’t it? A Le­in­ster hurl­ing fi­nal in Gal­way, in a sta­dium so unloved only 18,000 went to the Con­nacht football fi­nal there this year even though the home team were play­ing. I’m sure Kilkenny and Wex­ford fans will rel­ish the op­por­tu­nity of be­ing dragged half­way across the coun­try to Pearse Sta­dium’s windswept acres. Brave New World my arse.

De­ci­sions like last week’s also re­ceive sup­port from peo­ple who think that de­ci­sions made by peo­ple in au­thor­ity are al­ways good merely be­cause they’ve been made by peo­ple in au­thor­ity. There are al­ways a few of those around. I blame colo­nial­ism and the church my­self.

They’re the guys who’ll al­ways de­fend a bad GAA idea by screech­ing, “Give it a chance, give it a chance willya. You can’t say it won’t work till it’s been tried”. And when the bad idea doesn’t work, as hap­pened with the Sky deal, what do they say? “Well, it’s there now. We might as well make the best of it.”

Yet it didn’t take any great per­spi­cac­ity to pre­dict that Sky’s GAA view­er­ship fig­ures would be dis­as­trous. Nei­ther does it re­quire much fore­sight to see that the ‘Su­per 8’ for­mat is the recipe for a lot of bad and un­com­pet­i­tive football given the com­pet­i­tive im­bal­ance re­vealed in this year’s All-Ire­land quar­ter-fi­nals. You don’t have to eat an egg to know it’s rot­ten. The smell gives it away.

The new hurl­ing cham­pi­onship struc­ture stinks too, of ar­ro­gance and ego­tism at the top and of a com­pla­cent as­sump­tion that no mat­ter how you mess with the cham­pi­onships the crowds will al­ways come back be­cause, be­ing GAA peo­ple, they have no choice.

And when next year’s pro­vin­cial cham­pi­onships, en­tirely lack­ing the sud­den death el­e­ment which en­thralled us this sum­mer, limp on in their un­ex­cit­ing, at­ten­u­ated way, what will the plan’s ar­chi­tects say? They’ll say it was worth a try, who could have pre­dicted things would turn out like this?

Af­ter all, it seemed like such a great idea at the time.

You don’t have to eat an egg to know that it’s rot­ten

‘Such im­po­si­tions re­flect the feel­ing among the Croke Park hi­er­ar­chy that too much democ­racy is a bad thing’

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