New gen­er­a­tions need fields to fol­low their Dublin dreams

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Keith Dug­gan

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.

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