Colm O'Rourke: Basement battlers prove that winning isn't everything
On-field activities are taking centre stage again and it's about time too, says Colm O'Rourke
The phoney war is over and hostilities can resume. Maybe hostilities is a bad word after events in Portlaoise, but it is quite amazing how exercised some people get over a melee in a game.
What are the ordinary rank and file supposed to do? The answer to these things lies with disciplinary bodies and I am very happy to let them deal with it without some mock show of disgust from me about declining disciplinary standards in young people, a declaration that the GAA is culturally inclined towards violence or anything else. Because I don't believe any of these things.
Deal with issues quickly and firmly and get on with the games, that is the answer. Fining clubs an obscene amount of money is very definitely not the answer. I see more matches, especially at underage level, than the vast majority of commentators, and over the last 20 years I have seen a marked improvement in discipline among players, even if there is still a very unsatisfactory number of adults who should never be allowed to have anything to do with young players.
That is often where the real indiscipline lies. If there was absolute intolerance of these fools on the line who transmit their loud abusive behaviour on to the field, then most other things would look after themselves.
The matches can't start quickly enough for most people in Donegal. When they saw a press conference in Dublin last week with some of the main managers present to give a bit of publicity to the league, they must have feared the worst. The cry must have gone out from every club and parish in Donegal, 'don't do it Jimmy'. But once Jimmy got all the enemies of the state in his sights, he was not about to let go. It was great for the journalists present but 'low-profile', 'stop digging' and 'Jimmy McGuinness' don't go together.
Of course he is entitled to his opinion about all of us who, in the safety of newspapers and studios, can be experts without having to set our faces against the wind and rain of winter to run a team. He has, however, built up a lot of hostages to fortune. Yet at the very least he is refreshing, a manager who is prepared to say what he really thinks and shuns the banal utterances of the majority.
The biggest show of gratitude should go to Allianz, a company which has shown remarkable loyalty to the leagues when they were often treated like dirt by the GAA in general, with little or no promotion. Allianz deserve any commercial benefits that are going and given that they have survived as league sponsors for what seems like a thousand years, the recession should have little effect.
Another issue that has arisen before the games begin is ground safety, resulting in some cases in reduced capacity. Now I am no expert on such matters but when I see the capacity in Navan reduced and people no longer allowed on grass banks then I begin to doubt what I see with my own eyes. Behind the goals in Navan are grass banks which have served families with children very well over decades. It has been an entirely safe place to go and most young people remember the fun and games that they enjoyed on those grass banks in the warm days of summer.
And again, if my eyes are not deceiving me, I saw an early-round match in the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand played on a ground with grass banks behind the goals. If the authorities had to deem the stand in Navan unsafe, I would have understood, but the idea of making Meath spend a shed-load of money on removing or altering grass banks, in areas which are little used apart from occasional matches in summer, seems way over the top to me.
After all these things there will be games fought out in every division with the same passions. My admiration at this time of year, or maybe at every time of year, is with those players who toil at the basement level without much chance of ever winning anything apart from the odd game over the next couple of months.
This admiration has grown over the last few years when I see and read what is expected of players who line out at inter-county level nowadays. If you are from Dublin, Cork, Kerry, Kildare, Tyrone, Derry, Mayo and a few others then as a player you can choose to put your life on hold because you could end up playing in an All- Ireland final.
That might be worth the early-morning and late evening training sessions and the fact that you won't have a life outside the county team as it will dominate your every move. Most would see a gold medal in September as being worth all that and more, but what about the others?
The race for more training and preparation carries everyone along and most county teams are making a serious effort with their preparation. It is a remarkable tribute to the young men in about 25 counties that they still give this commitment and show incredible loyalty to their own communities when, with a bit of logical thinking, they should realise that the odds are so stacked against them that they have little chance.
Perhaps there are more important things than winning. Honour, decency, loyalty and a willingness to fight on are the supreme characteristics of the human spirit and the players of the weaker county teams have them in spades.
As for winners and losers, Cork are likely to come roaring back, Kerry have a lot to get out of the system and Dublin need a good campaign too. The link between league and championship is now firmly embedded since the calendar year for competitions took over. Kildare need to get out of the second tier and Tyrone may be the biggest danger now that the youngsters are being given their head.
The third division is as competitive as any even if Peter Canavan will get most attention with Fermanagh. The only way is up.
Optimism may abound in a lot of places for just a few weeks but the players will thrash on. Maybe Allianz could do a deal with all these players from the lower divisions for cheap insurance. Like the sponsors, they have endured a tough time with the GAA and deserve a break.
Sunday Indo Sport