High time GAA moved to get Railway Cup back on track
IT'S with as much enthusiasm as this column can muster that it lines up in full support behind Noel Walsh in his renewed efforts to prevent the Railway Cup competitions being shunted off the GAA calendar.
Having been dropped this year and with no plans to stage them in 2011, they are very close to the end of the line, which makes it's important for those who believe in them to unite behind Walsh when he storms the corridors of power.
Incidentally, the first essential is to retain the Railway Cup title, rather than the bland, generic 'inter-provincial' tag.
Walsh, a former Munster Council chairman and Presidential candidate, is no misty-eyed veteran who talks nostalgically of when the Railway Cup finals drew crowds of 45,000 to Croke Park on St Patrick's Day while being gently reminded that times are different now.
Walsh was a leading activist in the campaign to end the protectionism which automatically kept Kerry and Cork on opposite sides of the Munster SFC draw up to the early 1990s. He would later become one of the main advocates for lifting the ban on rugby and soccer at Croke Park. So under no circumstances could Walsh be described as a traditionalist.
Opening up the Munster championship boosted Limerick, Clare, Tipperary and Waterford considerably, giving them a whole new incentive and, as for opening Croke Park, the value to the GAA has been obvious over the last four years.
Preserving the Railway Cups has been Walsh's pet project in recent years, a task that has grown increasingly difficult as powerful forces from Central Council and the provincial councils (with the exception of Ulster) seek to find a retirement home for the venerable old competitions.
In fairness, their motives are genuine, if unconvincing. They cite the collapse of public interest, a questionable level of commitment among some players, the difficulty of fitting the competition into an already congested fixtures list and the expense involved as a combination of circumstances that warrant the placing of the cups in the Croke Park museum.
So how valid are those reasons and can they be worked through?
Granted, the big crowds of the 1950s-60s will never be revisited but does a competition have to rely on the size of the attendances for its survival? If so, League of Ireland soccer and All-Ireland League club rugby would have collapsed a long time ago. Indeed, in rugby's pre-professional days, attendances at most inter-provincials were smaller than what the Railway Cups, even in their current troubled state, would attract today.
Besides, it's up to the GAA to devise means of attracting the public and even if that involves free admission to Railway Cup games, so what? Wouldn't it be a nice end-of-season gesture?
As for player commitment, it has waned in some provinces (although not Ulster) but then the competition has been thrown around the calendar like a delinquent that nobody wants to house. For all that, the majority of players still favour its retention.
As for the congested fixtures excuse, it's complete nonsense, certainly in the final quarter of the year. How do most inter-county players spend their time from mid-October until the new year? A tiny minority, which reduces week by week, are involved in the provincial club champion-ships while the rest remain idle. Any wonder that so many turn to soccer and rugby?
Playing the Railway Cups off over two weekends wouldn't solve that problem but it would provide an outlet for some players.
The cost should not be an issue. The Railway Cup is the only competition that provides players with a chance to represent an entity outside club or county in hurling and Gaelic football (International Rules is a hybrid game) so balance sheets should not be allowed to interfere with it.
Far from culling the Railway Cups, the GAA should use its collective intelligence to reinvigorate them. However, the will has to be there and, frankly, there has been little evidence of that over many years.
The Railway Cups have a committed patron in Martin Donnelly, a persistent advocate in Noel Walsh and genuine backing from lots of big names including Mickey Harte and Joe Kernan.
Now, more than ever, those who support the competitions need to impose themselves because the noose is tightening. One quick tug at Congress next April and it could all be over.
A final thought. Sky Sports had live coverage last night of a soccer game between Brentford and Charlton in the semi-final of the southern section of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy. Now, if a contrived competition like that can draw live coverage, surely it would be easy to attract TV interest for GAA games involving many of the best players in their provinces.
Let the battle intensify -- SAVE THE RAILWAY CUPS!