Sport Gaelic Football

Sunday 17 December 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Dubs panic distorts the facts

‘Dublin have a very good football team. But there was nothing inevitable or inexorable about their last two All-Ireland victories’
‘Dublin have a very good football team. But there was nothing inevitable or inexorable about their last two All-Ireland victories’
Miami Heat forward LeBron James

Eamonn Sweeney

Well, that's it then. Game over. Time to give up on Gaelic games and develop an interest in dog fighting or needlework. For we have seen the future and it is a Dublin boot stamping on everyone else's face forever.

There's a kind of pervasive short-termism about GAA punditry which means that anything which happens for more than a year is predicted to recur eternally. Remember, around ten years ago, when we were assured Ulster football had it sewn up for the foreseeable future? Or just last year when we knew that Kilkenny's only rivals in a tediously predictable hurling championship would be Tipperary? Or when it was an article of faith that tactical mastermind Jim McGuinness' 'System' had forever changed the way football would be played?

Then you have the annual lament over the increasing negativity of Gaelic football, destined to any minute now drive the crowds from the stadiums. It never seems to pan out. Neither did the Ulster dominance, the Kilkenny-Tipp carve-up or the eternal reign of Donegal. The championships tend to be a bit less predictable than that.

This year's big idea is that Dublin are about to completely dominate football and hurling until the end of time. It's asserted in the stricken tones which usually accompany a moral panic about Alco Pops or Head Shops. It's the end of the GAA as we know it and we shouldn't feel fine.

Who can argue with the compelling evidence? In football, Dublin have won two of the last three All-Irelands and two National Leagues in a row! They have won three All-Ireland under 21 titles in five years! Their minor hurlers beat Kilkenny last week! It's such a big city! They can't be beaten! The GAA must pump money into the other counties! Smaller counties must amalgamate! Counties should be replaced by franchises! Dublin should be split into three or four or five parts! They're even money to win two in a row! We must stop them! Before it's too late!

Calm down dears. There's no need to start impersonating Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers just yet. Dublin have a very good football team. But there was nothing inevitable or inexorable about their last two All-Ireland victories. Three years ago, Kerry did the closest thing to throwing the Sam Maguire away since their 2002 final loss to Armagh. And last year while Dublin were a better team than Mayo, their single-point margin perhaps tells us that they are not some championship-bestriding colossus against whom resistance is futile.

Two victories in three years is hardly unprecedented domination. Between 2003 and 2009, Kerry and Tyrone divided seven titles between them. The 2006 and 2007 finals had the two biggest final winning margins in the three decades from 1980 to 2009. The championship was a predictable two-horse race yet no-one seemed overly concerned.

Dublin look like the best team in football at the moment. Yet their league campaign has been utterly distorted by their last two performances. As Rory O'Carroll admitted after the final, they were lucky to make the semis. Had Diarmuid Connolly not swung over a great point at the death against Tyrone, Mickey Harte's team would have been in the last four instead. And we might even have had a few articles about Dublin's decline.

Instead they had the chance to look awesome in the semi-final and final. But those results have to be seen in the context of the facts that Cork are a work in progress, brilliant and brittle in equal measures, and that Derry were the weakest side to reach a league final in many years.

One reason the Dubs look close to invincible is that the rest of the field is not of the highest quality, Mayo excepted. Both Cork and Kerry are in transition with old players leaving the stage and neophytes finding their way. Tyrone aren't able to get past that transitional period and something seems to have gone badly wrong with Donegal. It's a propitious time for a team like Dublin to be at their peak.

Dublin are also benefiting from the black card rule because Jim Gavin's positive approach to the game has given them a head start on teams of a more defensive bent. The league showed that stopping the opposition playing isn't a viable strategy anymore. Gavin's investment in positivity has paid off handsomely.

So Dublin footballers do have advantages, but they're nothing to do with demographics. And they may win this year's senior championship but it's not going to be the procession currently being predicted.

The inevitability of Dublin's future triumphs is, we're told, guaranteed by their 'awesome under-ages strength'. Their recent under 21 record is impressive but hardly unprecedented. Kerry won three in four from 1995 to 1998, Cork won three in a row from 1984 to 1986. And it's not like Dublin have been riding roughshod over the opposition. In the 2010 final Michael Murphy hit the crossbar with a last-minute penalty which would have given Donegal the title. This year they were extraordinarily lucky to beat Cavan in the semi-final.

But at least they are dominating to some extent in this competition. Elsewhere, their 'awesome under-age strength' is largely fictitious. When they won the 2012 All-Ireland minor football title, it was their first since 1984. In hurling, while Dublin have improved massively at underage level, they have nothing to show for it at All-Ireland level. There has been no under 21 title, just heavy final defeats by Galway in 2007 and 2011. It's Clare who are awesome here with three wins in the last five years. And it's still 1965 since the Dubs won an All-Ireland minor hurling title. Galway, Tipperary and Kilkenny dominate here with nine of the last ten crowns between them.

So where does this notion of all-conquering Dublin underage teams sweeping all opposition aside come from? Perhaps it's because we hear so much about it the thing seems to have happened before the championship starts at all. So when Longford under 21 footballers or Carlow under 21 hurlers defeat Dublin, it's dismissed as 'just one of those things,' a flukey interruption of a spell of non-existent invincibility.

It's unfair on Dublin hurling. There was nothing inevitable about the county's resurgence at senior level.

Nobody would have predicted that Leinster senior title five years ago. And if the Dublin minor or under 21 hurlers do win an All-Ireland, it should be regarded as an historic breakthrough rather than a death knell.

The odd thing is that it's not long since people used to say, "The GAA needs Dublin to win an All-Ireland." This stemmed from the same exaggerated notion of metropolitan importance which inspired guff about Kevin Heffernan and his 1970s team, "saving the GAA". In reality, it's extremely unlikely that the youth of the country, their heads turned by Match of the Day, would have taken up soccer en masse had Galway won the 1974 All-Ireland and Armagh the 1977 one.

Similarly, you hear the statement that "it's important for the GAA to be strong in Dublin". But it's important for the GAA to be strong everywhere. And it tends to thrive no matter who's on top. The record football final attendance, after all, is the 90,556 which saw Down play Offaly in 1961. And when Kerry played Dublin in the 1975 final, a year after Heffernan's rescue act, they did so in front of the second lowest crowd since 1952. We tend to over-estimate the Dublin Factor. It's just another county. A great one, but no more or less important than any other.

And I think it's this over-estimation which has led to the current panicky projections. It reminds me of when the English newspapers ran stories revealing that Romanians and Bulgarians would descend en masse upon Surrey and Hampshire on the day their workers were granted free movement. All planes from those countries to England are booked out, said the papers, and people are paying enormous money to get a ticket.

The brother, who's not inclined to believe the Mail or Express, rang up the airlines and found out there'd be no problem at all getting a ticket. And at a reasonable price too.

That's the problem with moral panics. you see. Everyone knows they're true.

Only the facts say they're not.


James shows how to dunk the bigots

It's no harm to be reminded just what racism sounds like.

It sounds, for one thing, like Donald Sterling, owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, telling his girlfriend Vanessa Stiviano, "It bothers me a lot that you want to promo, broadcast, that you're associating with black people. Do you have to? . . . Just saying, in your lousy fucking instagrams, you don't have to have yourself with, walking with black people . . . the little I ask you is not to promote it on that and not to bring them to my games . . . Don't put him (Magic Johnson) for the world to have to see . . . And don't bring him to my games."

Quite something from a man who owns a team whose star player, Chris Paul, is black, whose manager, Doc Rivers, is black and which plays in a league 70 per cent of whose players are black. Though perhaps not surprising for a man who's had in the past to pay out several million dollars after being sued by the US government for discriminating against black people when renting property.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver acted decisively by banning Sterling for life from games and fining him $2.5m. The NBA are also hoping to force him to sell the Clippers with one of the possible buyers being the owner of Major League Baseball side the Los Angeles Dodgers, Earvin Johnson Junior. Or, as he's better known, Magic Johnson.

Johnson's tweet, 'Commissioner Silver showed great leadership', was just one of the approving reactions from major basketball figures. Shaquille O'Neal weighed in with, 'Way to go, Commissioner Silver! The NBA stands for everybody', while LeBron James commented, 'Thank you for protecting our beautiful and powerful league!! Great leader!!'

Yet perhaps a more interesting reaction from James, the league's biggest star, came in the immediate aftermath of the comments when he declared, "As a commissioner of our league, you have to make a stand and you have to be very aggressive about it. I don't know what it's gonna be, but you just can't have that in our league. There's no room for Donald Sterling in our league. There's no room for him."

It's possible that those comments sealed Sterling's fate. And it also showed the difference between James and Michael Jordan who, when asked in 1990 to endorse the black politician Harvey Gantt in his senate campaign against thunderingly racist right winger Jesse Helms, refused on the grounds that "republicans wear sneakers too".

James is a more assertive character who two years ago wore 'RIP Trayvon Martin', on his sneakers in memory of the unarmed 17-year-old gunned down in Florida by a security guard and led his Miami Heat team-mates in a tribute to the youngster. He's the kind of man who wouldn't have let Sterling or the NBA slither away from this with insincere apologies and half measures.

Like I said, it's no harm to be reminded of what racism is really like, especially at a time when the default mode of too many cheap opinion columnists is a kind of nod and wink bigotry.

In reality, as LeBron James and his fellow players know, racism is a serious business. When some moronic Villarreal fan threw a banana at Barcelona's Dani Alves during a La Liga match last week, it didn't seem all that funny.

It reminded me of when I was a teenager, watching Match of the Day and seeing John Barnes making his way down the wing to the accompaniment of monkey chants. And then going to The Showgrounds in Sligo and seeing Derry City's Nelson Da Silva and Owen Da Gama get the same treatment from our fans.

People who complain about 'PC gone mad' should remember that there are worse things than Political Correctness, racism for starters. And also that PC is just another name for good manners.


Brave Karam still last line of defence

Irish rugby fans of a certain vintage may remember fullback Joe Karam who in 1974 gave a bravura performance at Lansdowne Road when scoring all the points as the All Blacks defeated Ireland 15-6.

A year later, Karam became the New Zealand equivalent of Ireland's Ken Goodall and Wales' Keith Jarrett, the prodigy who jumped ship to rugby league when he seemed on the way to becoming an all-time great. Like Goodall and Jarrett, Karam had an unhappy time in rugby league and quit the game a couple of years later.

You'd imagine that would have been all she wrote as far as headlines went for Joe Karam. But a fortnight ago he was awarded $535,000 in the New Zealand High Court in a defamation case. The case arose because of Karam's support for David Bain who in 1995 was convicted of murdering his father, mother and three siblings in Dunedin. Karam led the campaign to prove Bain's innocence, visiting him over 200 times in prison, writing four books on the case and spending most of his business fortune in the process.

Initially, Karam admitted that "the mainstream media, judiciary and politicians just thought of me as a raving redneck who'd lost the plot". But in 2007 Bain's conviction was quashed and a retrial ordered, with Bain found innocent in 2009.

Karam had to endure vilification on the internet which led to the case which has seen him receive one of the largest libel awards ever in New Zealand. He was one of the great might-have-beens of rugby but there's been more than a little All Black grit in what Joe Karam's done since.

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