New generations need fields to follow their Dublin dreams
In case you’ve fallen out of touch with the publication patterns of GAA administrators, the season’s end generally coincides with a raft of reports delivered by county chairs (usually men). The reports offer a sort of state-of-the-nation address – albeit a nation obsessed with experimental rules, attendances, funding, discipline and other matters that constitute the bread and butter of a top-notch, sombre-tied GAA administrator.
Even if you have no interest in the Gah, you couldn’t but notice that The Dubs have become the big man on campus of the association. Four senior football All-Irelands in a row, two women’s football championships in succession, a senior club hurling All-Ireland in March and the strength of the game in the city in abundant health.
Dublin’s profile and influence means that, within the rarefied world of GAA annual reports, theirs attracts the most interest. It helps, therefore that the chairman, John Costello, uses the report as a opportunity to lay waste in lively fashion what he interprets as unfair representations of Dublin GAA. He probably knows his sentiments won’t meet universal agreement – or even necessarily find full backing within his own house.
For instance, Costello’s son Cormac is among the array of highly talented forwards scrapping for a place on Dublin’s starting 15. Imagine the younger Costello’s bemusement if he happened to flick through Dublin’s annual report only to discover the old man cheerfully suggesting a reduction of all teams to 13 a side . . . .
But as Dublin cruised to this year’s All-Ireland title, scrutiny on the county advantage in population and funding became more intense.
Costello took exception to a number of words that caught his eye in the deluge of coverage generated by the champions: ‘robots’, ‘automatons’; ‘emotionless’. They are, unquestionably, reductive terms and as chairman of Dublin GAA, he is entitled to object. Public enigma But those objections should have been countered by an acknowledgement of the lavish, lavish praise heaped upon Jim Gavin and his players by other competing teams and in the media. Dublin get a pretty easy time of it. It was hard to identify who and where anyone referred to Dublin as ‘automotons’ or ‘emotionless’.
But even if those criticisms were voiced, it might be worth the while of those invested in Dublin GAA to ask why some commentators feel like that. Since Jim Gavin took charge in 2013, he has been the public face of a squad that has become the last word in dedication and an unyielding pursuit of excellence cloaked in a forbidding form of elite-amateurism.
After five years, Gavin remains a public enigma. There are many journalists involved in covering GAA who will tell you about chance encounters with Gavin when he is unfailingly warm and cordial and chatty.
In formal situations, however, when he is there to represent Dublin as senior football team manager, the now-customary detachment returns and he engages with the media through fastidiously polite and vaguely corporate means of communication. Gavin was clearly determined, when he took over, that he wasn’t going to become a story or a distraction.
He says as little as possible apart from the rare occasions when he has something specific he wishes to put into the public domain. It’s a style of management and its fine and it works for the county.
But the chairman of that county shouldn’t be surprised when it is interpreted as somewhat impersonal and distant. Evincing a cool unflappability has become part of Dublin’s on-field persona.
It’s a world removed from the ‘startled earwigs’ description coined by Pat Gilroy in 2009. It seems likely that Dublin learned from that colourful term. It stuck. It became a label.
If you describe the exhilarating adventures of the current Dublin team in business-speak, you avoid those labels. It means that during the season, the players inevitably resort to describing their games in similarly flat and automatic terms.
As Costello notes, they are damned either way. “When we were less successful, we were ridiculed for being too showy etc. . .” This is indisputably true. Watching an overhyped Dublin team falling flat against a flinty Tyrone or crafty Kerry was a national pastime. Nobody cared (outside Dublin) when the most densely populated GAA county couldn’t win titles for buttons. The laughter was general.
Now that they’ve gotten their act together, that laughter has dried up. But the pity is that the detachment with which Gavin, and by extension the squad, go through their season masks who and what they really are. It’s understandable: it’s the smoothest and most professional way of dealing with media duties. But as Costello’s report makes very clear, the GAA and Dublin are not professional, there’s a social and cultural dimension to what all GAA county organisations are about. Human interest There’s a riveting human interest to the story behind the 30-odd players from around the city who hope to close in on something unprecedented next season. It seems a shame the public gets to see or hear so little of that. Still, it’s hard to underestimate the influence this team has had on the swathes of kids playing Gaelic football in the city every morning. And it’s a reference to those nameless thousands that contains the most important message of Costello’s report.
What the Dublin football team does or doesn’t do over the next few years isn’t really the point of Gaelic games in the city – it’s a fable and a great summer entertainment. The vast majority of kids playing ball this Saturday will never get within an ass’s roar of playing for the big team. They won’t be good enough.
But they still have just as much a right to play and be coached as Con O’Callaghan or Brian Fenton. There’s a line in the report that reads: “Dublin cannot be allowed to become a city of concrete with no outlets for our youth to play sport.”
It’s the most important sentence in the entire document. Acknowledging the irresistible need for more housing in the city above all else, the report instances the potential of Nama-held land as assets that may not be necessarily attractive to investors but that could be transformed into ‘gold dust for communities.’
Costello advocates the idea of the Government working with sporting organisations – not just the GAA – to try and make some of these sites available at a reasonable cost. What he is talking about here is not an investment in sports organisations or the games they promote but in communities and in the breathing apparatus – the lungs – of the city.
Dublin GAA’s problem is the opposite of the complaint across Ireland, in which towns and villages have splendid, floodlit playing pitches but wish only that their young people could come back to play on them. In Dublin, there just isn’t enough green space.
Yes, there’ll always be a place for the All-Ireland chasing sides to train. But that’s not the point. The report has hit upon a factor that demands absolute consideration. After all, what’s the point of having the best football team in the land if you don’t even have the fields for the next generation to dream?
There’s a line in the report that reads: ‘Dublin cannot be allowed to become a city of concrete with no outlets for our youth to play sport.’ It’s the most important sentence in the entire document.