Tuesday 26 September 2017

Colm O'Rourke: Outstanding players in Dublin are now destined to keep toiling away at club level - something has to change

20 October 2016; Jason Whelan of Ballymun Kickhams during the Dublin County Senior Club Football Championship Quarter-Final match between Ballymun Kickhams and Raheny Shamrocks at Parnell Park in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
20 October 2016; Jason Whelan of Ballymun Kickhams during the Dublin County Senior Club Football Championship Quarter-Final match between Ballymun Kickhams and Raheny Shamrocks at Parnell Park in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

When Dublin beat Kildare in the O'Byrne Cup semi-final there was a lot of comment about the state of football in the rest of Leinster if the Dubs could reach the final of the competition with a third team. The right way to look at this was not the weakness of others but the strength of Dublin.

If the Dubs have such quality in numbers then it is a great pity that they don't have more than one team. How many players who would be stars in any other county don't get a look in just because they are born in the wrong place at the wrong time? And I mean Dublin not Wicklow or Leitrim or Waterford or 20 other counties.

Usually it is the other way round and we lament some great players in weak counties. The same applies in reverse too. Outstanding players in Dublin are now destined to keep toiling away at club level with maybe the only opportunity of playing county football being in the O'Byrne Cup - if they are lucky. Many others spend their time as loyal club men with ambitions of playing in Croke Park but never getting the chance. If they were in any other county, they would at least get a shot at county fame.

This week I did a rough study of the clubs involved with Dublin in the All-Ireland final and last Sunday in Newbridge. Of the 58 players listed in the two programmes, just over 30 of them came from Northside clubs, while the Southside had enough for a very strong team and about 11 subs. What a waste of talent. While some counties grab anyone they can to fill a role, there are three teams in Dublin from the two panels with 13 subs left over. Now it would not be exactly true to state that Kildare were beaten by the Dublin thirds last week. Players like Niall Scully, Ross Hazely, Jason Whelan, Colm Basquel and Conor McHugh are likely to be pressing hard for the first-team panel this year.

Even at that there are a lot of others who slip out of the net. So the greatest resource in the GAA, namely talented players, are being lost to county football because they want to play for Dublin, not the county of their father or mother.

A couple of weeks ago I was writing about how very many county players in weak counties are not willing to train hard for five or six nights a week as they know they will never win anything. In Dublin, they have the opposite dilemma. A huge pool of talented players who would be quite happy to make sacrifices but Jim Gavin does not ring. He has more than enough.

When I have written about this in the past there was a certain hysterical reaction about breaking Dublin up. When it is considered in any rational way there must surely be a lot of people in Dublin, and especially a lot of young players, who would be very happy to see two or three Dublin teams so they could get a chance.

Every young lad dreams of getting into Croke Park, but only the very elite in Dublin make it. The rest can drive by it every day and dream alright but it is not going to happen. It is even worse at underage level. There are literally thousands of young boys who have been introduced to football who aspire to the Dublin team but never have a realistic opportunity of getting on Dublin panels from under 14 up unless they are exceptional. Is winning the only thing that counts? Can the work of the GAA not be measured by other yardsticks?

There are roughly about five times more players in the same age categories in Dublin than in Meath or Kildare who should be the main opponents to Dublin in Leinster. It does not stop other counties being better and Dublin will not win all the time but it is the denying of opportunity which should be the main consideration.

There are some who feel that more teams in Dublin is a method of penalising them for some brilliant work over the last decade particularly which has popularised the game in plenty of new areas. If you are narrow-minded enough you could look on it like that or you could see the opportunities that could be had by making the playing of county football a much more realistic ambition for more players.

In all the debates which are going to take place at Congress there is nothing about the unbalanced structure of players and population which is the biggest single issue facing the GAA. Some will look back and recall long fallow periods for Dublin. That was then and this is now. Dublin is a different animal now in organisation, resources and playing talent than even a decade ago. It is not going to change.

Things like bringing forward the All-Ireland, better fixtures for clubs or bringing in the black card or the mark are largely incidental to the real problem. That is the increasingly dominant position of Dublin and a few other counties in the GAA. It is killing county football and the public have copped on to that.

Dublin clubs like Ballyboden, Ballymun, St Vincent's and Kilmacud, and maybe they are not all the best sides, would probably survive quite easily in the second division of the league. There are others like last year's finalists Castleknock, St Jude's, Na Fianna, St Brigid's, Oliver Plunketts and others too who would beat anyone in the fourth division and most of the third.

Players from the country are flocking to these clubs so the general standard of club football is a lot higher than in the rest of the country, even if clubs have only one go at the championship and have to get by for long stretches without their county men which must be completely unsettling.

So the elephant in the room is being ignored and elephants have a habit of either trampling the grass or eating it on everyone else. There is a reluctance of anyone from outside taking on the Dubs in a debate on this issue as they risk being told to mind their own business or the fear that in some reconfiguration the support for the new Dubs would dry up which would bankrupt the GAA. Instead of piddling about on minor matters, the policy committee of the GAA should be looking about long-term structures. Does anyone seriously consider that the present model of counties can survive? Fifty years ago there was not such population imbalances. These are going to get worse and render more and more counties uncompetitive.

Kerry and a very small number of others will survive and continue to win. The rest won't count while hundreds of very good players in Dublin never get a chance to test themselves in county football. We are always told that everyone should strive to be the best that they can be. Silly and outdated lines on maps makes that impossible in the GAA.

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