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Friday 20 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Who's screwing who on GAA's love island?'

'What's good for Dublin, as far as Croke Park is concerned, is good for the GAA'

'A certain disparity is probably inevitable given that the semi-final and final should be played in Croke Park. But why don't the GAA redress the balance at a stage of the competition where this is possible, namely the Super 8?' Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
'A certain disparity is probably inevitable given that the semi-final and final should be played in Croke Park. But why don't the GAA redress the balance at a stage of the competition where this is possible, namely the Super 8?' Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The Super 8 is a bit like Love Island. Bear with me. Obviously, I wouldn't watch Love Island in a fit. But as it's de rigueur to spice up your copy with references to this key artefact of the modern age, why not join in the fun?

Most of Love Island's audience, or so I'm informed, watch in the hope of witnessing some bedroom gymnastics. The football championship also possesses an erotic dimension but with one important difference. In the Super 8 almost all contestants are screwed before the series starts.

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Look at Roscommon. Their reward for beating Mayo and Galway away from home to win the Connacht Championship is two away games, against Dublin and Cork. No other county has to put up with this; they all have one home, one away and one neutral match.

Except for Dublin who'll have two home and one away game, making their task twice as easy as Roscommon's. Such obvious unfairness would hardly be tolerated by viewers of the most tawdry reality TV show.

Making it even worse is the fact that when Dublin reach the All-Ireland final, they'll have played four of their last five games at home. No other county has the opportunity of more than one home game out of five.

A certain disparity is probably inevitable given that the semi-final and final should be played in Croke Park. But why don't the GAA redress the balance at a stage of the competition where this is possible, namely the Super 8? There's no justification for giving Dublin one more home game than everyone else there. It privileges finance over fairness.

Those at the top of the GAA seem to see it as a business rather than a sporting organisation. From that point of view, it makes perfect sense to skew things in the direction of the county with the biggest number of fans. What's good for Dublin, as far as Croke Park is concerned, is good for the GAA. So Dublin get two home Super 8 games while everyone else gets one and just has to suck it up.

It used to be that those defending Dublin's perpetual home advantage would say, with the pedantic glee of someone telling you the tomato is a fruit, that actually Dublin's home ground is Parnell Park.

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This was always nonsense and has been proven to be so by Dublin playing their official home game in the Super 8 at Croke Park. Perhaps the GAA should insist that game is played at Parnell Park.

That would at least highlight the anomalous situation where the GAA's wealthiest county has the 27th largest county ground (Cork and Waterford have two stadiums bigger than Parnell Park). Being able to use Croke Park as their de facto home has prevented Dublin from having to use any of their financial resources to develop a proper county ground, a considerable expenditure for many other counties which increases the imbalance.

Dublin's Michael Darragh Macauley faces Cork's Thomas Clancy. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin's Michael Darragh Macauley faces Cork's Thomas Clancy. Photo: Sportsfile

Lately, the popular line in defence of Dublin's extra home game has been that their rivals wouldn't really relish beating the Dubs unless they'd done it in Croke Park. This got plenty of airing when Congress delegates voted to preserve Dublin's advantage earlier this year.

Every time I hear this argument, I'm reminded of James Connolly's immortal Labour, Nationality and Religion, a rebuttal of a series of sermons against socialism given by one Fr Kane SJ in 1910. Noting the priest's comment, "Stand back socialist! We will take our chance in the struggle of life," Connolly remarks: "It is very amusing to hear a man, to whom a comfortable living is assured, assure us that we ought to tell the socialist that we will take our chance in the struggle of life."

It's just as amusing to hear a bunch of old-stagers insist other teams welcome the challenge of beating Dublin away from home. These men neither have to play against Dublin nor manage teams which play against them.

Their talk is cheap. Was Limerick's hurling title last year rendered second class because it didn't include a victory over Galway in Pearse Stadium? Is there something counterfeit about Dublin's four-in-a-row because it lacked victories over Kerry in Killarney, Mayo in Castlebar or Donegal in Ballybofey?

There's no end to the foolish arguments employed to justify tilting the scales in Dublin's direction. Maintaining the pretence that, despite all the money poured in, the county enjoys no material advantages at all requires enormous sophistry and cynicism.

Up to a few months ago, it was generally accepted that the GAA was an organisation full of volunteers second to none in their dedication. But since the raising of the Dublin money question, it's suggested that the real advantage the capital possesses is that Dublin volunteers just work harder than others.

The GAA outside Dublin, it suddenly emerges, is full of dossers who're just not making the effort. Witness Marty Morrissey's immortally sycophantic question to Dublin County Board's chief executive John Costello: "Do ye get annoyed when there is criticism of how much money you get? Is it begrudgery? Is your reaction to say, 'Well lads, ye get your house in order. We've done it'."

Dublin's defenders, it appears, are quite willing to insult every other county in the GAA, if that's what it takes to justify the status quo. That Dublin received €17.9m in coaching and game development grants from Croke Park between 2007 and 2018, whereas Mayo got €718,780 and Donegal €704,938, is beside the point. If you'd given the rural counties proper funding they'd probably have spent it on drink.

The increasingly insupportable position whereby a county the size of the province looks set to permanently dominate the football championship is one of two main problems facing the GAA. The relentless downgrading of club competition is the other.

Croke Park will do nothing to tackle either problem. Instead there's pointless tinkering driven by presidents obsessed with leaving a legacy. But the only presidents anyone will remember are those like Peter Quinn, Joe McDonagh and Seán Kelly who effected serious change. Changing Minor to under-17 and under-21 to under 20, scrapping under-12 competition, inventing the Super 8 and now coming up with the even more pointless two-tier football championship are piffling achievements by comparison.

Last weekend Cavan and Laois were within one game of reaching the Super 8. They suffered the third and fourth heaviest defeats of the entire qualifier series. Rather hilariously, Laois' defeat came at the hands of Cork who under one of the GAA's new proposals could be playing in a tier below them next year.

The two-tier proposals are nonsense because there are not two distinct tiers in Gaelic football. There are perhaps half a dozen counties at the top and the same amount at the bottom with little significant difference between everyone else.

A new system would have Down, who lost to Armagh by one point and Mayo by five, playing at a level below both those teams and Longford, who drew with Kildare and lost to Tyrone by four points, placed in a different competition to those opponents.

For all the caterwauling about the horrendous defeats inflicted upon football's lesser lights there weren't that many this year. The two-tier championship is a solution to a problem which doesn't really exist, a big change just for the hell of it. Former Down star Benny Coulter has predicted that players will ignore it, as they ignored its predecessor, the Tommy Murphy Cup.

He's right. Do you know how much media interest there'll be in tier-two football? Here's a clue. It rhymes with Rockall. Nearly. But GAA president John Horan is as keen on propelling half of football's counties into this twilight zone as he is determined to ensure that the issue of Dublin dominance remains unaddressed on his watch.

The shock Laois win over Dublin this day last week showed the GAA at its best. It also showed the upside of allowing the smaller counties to compete with the big guns. How many beatings have Laois taken over the years from their perceived superiors? None of them seemed to matter last Sunday.

That win over Dublin will mean more to the county's followers than a hundred Joe McDonagh Cup victories. It showed that dismissing weaker counties on the basis that, 'Everyone knows they'll never beat X', is wrong-headed. This morning last week everyone knew the Joe McDonagh Cup qualifiers were going to get hammered by Cork and Dublin.

In his demolition of Fr Kane, James Connolly commented, "If one of the boys at the National Schools could not reason more logically than that, he would remain in the dunce's seat all his schooldays."

It's lucky he never had to listen to John Horan.

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