Sunday 22 July 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Dublin split offers more players a chance to shine

Ciaran Reddin of Dublin celebrates with the cup after the Bord na Mona O'Byrne Cup Final
Ciaran Reddin of Dublin celebrates with the cup after the Bord na Mona O'Byrne Cup Final
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

In 2002 the GAA's strategic review committee came up with some every interesting proposals. Looking back 15 years later, the most impressive thing associated with the body chaired by Peter Quinn was the calibre of people involved, from businessmen to future GAA presidents, and the radical conclusions they arrived at on many aspects of the GAA.

As with many impressive GAA reports, the best parts gather dust. A bit like Yes Minister, where someone with a bright idea is told to go off and prepare a report. The report is highly praised and then buried. So it was with many parts of the SRC.

The juicy bit which garnered the headlines in 2002 was the proposal to split Dublin in two - north and south of the Liffey. It was not just thrown out there either. Two minor teams were immediately called for, while the proposal was that there would be two senior teams in the National League in 2004 and the same in the championship in 2005.

Peter Quinn said at the time that, Dublin "can't be considered the preserve of 90 clubs and one county executive". The committee also recommended "sizeable investment in terms of finance and personnel, we recognise that Dublin needs special attention, it's a key strategic matter". So the SRC got everything exactly right except the main part, the split, which, ironically, is something we are normally very good at, whether different paramilitary organisations, unions, clubs or the country itself.

Dublin just ignored it and the whole lot went away as nobody else was brave enough to force through Quinn's proposals once he handed them over. Successive presidents and directors general paid it no heed. It was a case of thanks very much Peter and close the door behind you on the way out.

At that time (2002) the population of Dublin was about 1.12 million. Since then, the population has grown to 1.34 million. The expectation is that in five years' time Dublin will have a population close to 1.5 million. The total population of the Republic in 2016 was in the region of 4.76 million.

There are the lies, damned lies and statistics, as Mark Twain said, but maybe a little comparison would be helpful. Three of the teams that Dublin played against in the first division of the league this year have the following populations: Roscommon 64,000, Cavan 52,000 and Monaghan 60,000. Mayo have about 130,000 residents, although this is probably swollen by another 50,000 during the summer and for All-Ireland finals.

If you make the argument that Dublin is the best thing there is for the GAA in terms of profile, sponsorship, income and colour in Croke Park, then the idea of any change is blown out of the water. You could also factor in the arguments made by former Dublin players that this golden era will not last forever, and there are those from outside who don't want to see change as "it would not be the same beating anything other than a full Dublin side".

So, after 25 Leinster Championships in-a-row and 15 All-Irelands later the argument will be that it might be a good idea but not yet. And old men with grey beards will tell stories about seeing Meath or Kildare beating Dublin and, of course, Kerry managed it too.

Yet few seem to ever ask what the GAA is about. Is it about participation and opportunity, or just winning? Could all of these things be combined, but in a different way to what Real Madrid, Manchester United and some of the big French rugby clubs are doing? We in the GAA should be working to a different model. Socialism is not a popular concept but the GAA is based on equality, community involvement and opportunity for players to perform at the highest level. Without personal gain entering into it. There is nothing else in life or in the big, bad world quite like the GAA model.

Young players aspire to play in Croke Park. If they are from Dublin they first of all want to play for the Dubs in a big match. Apart from the absolute elite, that quickly becomes an unrealistic dream, so the hopes and aspirations are dashed pretty quickly. What they are left with then is club football; nothing wrong with that either if there is a proper games programme in place. However, thousands in Dublin lose out and there is more chance of young players in every other county playing in Croke Park than young Dubs. Is that fair? If you believe in world domination then that is the price you pay.

This year alone Dublin won the O'Byrne Cup in Leinster with their third-string panel. How disenchanted they must have felt after that early-season win when they knew that the vast majority, apart from Niall Scully, Conor McHugh and a few other subs, would never play for Dublin again unless the All-Ireland-winning squad go on another holiday in January.

But they don't count, they are the cannon fodder. Naturally, there are many Dublin supporters who view my comments as coming from a bitter and twisted man who wants to penalise Dublin for their success and the brilliant organisation that is in place on the ground. Well, so be it.

If the proposed changes had been made in 2002 then calls for more radical break-ups would not be surfacing now. The latest census shows the four Dublin districts with the following populations: Dublin city 553,000, Dún Laoghaire 217,000, Fingal 296,000 and South Dublin 278,000. Surely there is a need not just for more than one county side, but also a greater number of clubs too.

Maybe Cork with 125,000 in the city and 416,000 in the county would be better off apart too? A split there would mean that at the very least, there would be the prospect of twice as many rows. In Leinster, the next biggest counties to Dublin are Kildare with 222,000 and Meath 194,000. Both should also be doing better.

It is hardly unrealistic to think that if Dublin was split in 2002 the two would have met in Leinster finals, maybe even All-Irelands. At this stage they would have their own identities, fan base, sponsors and everything else. The ship has sailed on that one, but is it to be 'no surrender' forever and to hell with the consequences for thousands of outstanding players who would get a chance to play county football if they were born anywhere else?

Population or resources don't guarantee anything, but if all the resources are backed up by efficient use then that is a different matter.

The core value of the GAA is that it is a true community organisation and the danger of splitting Dublin two, three or four ways is that this sense of belonging would be lost and that sponsors like AIG would jump ship. If commercial considerations influence us to that extent, then we have truly lost what the GAA is supposed to be.

New clubs spring up in rapidly-expanding urban areas, they take time to put down roots like in Castleknock, but they grow and garner local support over time. Most important of all is that they increase participation rates. Key to that is people working for the good of their community. Would it be any different with more county sides?

Dublin, even in their present form, won't dominate forever. People will look now and say that when Dublin were on top at times in the past, the same calls were made and they then went long stretches without success. What was taken on at the time of the SRC in 2002 was to improve Dublin by clearly identifying the need for substantially more personnel and finance.

That has been a wonderful success through the hard work of thousands of volunteers under John Costello and, more importantly, the effective coaching in schools and clubs by full-time coaches.

The bigger picture was to spread the gospel at county level. Through short-sightedness this has not happened. Peter Quinn was not afraid to step on the lion's tail 15 years ago. It will be more difficult now.

Generosity of spirit is needed in Dublin, but the failure to deliver on the full SRC report has left the GAA in the city and county as the most popularly supported organisation but with the fewest opportunities for young players to get to the top.

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