Tuesday 23 January 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Smaller counties should unite to trump big guns

Patrick McBrearty of Donegal in action against Killian Young of Kerry — the crowds were out in force last weekend to watch teams of similar ability. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Patrick McBrearty of Donegal in action against Killian Young of Kerry — the crowds were out in force last weekend to watch teams of similar ability. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Last Sunday was a beautiful day for football, and there was plenty of it.

Big crowds too. Do any of those in positions of influence ask themselves why this is the case while attendances at championship matches decline? It should be self-explanatory. The main reason is that these matches were between teams of similar ability and it is the only time they meet unless they end up clashing in Croke Park in August in an All-Ireland semi-final or final.

There were almost 20,000 in Cavan for the visit of Dublin; a short distance away there was a very healthy crowd for Offaly's visit to Longford in Division 3, roughly 10,000 for Donegal and Kerry, the same sort of crowd for Monaghan and Mayo on Saturday night. A big crowd at Tyrone and Roscommon, five or six thousand in Navan for Meath and Kildare. Even third and fourth division games had some decent crowds. Far off Broadway, there is still plenty of support.

At this time of year people want to see games again and decent weather helps, but qualifier games in summer between sides where there is a vast disparity in ability are a complete turn-off.

Imagine a county board organising a league in spring where all club teams were graded by standard, but only ran one championship in summer that everyone had to play in it whether they were junior, intermediate or senior. There would be an immediate revolt. Yet that is what county boards are willing to accept at national level. The result is a sick game that people are turning their backs on.

It would be interesting if some of the candidates in the upcoming presidential election would come out with an election manifesto which tackled the elephant in the room. None have done so. They are all afraid to do or say anything mildly radical. Each of them says basically the same thing - that something has to be done about fixtures and protecting clubs. Close your eyes and it could have been any election of the last 20, maybe 30, years.

Could people really not consider some alternative that would energise counties, rather than quietly killing them as at present? The reason of course is that candidates for the presidency won't say the obvious - that the provincial championships are the worst thing that ever happened in football. That they are suffocating the game. Yet any mention of change here is seen as hara-kiri, falling on your own sword.

Some day a Trump-type figure might emerge in the GAA and say things that others may not wish to hear. Strip away some of the more outrageous Trump rhetoric and there was a message which resonated with ordinary people who were fed up with the existing system.

Sixty-three million people voted for Trump, they are surely not all stupid. He gave them a message of hope for a better America, whether we like it or not. I do not recall any GAA president giving hope to a weak county in any election. Some day one will. He will say we must abolish this unfair competition, put counties into three different grades, give ten matches at least to all during spring and early summer and have more matches at home in which counties could promote themselves and keep most of the money.

Then on to Croke Park for the knockout stages with every county guaranteed a couple of games earlier in the great arena. Possible, yes, and easily done too.

Imagine Dublin away to Kerry on a nice Saturday evening in May or June. There will be a huge crowd there on March 18 when they meet in the league, but on a pleasant summer's evening? Well, 30,000 would be a minimum as the Dubs supporters would just love the weekend away.

It is a novelty getting them out of town at present, but if they had five games on the road in a newly-designed All-Ireland it would mean crowds, atmosphere and revenue in provincial towns.

GAA politicians will always put up the argument that the loss of the provincial championships would result in a big drop in revenue.

That is small-minded thinking. Never ventured, never gained. And at a stroke it would end most of the annual exodus to the United States as every county would be guaranteed games throughout the summer.

Today, in Division 4, Limerick will play Westmeath. There won't be many there, yet it will surely be a bigger crowd than on one occasion when I was playing with Meath in Limerick. I think there were five paying customers and one loose dog which the five supporters spent most of the hour trying to catch.

Carlow and London will hardly put pressure on the turnstiles, in the same way as Waterford and Wicklow played before hundreds rather than thousands last night. However, these players deserve most of the credit which is given to county players. They train and play for the right reasons. There is no glory and we should all cut them a bit of slack if their efforts are not up to Dublin and Kerry.

Some of their best players are victims of geography and the GAA at central level has done nothing for them. Nor have their own county boards who roll over like dogs waiting to be tickled. Instead they should be uniting and fighting for their rights. They need a Rosa Parks figure who won't give up their seat on the bus for some of the bigger counties.

Leitrim play Wexford in Carrick-on-Shannon today and there will be a very healthy crowd. If all the top journalists went to see these counties a few times each year it would help shine a light on those whose passion for the game is as great as in Dublin or Kerry.

I have to admit that I will be in Navan to see Meath and Derry so I should to walk the walk myself before asking others to do so.

Anyway, John O'Mahony will be there as a selector with Leitrim, back to try to recreate former glory. There are no votes in this either, just a certain loyalty to old friends, the sort of thing which keeps the wheels of the GAA oiled.

There is a tipping point coming for the GAA in many counties. Effort, reward and commitment are all terms which are used for the big teams. How should that apply to those who travel in steerage? Is the enjoyment of playing supposed to be sufficient or can the GAA, with all its great brains, come up with something which is fair to all?

Martin Luther King had a dream. Somebody needs to articulate something similar in our great but deeply flawed organisation. The beginning of progress must come from about ten of the weakest football counties who need to start pushing their weight around.

They are much more powerful than they think. Maybe there is a Trump hiding within those county boards.

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