Tuesday 17 September 2019

Colm O'Rourke: 'Let's tackle the elephant in the room'

Apart from Paul Mannion (above) there are at least six Kilmacud players who would get on any county team — except Dublin. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Apart from Paul Mannion (above) there are at least six Kilmacud players who would get on any county team — except Dublin. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

We have to talk about Dublin and by extension, everywhere else. That causes complications. It elicits a strong response from the normal quarters so it is difficult to make any case without the debate turning into something unintended.

So it would be nice if the debate on the future role of Dublin at both club and county level was conducted free from prejudice. It would also be nice if it's free from the standard reply of players who, almost like they're following a rehearsed script, will argue that Dublin's success is down to all the volunteers who put in an enormous amount of work when players are coming up through the ranks. We all know that. It is not the point.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

It should also be free from former players saying that Dublin have only won a relatively small amount over the last 50 years and nobody mentioned any changes to the status of Kilkenny or Kerry when they were hoovering up All-Irelands. That is not the point either.

And the clowns who could not help themselves but launch into a tirade of abuse about my writings on a debate about splitting up Dublin after this year's All-Ireland are certainly not the point either.

And free from administrators arguing that the population and financial clout of Dublin does not give it an unfair advantage. They are missing the point altogether, but naturally enough self-preservation is the key there.

This debate is unlikely to come at central level for some time. John Costello, the Dublin chief executive, has no interest in it, neither has the president John Horan, from Dublin, and it does not appear to be on the radar of Tom Ryan, who has spent a lot of time involved with Dublin club hurling. It is up to him mainly to plot a course for the next decade and let us all know his vision.

In some respects it is a very bad time to question anything about Dublin. The easy thing for opponents to say when Dublin are on top is that the arguments are borne out of envy, jealousy or worse. That the problem lies with poor standards elsewhere and people should look after their own business rather than interfering with the brand that is successful. There is certainly merit in identifying the failures in many counties, none more so than in Meath, but that does not tackle the issue.

Even when this great Dublin team are beaten, the issue will remain that the natural advantages of the capital city and county are such that few counties will be competitive again (many never were), but also more importantly that the present model of the GAA in Dublin is not good for the organisation long term. Maybe not even for Dublin itself where it is still a struggle for the GAA to gain traction in plenty of city areas. Football has become a middle-class game and old working-class communities play soccer primarily rather than football or hurling. There is a need for more clubs.

GAA Newsletter

Expert GAA analysis straight to your inbox.

There is also a major issue of player opportunity which should be addressed. Few players will get the chance to play with Dublin relative to the numbers available, even some of the very best. Over the last few weeks I have watched Kilmacud Crokes in the flesh twice. First in the Dublin county final and last week against Dunboyne in the Leinster club championship.

Dunboyne were certainly way below their usual standard, yet at the same time I could not help but think that there are at least six Kilmacud players who would get on almost all county teams, except Dublin of course. That is leaving out Paul Mannion, whose standard of play is in a different league altogether. Are they lucky to be born in Dublin and playing with a great club side or unfortunate that they have no chance of playing county football?

Opinions may differ on this, but every player would like to test themselves at the highest possible level. Should they be allowed to declare for someone else? Should other counties be allowed to approach players in Dublin clubs who would make a big difference to their cause?

Perhaps those in positions of influence might give their views on that. A type of transfer system. Obviously many of the weaker counties would not be attractive in this context, so it would only benefit a few. Yet something is needed to rebalance a county game which is less and less competitive.

Kilmacud may not win the Leinster or All-Ireland club championship this year, but they would beat half the county teams in the country. In some ways the success and brilliant organisation of clubs like Kilmacud and Ballyboden, who can turn out over a hundred teams, also reflects other issues which need discussion within Dublin. At what point are clubs too big? Would more clubs attract more players?

This is a growing city problem which is in absolute contrast to many rural clubs who are finding it increasingly difficult to field teams at underage level. Smaller families and falling population as a result of planning laws is destroying not just clubs but rural life as well. Who has a plan for that? GAA clubs have to amalgamate, sometimes two or three clubs to field an underage team. The strong get stronger, the weak get trampled on.

I thought of this when I saw on TV recently that the power stations of the midlands are closing - an absolute hammer blow to a lot of rural areas. To the GAA club, to the local national school, the post office, the shop, the pub, everything that binds these communities together. Maybe I missed something but I see nobody shouting stop or offering any hope that people can continue to live in the place where they want to raise their family.

Then there is the first-world problem of continued Dublin domination. Of course it will end in its present form, but because the resources in terms of players, finance, coaching and management are vastly superior to everywhere else, any Dublin setback will be temporary.

This does not entitle counties to give up, but a proud county like Offaly is losing more than bogs and power stations. Up to 20 years ago Offaly could take on Dublin as equals. It is not going to happen again unless I'm reading the tea leaves wrongly. This is now a mini taking on a juggernaut.

The very obvious thing to do is to divide Dublin up into several different teams. That suggestion causes palpitations among the Dublin hierarchy who just want to let the good times roll. That recommendation was made more than 15 years ago by a committee of top brains in Croke Park but has been ignored by all those at central level since, and of course Dublin swept it under the carpet as fast as possible. There it remains, depriving hundreds of young Dublin footballers of playing underage for some Dublin team and ensuring great adult footballers are frozen out.

Would Dublin supporters warm to these divisions and turn out in numbers in Croke Park? Would there be more at Dublin Fingal versus Dublin South than Dublin against Wicklow or Wexford? Even Jim Gavin can't make that look exciting. The present Leinster Championship is a dead duck. It is not retrievable. Hoping that something will turn up is not a policy.

So the GAA trudges on. It will hardly die out anywhere, even in places where the population of young people continues to decline through temporary emigration or a permanent fall in numbers, often not assisted by local authority planning where the future in the eyes of planners seems to be about shoehorning everyone into towns instead of creating plenty of vibrant villages. Local pride dictates that some sort of a team takes the pitch, nobody wants to let the light go out on their watch. These are also the societal issues which threaten the GAA.

So this is where city and country collide. Dublin is one side of the coin and much of the midlands reflects the other. If somebody in authority is suggesting that Dublin county and clubs get bigger and stronger and rural Ireland decays then we have a serious problem. Because by doing nothing that is exactly the implication.

Soon, new rules will emerge which will attempt to tackle the drift towards repetitive handpassing in football which is boring supporters to the point where they are choosing not to watch games. That is a problem.

Much more urgent, though, is the silent destruction of the GAA where rural clubs are struggling to field teams and where there is a complete lack of competition at county level. This is a structural issue which must start with a debate on Dublin. If things are allowed to drift for another ten years then the GAA as a national movement will be a much lesser organisation. The success of Dublin as a county and the sheer scale of their clubs won't paper over those cracks. The original design of the GAA was one of a socialist mass movement. Now it has become elitist. I don't like the drift.

Sunday Indo Sport

The Throw-In: 'Jim Gavin has achieved what Mick O'Dwyer and Brian Cody couldn't do'

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Also in Sport