Eamonn Sweeney: Why the forthcoming GAA football season fills me with dread
Last week, Longford football manager Denis Connerton revealed that 40 per cent of the players he asked to join the county panel turned him down. "So many guys don't wish to play county football," said Connerton. "This seems to be a progressive trend over the past few years. Much of the talk last year was about the absence of players. I'm afraid the same talk is going to be happening again this year."
Meanwhile, former Tipperary hurling and Munster Rugby physiotherapist John Casey described young inter-county GAA players as "institutionalised", and noted that: "The guys in the middle of it or coming to the end of it are realising that the sacrifices they made through family and social life and career-wise are colossal. Some of the guys that have been through the process end up quite embittered. While it was glorious at the time, the long-term repercussions are life-lasting."
And after Armagh got beaten by Cavan in the McKenna Cup, their manager Kieran McGeeney embarked on an epic whinge which appeared to blame refereeing decisions on a comment made by Pat Spillane 13 years ago. The McKenna Cup for God's sake. Thirteen years. Thirteen bloody years. Welcome to GAA 2016.
I'd have to say that, for the first time in my life, the forthcoming inter-county season fills me with a certain amount of dread. At first I thought this might have been indicative of some general lowness of spirits, perhaps brought on by a combination of the incessant rain, an overdose of Quality Street at Christmas and watching Vautour getting run down in the King George VI Chase when I was already deciding how to spend the money.
But no. I'm looking forward to lots of things in 2016: Cheltenham, the European Championships, the NFL play-offs, the Majors in golf, the Six Nations, the local club football championships. It's just the inter-county championships which seem to have lost their lustre. Contemplating the football championship in particular gives me the same feeling you get when watching the opening credits of a Lars Von Trier movie: a bleak realisation that there's not going to be a lot of joy on display in this one.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Denis Connerton's story is not the number of players who don't want to play inter-county but the number who still do. Months of hard slog to prepare for a number of matches utterly disproportionate to the amount of training done, most of which won't matter very much. A style of football which has become so negative that the result is the only thing which matters.
A growing authoritarianism among managers. And at the end of it all, almost inevitable failure given that only a few counties are ever going to actually win anything. It says a lot about the prestige of the GAA within Irish society that there are still plenty of young men prepared to take on this often thankless task. But increasingly they're being short-changed.
For one thing, it's ludicrous that teams who won't begin championship football till the summer have already been back in harness for some time. The GAA tried to tackle this by introducing a closed season but a host of complaints forced them to water it down until it is now largely meaningless. Last season, half of the teams involved in the football championship were permitted to start training on December 1, while a quarter of them were allowed to get going in November.
The reasoning behind this was apparently that since these teams were knocked out early in the championship, the gap between June and July to January would be too long for a manager to work the miracle required to turn them into contenders. But in actual fact this 'solution' is about the best illustration you can get of the bizarre imbalance between training and competitive matches at GAA level. What the eliminated teams actually need is games in the second half of the season. What they get is yet more training sessions before the season begins.
The big problem is that these sessions are by and large a waste because the miracle rarely occurs. The players who are training earlier could have been left in peace for another couple of months for all the good that's being done. Faced with another year on this treadmill, is it any wonder all those Longford players gave it the thumbs down?
All this excessive training is justified by vague references to the raising of standards. But on an individual county level, there are few dramatic improvements in performance. In fact the manager who observes in a puzzled fashion after the county makes a quick exit from the championship that the lads had put in a hundred-plus hard sessions has become proverbial.
And on an overall level only the most Panglossian of optimists would maintain that either football or hurling are currently enjoying a golden age. In fact there are worrying signs that the latter may be adopting the utilitarian attitude which has made the former such a trial to watch. Hurling at least has seen no decline in its basic skills. Football has, yet those who defend the current incarnation are fond of saying that what we're watching is a different kind of game which can't be judged by the standards of old.
Believing this requires adherence to what used to be called the Whig Theory of History, which basically holds that we are forever progressing in the direction of greater efficiency and enlightenment. Yet sceptics would counter that while current training regimes undoubtedly make inter-county players better suited to triathlon than ever before, they don't seem to do much for them as footballers. Sometimes it seems as though all this conditioning is its own justification or exists simply so boasts can be made about the fitness of GAA players vis a vis their professional counterparts, boasts which no-one outside this country can hear anyway.
The fact that football and hurling don't actually have any outside competitors should be an advantage for the GAA. A proper closed season would harm no-one. A small drop in the levels of player fitness, which are already superfluous for the job in hand, especially if balanced by an increase in skill levels, would actually make for a more open and attractive game. Less really could be more.
Yet managers are wedded to the idea that the road to paradise is paved with endless training sessions. This Stakhanovite approach may be hellishly difficult for players but to a certain extent it constitutes an easy way out for managers. An unsuccessful one can merely cite those hundred-plus nights as proof that he did all he could. It makes him look like he's doing something.
John Casey's use of the word 'institutionalised' should strike a chord. Because it is striking how robotic the style of football played by so many teams is at present and also how managers seem determined to stamp out individuality and freedom of expression.
From this point of view, the success of Jim McGuinness with Donegal has been a bad influence because it's persuaded less thoughtful managers that a dictatorial approach is necessary. Like him or hate him, there is no denying that McGuinness is an exceptional individual with a certain genius for management. And the Donegal team he took over was an unusual case in that it was full of talented players who had collectively underperformed for years. The scope and potential for improvement were huge. McGuinness's achievement is not one which can be repeated easily, if at all.
Bad things happen when people try to copy the work of geniuses. Ulysses is one of the world's great books but it was responsible for many, many unreadable successors. Led Zeppelin were as fine a rock band as there ever was but they bear a certain responsibility for both Prog and Hair Metal. Similarly, the success of Jim McGuinness seems to have persuaded quite a few managers that a team is a kind of commando unit and should be trained in the same way. I suspect they think the only reason Sisyphus didn't get the rock up the hill is that he forgot there's no 'me' in 'myth.'
That's another reason why players are increasingly turning down the opportunity to wear their county jersey. Why those who opt in have shorter inter-county careers and, as John Casey said, end up filled with resentment about the sacrifices made. Why most championship games are boring. And why eventually, if those at the top keep thinking boredom and suffering are proofs of authenticity and seriousness of purpose rather than appalling blights on our games, spectators will start drifting away.
That won't be Pat Spillane's fault either.
Sunday Indo Sport