Passion for club glory as strong as ever
The club is still king for most GAA players. Long live the king, says Colm O'Rourke
I t may appear a little strange that a short while after the All-Ireland is over and Croke Park is on vacation from GAA activity for about five months, there are many people who consider that the very heart of the football scene is only now on show.
In almost every county today there are big games, from junior to senior, where the thrill of winning and the pride engendered from the local club is far greater than anything experienced in Croke Park -- even after winning an All-Ireland.
Because all football is local and it is quite amazing in a world of globalisation that the GAA club is still king for so many young, well-educated men and women. Weddings and holidays are regularly switched, honeymoons postponed, funerals rearranged on the basis that the deceased would fully understand and all for what might appear to be just a bit of local pride.
Of course it is a lot more than that. It is a sense of individual and shared accomplishment, something which lasts a lifetime. It is greater than money or influence and at its very heart is honesty.
Club championships are hard won in every county in every grade; the effort must go in over time and no matter how hard you work there is no guarantee of ever winning. The real heroes of the GAA are those who continue to represent both club and county and who never experience even one great day of joy. Not one day when a player can be carried by his own off the pitch. That is the ultimate in self sacrifice.
Today, or any other county final day, is an examination of a man's raw courage. Those who are tested most on these afternoons are the leading county players. Their job is to drag friends and comrades with them. The more successful they are at county level, the greater the pressure they are under when they put on a club jersey. And the harsher the criticism too from within their own tribe. A top county player who is not doing the business for the club will feel the sting most in the local hostelries where post-mortems are long and searching. Apart from sacking the manager who has lost, the next item on the agenda in these discussions is how the county men played. That is why a club and its supporters are better judged on the bad days than the good ones.
Maybe it is this craving for acceptance within your own people that makes it difficult for many top players to decide which was the most important accomplishment in their career -- an All-Ireland or a club championship. To the average follower who does not have a deep interest in the club scene, the answer is simple. To them, Sam Maguire is king, but to players who have a sense of place, loyalty and an understanding of all those who have helped them become a top player, the answer is much more difficult.
For many clubs, the pursuit of a title has pushed them into serious financial trouble. All sorts of gimmicks are tried, from outside managers to gear and weekends away. A championship is worth more than money. It is often the same with players. Many won't go abroad to work for the summer because of loyalty to the club; others travel huge distances to training as family and friends hold sway over career prospects. Quite right too, as there are a lot of things which can be done in a lifetime, but a club championship has only a certain window of opportunity.
In Armagh, it was a bit different than that with Crossmaglen who seem to have won the last 125 championships in a row. Now they have taken a break and whoever wins between Pearse óg and Harps today will feel that this championship is worth about ten.
A similar sentiment will prevail in Dublin -- a new winner from southside neighbours Ballyboden and St Judes. It has been an epic struggle to get this far for both, especially Ballyboden who finally beat All-Ireland champions Kilmacud Crokes after a third game and extra-time last Tuesday night. Four and a half days later, they face the biggest game of their lives and it appears extremely harsh not to give them an extra few days.
Yet clubs and controversy are comfortable partners and by tomorrow there will be stories of incompetent referees, disputed scores and a thousand other reasons why one team lost. And the last excuse trotted out will be that they were not good enough.
Objections are customary too. In Meath, two clubs have objected to playing extra-time -- after the matches were over and they had played extra-time on the basis that extra-time had to be agreed upon in advance. Most people would see actually playing as being acceptance by performance but the GAA has a long and storied history of objections and decisions which lacked clarity or common sense.
The use of the rule book by so many clubs and counties and individual players in an effort to circumvent the decisions on the field of play is a blight on the organisation and there is not the same sense of acceptance of decisions -- whether right or wrong -- as in most other sports. Even if there has been a big improvement this year, many officials see the rule book as a rough guide and something to be challenged routinely.
Lest anyone think this is a new phenomenon, they may get some consolation from the fact that 60, 70 and 80 years ago, championships were often decided in the boardroom. The pride of the parish then meant plenty of ringers (good players from outside) being brought in for big games. A ringer would be easily identified now but this passion for local success remains as strong.
In many ways, the more things change the more they remain the same. Every savage loves his native shore.