Saturday 3 December 2016

Size does matter, but it doesn't have to be everything

The gap at senior level between Longford and Dublin shouldn't be so great, says John Greene

Published 31/05/2015 | 10:23

Australian speed skater Steven Bradbury, who went to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002 as a no-hoper and returned with the gold medal in the 1,000m
Australian speed skater Steven Bradbury, who went to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002 as a no-hoper and returned with the gold medal in the 1,000m

Some weeks back, I was in the audience for a brilliant presentation by Kingsley Aikins, former chief executive of the Worldwide Ireland Funds, to sporting organisations. It was a provocative and inspiring talk on the power of networking and raising money to fund your sport.

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Aikins signed off that day by reminding us of the story of Australian speed skater Steven Bradbury, who went to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002 as a no-hoper and returned with the gold medal in the 1,000m.

In his first race, with two to qualify, Bradbury finished third, but one of the skaters ahead of him was disqualified. In the semi-final, he was in last place as the race was nearing the end when three skaters crashed out and he finished second. Then, in the final, he was well off the pace being set by the first four until they all crashed and fell at the final bend, leaving Bradbury to, literally, skate home in first place.

Dublin won't fall down today.

Dublin will win, probably easily. They will win, the conventional wisdom goes, because Dublin has a huge population, and Longford doesn't; because Dublin County Board is loaded, and Longford County Board isn't; because the GAA in Dublin is more organised than the GAA in Longford. And because the game is in Croke Park.

Yes, the comparison in population is stark. Only Leitrim has fewer people (and fewer traffic lights for that matter) than Longford. There are 1.3 million people, give or take, in Dublin and around 40,000 in Longford, so on the balance of probability, Dublin will produce more Gaelic footballers than Longford and therefore, by extension, will produce more classy Gaelic footballers than Longford will.

A friend told me last week that in his six-year-old son's age group in Kilmacud Crokes, there are 130 boys, all born in the same year. I wonder how many of Longford's 24 clubs [there are 92 in Dublin] have 130 players from all age groups registered this year?

So size does matter, but it's not everything.

Longford GAA's finances are nothing like Dublin's, but then Longford's money does not have to cover the expanse that Dublin's does. For starters, Longford is not a true dual county, it only has to fund a handful of coaches and employees, and it has nowhere close to the amount of financial commitments that Dublin does.

In fact, administratively, Longford are as well organised as any county, if not better. This has been the case for some time. They have a history of attracting good sponsors. The current sponsors are Glennon Bros, a successful local timber company which has brought its progressive ideas in business to its partnership with Longford County Board.

Then there is the Longford GAA Race Day in Punchestown every year, which is the envy of many county boards and which is now the largest single annual fundraising event run by any unit of the GAA.

Every club in Longford has its own ground, most are floodlit and at least six of the 24 have facilities fit to host inter-county football and hurling games. Pearse Park has been transformed from the prehistoric, dank venue I played in when I was young to a picturesque, modern, compact stadium.

Longford has been performing well at underage level recently in Leinster, which again points to a county with its act together off the pitch. Its minor and under 21 teams have been competitive in the last decade, and generally a match for Dublin's teams.

All of which means that the gap between Dublin and Longford at senior level shouldn't be as great as it is. Every now and again, Longford should be able to beat Dublin. Put the numbers to one side and ask, is there any reason why Longford (or any other county for that matter) shouldn't be as physically strong as Dublin? Or as fit? Or as well organised on the field?

It all comes back to tradition, and, in a way, to expectations. Having been exposed to it from an early age, it was natural to believe Longford didn't really belong on the big stage. But society has changed. We are told young people don't think like that, that they are not burdened by the doubts and preconceptions we absorbed growing up. And yet, in sport, so many of the old traditions - and insecurities - linger.

I reckon about 2,000 Longford people will travel to Croke Park today to support a team they nearly all believe has no chance of winning. Most will be happy just to be there, and to see a Longford team in Croke Park. They will be proud.

That is not something to be trivialised because many of them put a lot of work into the GAA in Longford. Today will feel like some kind of reward for that work - at least for a while. They will take pride in seeing friends and neighbours on that pitch this afternoon. They will share their pain in defeat, and celebrate any heroic or defiant moments. They will watch The Sunday Game tonight and read some of the papers tomorrow.

They will moan about one lad who pulled out of a 50-50 ball at a crucial time, or another who blazed wide when there was only two points in it instead of passing to the man free inside him, or the manager who left so and so sitting on the bench when anyone who knows anything about football knows that he's at least five times better than the so and so who started ahead of him . . .

In the meantime, Dublin will move on to the next step of their by now habitual Leinster title - a title which becomes more and more devalued with each passing year. Yet, for all their dominance, a return of six All-Irelands in 40 years off the back of 23 Leinster championships only points the finger at an outdated system.

Meanwhile, in Longford, we await the qualifier draw . . . and dare to hope again.

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