Friday 23 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Lamentable, laughable, ludicrous - argument for hurling restructure ticks all the boxes

‘Such impositions reflect the feeling among the Croke Park hierarchy that too much democracy is a bad thing’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘Such impositions reflect the feeling among the Croke Park hierarchy that too much democracy is a bad thing’ Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

The restructuring of the hurling championship is, according to Waterford County Board chairman Paddy Joe Ryan, "One of the worst decisions in GAA history." It's a pretty large claim given that picking the worst GAA decisions is a bit like ranking the greatest Bob Dylan albums. There are just so many to choose from.

This is, after all, the Association which has given us The Ban, the suspension of Tony Keady for no good reason, the Sky TV deal, the Tommy Murphy Cup and sundry other classics. But while last week's special congress decision may not quite be Blonde on Blonde, it is at the very least Highway 61 Revisited.

The interesting thing about the adverse reactions to the change is that they've come from so many different quarters. There has been criticism from club managers, Ballygunner boss Fergal Hartley noting that, "Other than bringing the All-Ireland final dates back by a few weeks, what's there for club players?" and from former inter-county stars, Limerick's Stephen McDonagh predicting smaller attendances at games and Clare's Niall Gilligan making the important point that, "Club players are getting a raw deal everywhere and I doubt if the changes will make any great difference. I don't think there was anything wrong with the way the All-Ireland championship was run. We had great provincial and All-Ireland championships this year and I can't see the need for change on that front."

Tipperary football manager Liam Kearns declared: "I don't think the plans have been thought out very well and there could be a lot of chaos in relation to this." The Meath and Cork county boards have said the changes will make it much more difficult for them to schedule club fixtures. There has been a torrent of complaints from members of the Club Players' Association. "If you were to give a committee the task of destroying hurling completely then surely this system would be seen as a very good plan indeed," said Ger Loughnane. "They might as well go the whole hog and change the Association's name to the GFA, the Gaelic Football Association."

It takes quite a bit of talent to unite such disparate strands of opinion against you but the GAA have managed it all the same. But the worst thing is not that the restructuring is a stupid decision, it is that it is a stupid decision which did not need to be made.

Cast your mind back to the glory days of the hurling championship. Back through the mists of time to the distant past. Or, as it's also known, last month. I know it's a long time ago but bear with me and try really hard to remember. Can you recall anyone saying that the hurling championship was in a bad way and needed a comprehensive restructuring? Nope, thought not. Nobody said it.

The best GAA ideas come from the grassroots, the great example of this being the decision to open up Croke Park to soccer and rugby a decade and a half ago. Those at the top of the organisation, with the noble exception of then president Seán Kelly, either ran scared of the idea or actively tried to frustrate it. It was meetings at club level which forced the issue back onto the agenda at congress and grassroots pressure which led to the GAA making the right decision. That's how things should be in a democratic organisation whose basic unit is the club.

There was no demand for last week's restructuring from the clubs for the very simple reason that they know it will cut further into the time available to them for the playing of local championship games. This is an idea, like most bad ideas, imposed from the top down.

Such impositions reflect the feeling among the Croke Park hierarchy that too much democracy is a bad thing. Their media supporters like to use phrases like 'unwieldy decision-making process'. In plain English 'unwieldy decision-making process' simply means 'putting things to a vote'. Even the customary rubber-stamping of Croke Park decisions by delegates is too much democracy for these folks to handle. They'd prefer 'a more streamlined decision-making process,' which simply means a small group of people at the top of the Association taking the decisions for everyone else, as was the case with the Sky deal.

The Polish political philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once observed that the reason so many intellectuals were drawn to Communism was that its idea of a select group at the top making all the decisions was irresistible to people convinced they knew better than everyone else. Similarly, the reason that so many journalists like the idea of dictatorship, sorry I meant 'streamlined decision-making', in the GAA is that they also like to think they're better informed than the plebs. From their point of view and that of the administrators, grassroots opposition to any GAA decision, whether the Sky deal or restructuring, matters not one jot.

This unearned arrogance leads to bad decisions. They're bad because since their architects don't see the need to address grassroots opinion, they haven't thought their positions through. Why would you when you have no respect for the opposing point of view?

That's why the justifications for the restructuring have been so lamentably, laughably, ludicrously weak. Dónal Óg Cusack's statement that "any change is better than no change," may be spectacularly vacuous but it's important because it captures a mindset which has led to many terrible decisions in this country.

This mentality is a holdover from the Tiger era when it gave us such gems as the computer voting machines disaster, the proposal to spend a billion on the Bertie Bowl, the idea that you could hold the Olympics in Dublin, ghost estates all over the country and eventually national financial ruin. When anyone objected to these ideas, the answer from the relevant geniuses was usually along the lines of, "Any change is better than no change".

It's as foolish a line now as it was then because not all new ideas are good ones. I can remember when it was mooted that Croke Park be replaced by a new stadium in Athlone, and later by one in Clondalkin. History has not been kind to those examples of bold new thinking. It was once an article of faith among all 'progressive' GAA types that the provincial championships should be replaced by an open draw system. In reality, attendances would have nosedived under such a system and the championships would have been severely weakened. Yet I can remember when the open draw was all the rage.

There was once general agreement among chin-rubbing types that the problem with Gaelic football was that 'there's no tackle' and that we should import the tackle from Australian rules. Thankfully this did not come to pass and we were spared the sight of every player on the pitch doing on a regular basis what Seán Cavanagh did against Monaghan a few years back. Gaelic football, it turned out, needed to be less, and not more, like rugby.

Yet the idea that the novel is always good persists in some quarters. One poor unfortunate declared during the week that hurling is bound for a 'brave new world'. Said unfortunate got very excited about the fact that in this BNW we might have 'a Leinster hurling final played in Galway.'

That's what we've always wanted, isn't it? A Leinster hurling final in Galway, in a stadium so unloved only 18,000 went to the Connacht football final there this year even though the home team were playing. I'm sure Kilkenny and Wexford fans will relish the opportunity of being dragged halfway across the country to Pearse Stadium's windswept acres. Brave New World my arse.

Decisions like last week's also receive support from people who think that decisions made by people in authority are always good merely because they've been made by people in authority. There are always a few of those around. I blame colonialism and the church myself.

They're the guys who'll always defend a bad GAA idea by screeching, "Give it a chance, give it a chance willya. You can't say it won't work till it's been tried". And when the bad idea doesn't work, as happened with the Sky deal, what do they say? "Well, it's there now. We might as well make the best of it."

Yet it didn't take any great perspicacity to predict that Sky's GAA viewership figures would be disastrous. Neither does it require much foresight to see that the 'Super 8' format is the recipe for a lot of bad and uncompetitive football given the competitive imbalance revealed in this year's All-Ireland quarter-finals. You don't have to eat an egg to know it's rotten. The smell gives it away.

The new hurling championship structure stinks too, of arrogance and egotism at the top and of a complacent assumption that no matter how you mess with the championships the crowds will always come back because, being GAA people, they have no choice.

And when next year's provincial championships, entirely lacking the sudden death element which enthralled us this summer, limp on in their unexciting, attenuated way, what will the plan's architects say? They'll say it was worth a try, who could have predicted things would turn out like this?

After all, it seemed like such a great idea at the time.

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