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Kelly may be a hero but his attitude to provincials disregards the localness at the heart of the GAA

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'There are few current players I admire as much as Kelly (p).' Photo: Sportsfile

'There are few current players I admire as much as Kelly (p).' Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

'There are few current players I admire as much as Kelly (p).' Photo: Sportsfile

The Open Draw was the gay marriage of its day. Believing in it proved you were a liberal and open-minded kind of guy. When I were a lad, professing your faith in the Open Draw was up there with saying, 'Everyone's sexuality is basically their own business so it is, man.' It was the equivalent of sticking a CND badge on your O'Neills tracksuit top.

Obviously I believed in the Open Draw. But the years have seen a general lurch towards apostasy. The Open Draw, like communism and leg warmers, seemed to be an idea whose time had come and gone.

So it was with a certain nostalgia that I read last week of Tony Kelly's assertion that the provincial championships should be abolished and of the chorus of approval which greeted him. Belief dies hard among the old Open Draw fans. Kelly's interview was like Stranger Things, a fresh take on an eighties favourite.

There are few current players I admire as much as Kelly. Not only does he possess extraordinary talent but he makes the best use of that talent. Attuned to the appeal of extravagance and unafraid to attempt the impossible, the Clare hurler is a refreshingly individual artist in an era of ever increasing fear and regimentation.

He is also, that ultimate sign of good character in a GAA player, a man who turns it on big time for his club. That's why on St Patrick's Day Ballyea will be in the All-Ireland club final, the pre-match interviews for which elicited Kelly's thoughts on the reform of championship structure. I hope Kelly and his team-mates win that one and strike a blow for small rural clubs in doing so.

Nevertheless, I think he's wrong. Which is no big deal given that getting things wrong is a young man's prerogative.

One problem with the argument made by Kelly, and others, is that the provincial championships, in both football and hurling, do provide teams with the chance to at least win something in the course of the season. You can argue that in recent years the good was knocked out of Limerick and Cork's Munster title victories when they subsequently underperformed. Yet the celebrations which greeted those victories were genuine as was the joy felt by fans and players in the immediate aftermath. If it was transitory, well so are most joys. So is life when it comes down to it. But that doesn't mean that the triumphs along the way are essentially counterfeit.

In the end only one team is going to win the All-Ireland and most of the time that team is going to be Dublin, Kerry, Kilkenny or Tipperary no matter how you change the structures. That doesn't mean that everyone else's championship is meaningless. So why not maximise the chances for joy along the way?

Another advantage of the provincial championship structure is that it recognises the localness at the heart of the GAA. When people used to upcast this to the Open Draw partisans back in the day, we'd say things like, "But imagine a world where you had Kerry playing Dublin in the second round," and predict that new exciting rivalries would arise to replace the old local ones.

The general indifference to the qualifiers proves we were wrong about that. Longford and Derry seem to be forever playing each other there but there's no sign that Longford have replaced Tyrone in the collective Derry unconscious or that your average Longfordian would get the same buzz out of beating the Oak Leaf County that he does out of beating Westmeath.

Speaking of Westmeath, one of the great moments of last year was their first-ever Leinster Championship win over Meath. Would that have meant the same if they'd been beating some team on around the same level as the Royals - Cork or Down say? Of course not. The local matters in the GAA.

It's why 24,000 people turned out to watch Roscommon face Galway in the Connacht final at Pearse Stadium and only 4,000 saw the Rossies meet Clare in the qualifiers a fortnight later. And why the combined attendance at the Connacht and Munster finals was almost twice that involving the All-Ireland quarter-final double-bill including Galway and Kerry at Croke Park.

The Connacht football final might not have had much bearing on the destination of All-Ireland honours but being the Connacht final it was still an occasion. Though not as big an occasion as the Munster hurling final which will always be worth more than any Super 8 game.

Like a lot of bad ideas in the GAA, the idea that you can move beyond the local stems mainly from soccer envy. But one thing you do learn as you get older is that you can't really change who you are. The GAA will always need the provincial championships for the simple reason that the GAA will always be the GAA and not the Premier League.

That's why I no longer believe in the Open Draw. Though obviously everyone's sexuality is still basically their own business so it is, man.

Sunday Indo Sport


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