Colm O'Rourke: 'Let's start looking down under for way to raise our game'
The championship is starting with a big bang this year. Well, not really, it's more of a whimper if the truth be told. Mayo take on New York, a mismatch at Gaelic Park in the Bronx, and it will be similar in London where Galway play the hosts in McGovern Park.
However, as I have often written in the past, these games are more about tribal meetings than football matches. The great Mayo supporters will descend like locusts on the South Bronx, and some mightn't even see the game, but there will be plenty of reunions. It will be a chance for families to meet and friends to get together. It will be a weekend party with a football match of little consequence thrown in.
London will be a similar experience. No two counties have been harder hit by emigration than Mayo and Galway. Many were forced away, as distinct from recent travellers, and settled in New York and London, but they never forgot where they came from and were intensely proud of it too. A lot of money flowed home from emigrants to their families and the football teams of both counties have had a lot of bills paid in sterling and dollars.
The real championship does not start for a while. In fact, it is probably August before the real business begins, when the Super 8 rolls into town, but in the meantime there is the separation of the oats from the chaff.
The schedule for televised games says it all, as it's almost all hurling early on, a sign they have their format right. On the other hand, the provincial championships in football are not worth covering until the finals and in Munster and Leinster, not even then.
In fairness, there will be proper competition in both Ulster and Connacht, although that is different from saying the games will be either attractive or enjoyable. With Tyrone emerging from their pre-Vatican II era there is hope that they can realise that playing winning football does not necessarily have to be about sackcloth and ashes. Hopefully, they will play without fear of 40 lashes for taking a chance, smiling when winning and talking about it afterwards like mature young men to the nation's cameras.
I was in Australia recently and if Tyrone want to win an All-Ireland soon then the missing piece of the jigsaw is alive, well and happy in Melbourne. Conor McKenna plays for Essendon, the Bombers as they are known, and he is a star. Not only that but he enjoys his football and if he was around the Tyrone half-back line or midfield then they could take on any county with absolute confidence.
McKenna is just one of a number of very good Irish players in Melbourne. Mark O'Connor from Kerry was excellent in a game for Geelong which I was at. Zach Tuohy plays for the same club but was injured for that game while Conor Nash from Meath, who is with Hawthorn, is a big loss to Meath and his club Simonstown. Pearse Hanley is on the Gold Coast and Colin O'Riordan is in Sydney.
Another group of younger players are trying to make it but the trickle from Ireland will never be a flood. It is wonderful to see young Irish men getting a chance to experience life and professional sport in another country. The lamenting of players going to Australia from some quarters of the GAA is an embarrassment. Their motto is to wear blinkers, ignore the outside world and stay at home.
It is alright to go to work in technology or finance in some far-off land, but not at professional sport. It is very hard to make it in Australia, having to leave home at a young age, put up with homesickness so far away and then get on a highly-trained team with a different skill-set, never mind a strange-shaped ball. Those who get on a first team in Oz deserve nothing but respect. Anyway, most come home and, if treated properly, will go on to make a big contribution to the GAA.
Our great organisation could learn a lot from Aussie footy. The first lesson is to get rid of the culture of resentment towards those who are successful at something other than the great manly game of the Irish. Maybe it is not a major factor anymore, but it still rankles with a small constituency.
Then there is the promotion of sport. In Melbourne, I attended three footy games, two race meetings and a rugby union match. The common denominator is that all the sports are promoted to the nth degree. All publicity, or nearly all, is looked on as good for the sport. I am reminded of that by the pettiness which is alive and well in the GAA when there is any negativity written or spoken about the organisation.
It applies in all shapes and forms and there are times when, even at my age, I am inclined to tell a few people to catch on to themselves and get off their self-opinionated high horse. The Aussies embrace publicity, it creates constant news items and there is wall-to-wall coverage of the games on TV and in the press. Those who cause the greatest controversies by taking an opposite view are not considered enemies of the people, but rather a vital part of the whole story. Anyway, an old priest once told me when he did not take kindly to someone that he would smother him with kindness.
Attendances at games are amazing. On Anzac Day, last Thursday week, 92,000 attended the game in the Melbourne Cricket Ground between Collingwood and Essendon. They don't worry about owning grounds either, they are there for all. Every week there are several live matches on TV, but attendances do not seem to suffer. Of course it helps that most supporters are members of their clubs, at a cost of around €200 per year, but then get free or substantial discounts on tickets to their home games. Some clubs have up to 100,000 members. I know it is a professional sport, but if you put games on at the right time, promote them properly and have all the good teams playing each other, then the crowds will come.
The hurling community must have been studying this model as this is where they are heading. Incidentally, the worst-attended game was the rugby one. I got a sense it was on a downward spiral as it is considered too dangerous. Soccer is the fastest growing sport with all the emigrants from Asia. Another big and growing sport is women's football and the Aussies have learned a lot from the women's game here.
Back to the dismal early rounds of the championship. The GAA can be a great cultural force and that is not weakened by a proper championship structure for both clubs and counties. If things do not change, the slump in attendances will continue. Maybe it will be a good thing if that happens as it would focus minds very quickly. The Aussies improved their game dramatically by rule changes and a better competition structure and whether the game is amateur or professional makes no difference in that regard. In fact, they looked extensively at our game to improve their own.
Our championship will bore people to distraction until we end up with Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone, Mayo, Galway, Donegal and a couple from Meath, Monaghan, Roscommon, Cavan and Kildare. The right thing would be to start this straight away and leave the whole summer to the clubs. With a proper B championship in place and the winners going to Australia.
In the meantime, the GAA should consider sending people from every county and from all aspects of our game to every club in Australia for a few weeks' education. They would be happy to oblige and it would throw up some new brilliant ideas on how to develop our game. So long as nobody travelling is called Ned Kelly.
Sunday Indo Sport