The Irish Mail on Sunday
Dublin’s dominance won’t last
LAST SATURDAY I was i n Dundalk at 8.0am for an Opt For Life cycle organised by the St Joseph’s Club, Dromiskin (Louth). The proceeds were in aid of Temple Street Children’s Hospital and the plan was for the cyclists to ride from Dundalk to Mullingar to watch the Championship match that evening between their county and Westmeath.
The atmosphere, as more than 100 local cyclists gathered, was pure GAA. The Market Bar was open, tea and sandwiches were being ferried to the riders by clubmen and women and there was an excited chatter about the big game. Local TD and former Louth footballer and manager Peter Fitzpatrick arrived to loud cheers. ‘How long have you been cycling?’ I asked him. ‘Today’s my first day,’ he said in his thick Louth accent. ‘I got the bike yesterday.’
The vests, specially made for the cycle, were in the Louth colours, bearing the caption “C’mon the Wee County” and emblazoned with the words “16th Man”. As we rode off to applause, I was struck again by the critical importance of place in the GAA.
I cannot go to a GAA chat night these days without the subject of an open draw coming up and an anguished debate about how to break the 1,000year Reich the Dubs are about to create; the GAA will die without a two-tiered system, the provincial format is an anachronism that favours Kerry, Cork, Mayo and now the Dubs. Something must be done. A Champions League format? Four groups of eight? Split the Dubs in two?
It is, of course, nonsense. When Kerry were winning their 36 AllIrelands, including two four-in-a-rows and two three-in-a-rows, the idea of splitting them in two would have seemed ludicrous. Mind you, I would have paid in to see Páidí Ó Sé boxing the Eoin “The Bomber” Liston in the ear. Or what about DJ Carey turning out for the Kilkenny A team in an AllIreland final against Henry Shefflin & the B team? After all, the Cats have 34 All-Irelands, including nine Liam MacCarthy Cups since 2000.
I have had the pleasure of sitting, drinking pints in a Dublin pub between the “The Bomber” Liston (the pint looked like a thimble in his massive hand) and Jack O’Shea. I sat there like an imposter, basking in their company, their stories and sheer Kerryness.
It was only afterwards I realised I had bought every round. For the rest of us also-rans, it is indeed a mythical Kingdom, occupying a special place in the hearts of all Gaels, except maybe Noel O’Leary’s. Last Sunday, when I arrived into the RTÉ studio in Omagh and saw Tomás Ó Sé, I was like a kid. When the night time producer told me on the Monday morning that they had gone for a few pints afterwards with Colm “Gooch” Cooper, he spoke with reverence. ‘A great lad and great craic,’ he said.
The point is that even if it was not totally contrary to our ethos, breaking up the provincial structure, splitting strong counties in two (maybe safer to have three Dublin teams?) would make no real impact on who wins Sam or Liam. This egalitarian utopia where everyone has an equal chance of winning the big prize is an illusion, which d o e s n ’t e v e n e x i s t in professional sport.
Since the advent of English soccer’s Premier League, Manchester United have exerted a near monopoly. Money is everything and the backing of a mogul from a country with an atrocious human-rights record does no harm at all. Yet, even with the possibility of buying success, in 22 years, only five teams have won the title. In Spain, the Barcelona Real Madrid duopoly has crushed all competition, save for a few interruptions, from Valencia and this year, Atletico. Yet no one is calling for their league structure to be dismantled. In spite of the absence of any real competition, attendances in the Premier League and La Liga have flourished.
OUR SITUATION is, in truth, far more competitive and our attendances have remained very strong. In 1968, when Down won the All-Ireland, the attendance was 90,556. In the 23 years between 1968 and 1991, not a single Ulster team won Sam. Yet the Ulster Championship continued to be a life-or-death affair and we packed Celtic Park, Clones and Casement to the rafters.
In the 23 years between 1991 and the present, Sam went to Ulster 11 times, shared by five different counties. We had the Tyrone/Armagh monopoly of the noughties, but the rest of us soldiered on with a song in our hearts.
Yet now, because at this moment in time, the one-in-a-row Dubs happen to have an extraordinary group of players, we must abandon 130 years of heart and soul to follow a model
The GAA is not perfect, but it’s for us all, not just a chosen few
that will make no difference anyway? I was at a chat show in the Keady club i n Armagh last Wednesday, to raise funds for their new pitch mower. The old one had broken down after a decade of trusty service and, in the meantime, two lads were mowing the pitch with their garden mowers, like the painters on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
A Mayo man (Billy Joe Padden) compered it. The panel was Pat McEnaney (Monaghan), John Toal (Armagh) Kevin Madden (Antrim) and myself, all giving our time, all enjoying the craic. Because although we are fiercely proud of and devoted to our own clubs and counties, we are all on a shared journey.
That shared journey does not include winning an All-Ireland. Only a minute percentage of us will ever be lucky enough to achieve that. Louth will not win the All-Ireland this year. In fact, like 28 other counties, including my own, they haven’t a hope in hell of it. But they cycled to Mullingar where they cheered their beloved team on to a great victory over Westmeath.
All-Irelands are for the Henry Shefflins and Colm Coopers of this world. The GAA is for us all. It’s not perfect but it’s what we are and what we always have been. And, for Gaels, nothing is more important. THE retirement of Jonny Wilkinson brings an end to an extraordinary career. The great ones often appear to have very different personalities and attitudes. Some brash and loud (Floyd Mayweather), others modest and pleasant (Richie McCaw), others intense and serious (Seamus Moynihan). But beneath the surface, there is a common denominator. All of them share a ferocious competitive instinct. A recently-released essay, written by Wilkinson when he was nine years old, says it all. Describing his ambition to go to Pierrepont, the renowned rugby school, he wrote: ‘I would like to play against someone really big and have a really hard match.’ Not the ambitions you would expect of a schoolboy. JUST when you thought soccer players couldn’t get any more ghastly, up steps Yaya Toure. The €250,000 per-week Manchester City player complained that the club disrespected him by giving him a birthday cake... on his birthday! I tried to imagine the reaction in the Derry changing room if one of us had complained to Eamonn Coleman or treasurer Jim McGuigan that they’d missed a player’s birthday. Jim, who used to search the kitbags as we left the changing room if a Derry sock was missing, would have taken the only course open to him and rung for the men in the white coats.