Saturday 18 November 2017

Club finals show real value in this week of the 'spoofers'

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

This is spoofers' week, the days when they roll the All-Ireland championships, World Cup and Olympics into one and run it off at Cheltenham.

People who, for the rest of the year, wouldn't open the back door if Ruby Walsh tapped on the window begging for a bucket of water while pointing to a panting Kauto Star down the garden, are now unloading opinions on all matters equine.

You know the sort of thing. Eleven-year-olds don't win Gold Cups. X goes better right-handed. Y won't get the hill. JP (no need to mention tax exiles by their full names when sycophants ensure they are well known to everybody but the Revenue Commissioners) fancies Z.

Those who really know their horses accommodate the spoofers with commendable patience, accepting that it's a passing phase which will fade on Friday and won't reappear until Aintree Grand National Saturday.

It's also good fun -- a valuable commodity right now. So is anything that's going well, which is why the GAA should appreciate the AIB All-Ireland club senior finals in a very special way.

Crowds of between 30,000 and 40,000 have been the norm for the last 15 years, proving that interest extends beyond the four competing clubs and their counties.

It wasn't always so. Tiny attendances watched the finals in the early days and while they gradually increased, it wasn't until 1990 that the 15,000 barrier was broken.

Nowadays, it averages over 30,000 -- and is expected to surpass that tomorrow -- which is quite a gathering for two games where many of the players are known locally only. However, the finals have succeeded in becoming an occasion which electrify the clubs involved, energise their counties and, crucially, attract neutrals.

Croke Park is a hugely popular attraction on St Patrick's Day, just as it used to be in the glory days of the Railway Cup finals.

Nothing stands still, of course, and when television coverage -- then a new phenomenon in the GAA -- began to impact negatively on attendances in the 1960s, the GAA's response was to blame the competitions rather than work on keeping crowds up.

All of which goes to prove that it's when things are going well, that the greatest vigilance is required. That's why it's worrying to hear increasing calls for all club championships to be finished by December or, at the latest, January.

In administration terms it may make sense. Complete everything pre-Christmas and remove one pressure point from the busy fixture list early in the year. Logical? Yes. Understandable? Yes. Wise? No.

It's doubtful if the club finals would attract anything like 30,000 if played in December or January. The menu would be the same, but the atmosphere wouldn't. The GAA public associates the finals with St Patrick's Day -- indeed, that's a significant attraction.

Relocate them and there's a big risk of a public backlash. Plus it would leave a void on St Patrick's Day, which would be unthinkable for the GAA. Whether or not the inter-provincials have a future has yet to be decided, but, even if they do, it does not involve playing the finals on St Patrick's Day.

No, it's best to leave the club finals where they are. They are helped, of course, by being perceived as hugely important to those involved, unlike the ridiculous attitude to the Allianz Leagues, where many managers do a huge disservice by talking down the importance of the competition.

You never hear soccer managers in England explicitly devaluing any competition, because they recognise their responsibility to promote the game. Here, many of our GAA brethren are happy to exude the 'ah sure it's only the league' excuse when they lose. The truth is that everybody needs to show enthusiasm if the public are to be encouraged aboard.

That's one of the reasons the club finals do so well. Spoof doesn't get a look in and the GAA public like that in their games, even if they are as happy as anybody else to indulge in it during Cheltenham.

So, it's in that spirit that this column closes with a definitive tip which will be of value: back Midnight Chase each way at 14/1 for the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday.

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