Westmeath find the right mix of focus and craic to stand tallest in a competitive field
FOR a majority of my time playing with Sligo, I was boring. Always was, and still am, most would say. I probably allowed myself to get stereotyped as the ‘serious’ one.
Bear with me as I, in a way, self-congratulate.
Playing with Sligo, I wanted to win – badly. I was desperate to emulate my heroes. I wanted to leave the jersey in a better place for those coming behind. I was far from alone in our squad.
That said, it has to be acknowledged that not every player outside the top counties are ‘serious’. Most squads strive to have a majority in this space, but there will also be some players with an aloofness to ambition. Players who have spent too much time being told they should know their place in the GAA world. Tick the boxes, get the gear, get the travel expenses.
It’s easy to be seen as the ‘serious’ eejit in dressing rooms with some of these aloof lads around. Eejit, never the word used openly – but always implied.
Genuinely, I did enjoy the craic.
Now, even a ‘serious’ eejit like me thinks we have gone too far away from craic.
The GAA as an organisation needs to take itself a little less seriously. Embrace the chaos and personality of its players, clubs and supporters. Laugh at our own imperfections. Fun can be combined with on-field improvements.
Time to practise what I preach. Laugh at myself. I ended up with the nickname ‘Bob’, a story for another day. The inaugural Tailteann Cup deserves an inaugural set of awards. In the spirit of craic, let’s call them ‘The Bobs’.
A combination of mostly light-hearted with some more considered recognitions from the season. Congratulations, and commiserations, to the winners of the 2022 Bobs.
Manager of the Year: Michael Maher (London). Holding a squad together in a metropolis, with all the distractions and travel that entails, is no small feat. Doing so while waiting around six weeks after a disappointing championship defeat adds to this.
To then cross the Irish Sea and put Sligo to the very pin of their collar was remarkable. No doubt he leveraged his underdog spirit. A spirit garnered while nearly guiding non-league Redhill to the FA Cup first round.
Best Dressed: None. Despite the best efforts of Mick McDonagh in modelling Offaly’s latest numbers, there was no catwalk-ready Tailteann Cup jersey. The time has come for a GAA manager to step things up and match their sartorially superior soccer counterparts. Let us look forward to an angry Ballinaglera man berating Andy Moran’s choice of suit after an under-par Leitrim performance.
I have even gone to the trouble of organising a sponsor for next year’s award. Time for a player, manager or backroom staff member to step things up. The esteemed EJ Menswear will crown the 2023 champion of elegance!
Backward Step: Antrim. The county with the third-largest number of clubs in the country. Vibrant club scene. Clear progress under Enda McGinley, however their summer exploits were below expectations. From the outside it was discouraging to read stories of players departing the panel mid-season again.
Andy McEntee did a lot of things right in Meath. He was let down by development structures not producing players ready to take on Dublin. All-Ireland club winner McEntee will bring a passion and no-nonsense attitude. For football, it would be great to see all club players in Antrim eager to invest, long term, in this new start.
Good News Story: New York. Thirteen home-grown players in their squad for their 2022 campaign. An excellent reflection on years of development work on the ground by clubs and the NY county board. This is true growth of the game.
Much more genuine growth of the game than well-to-do backers competing against each other to entice players across the Atlantic for short summer stints.
Biggest Mess: Down. James McCartan has always struck me as an impressive man, and an impressive football man. He took Down from nowhere to an All-Ireland final in his first stint in 2010. His second stint never gathered any momentum.
The county board and clubs need to get together. Air the dirty laundry between four walls. What is stopping Down’s best players from committing to restoring a proud football county to a competitive place? Thrash this out.
We will all be happy to see Conor Laverty have Clones or Hill 16 a swaying sea of red and black.
Quote of the Year: “Yeah, we are Maggie’s brothers. She is at home doing the silage.” – Overheard in Croke Park on semi-final day. Brothers of referee Maggie Farrelly enjoyed some pre-game refreshments.
Moment of the Year: An emotional Kieran Martin and Tom Farrell embracing in the Hogan Stand after Kieran’s game-winning goal in the final. Kieran was a friend of Tom’s son, Eoin, who had sadly passed away recently.
The GAA has a powerful ability to build relationships and bring people together. These binds can help provide crumbs of strength to people experiencing the most difficult of times off the pitch.
Upset of the Year: Carlow v Tipp. Player unavailability early in the season saw Carlow struggle. Tipp negotiated the hurdles of Division 4 to secure promotion. As 2020 Munster champions, the Premier County would have fancied a run towards Tailteann silverware. Carlow knocked this on the head with a 1-12 to 1-10 Round 1 win.
Atmosphere: Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada. There were 3,590 in attendance for Leitrim’s thrilling quarter-final with Sligo. Despite the figure the atmosphere created in this coliseum was surely unmatched at any GAA game this year.
Páirc Seán is a testament to the slog of some dedicated Leitrim Gaels. The ground reflects a county that, relative to population, is probably one of the most passionate in the country.
Each season there are only three or four home games guaranteed. Surely there is a way counties and the GAA can work together to create a package that will ensure 3,500 can be a baseline attendance for all Division 3 and 4 games next season?
Unheralded Job: Alan Costello and Garry Duffy (Wicklow). Mid-season managerial changes are rare. A strong preliminary-round win over Waterford was their only Tailteann Cup success but that doesn’t tell the full story. The duo took over a tricky situation, steadied the ship, and the vibes from the playing group were positive. Success is relative.
Innovation Needed: Friday-night football? A crowded May and June calendar will be further swelled next year with the introduction of group stages in the race for Sam and Tailteann glory.
Can the Tailteann Cup take the opportunity to give players the perfect platform of an empty Friday evening slot?
Identify a game with minimal travel for all. Give players a few weeks’ notice of a date, sell them the beautiful rarity of a Saturday and Sunday off to enjoy as they wish. Line up the TV partners to give it a big sell.
Semi-pro League of Ireland players pull off Friday-night away games. Find a way to make it work for our players.
Hall of Fame: Jack Cooney. The Westmeath manager was relentlessly positive about what the Tailteann Cup would, and did, do for his players and the county.
A quote from the man himself: “The important thing is not to lose the craic and the enjoyment factor. Ask any player and it’s very high on their priority list – and if it’s not there, I’d have to question are we doing the right thing?”
Combine this attitude with then going on to bring the trophy home to a jubilant Mullingar, and we have a justified winner.
Hero Gaelic Football Needs Now: UK union leader Mick Lynch. George Orwell remarked that: “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others”. His words very neatly fit the football world of the last 20-25 years.
We all want a vibrant inter-county scene, where a majority of teams can compete in their provinces – at least a few times a decade.
The GAA needs some socialism. Who is the egalitarian who will ensure every six-year-old across the country that picks up an O’Neill’s has the opportunity to be the best adult footballer possible?
Ultras of the Year: Evan Lyons’s Fan Club. A few major soccer clubs are known for their famous, or infamous, ‘ultras’ supporters. Ultras are fans known for their eh, extreme, support of their beloved teams and players. It was great to see a GAA version emerge this year.
Like any inaugural running there is plenty of room to tweak and improve based on experience and feedback.
Let’s embrace that opportunity. Tweak, improve and evolve the Tailteann Cup, and any associated awards!