Saturday 19 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Thinking that the public can be GAA-splained into liking gaelic football shows contempt for the national intelligence'

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Donegal and Tyrone supporters await the start of their Super 8 match in Ballybofey last August. Photo: Oliver McVeigh
Donegal and Tyrone supporters await the start of their Super 8 match in Ballybofey last August. Photo: Oliver McVeigh
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The Super 8 is a flop. I knew that and you knew that and now the GAA hierarchy can no longer deny it. This column pointed out the pointlessness of the new football championship system from the moment it was mooted. No outstanding capacity for insight was required. There was obviously not a sufficient number of top-class teams to justify the format, its round robin nature would dissipate suspense and lead to pointless fixtures and football's current state of health meant its reputation would be damaged rather than enhanced by being exposed to additional scrutiny.

That band of cock-eyed optimists who would cheer the burning down of their own house if you told them it was being done in the interests of progress and innovation assured the sceptics that we'd got it wrong. The public would warm to this exciting new format, the excitement would build with each thrilling week, wait and see.

We waited and we saw one terrible game after another. The public did not warm, the public yawned. The only possible justification for the Super 8, it seemed, would be the financial one which had probably induced the GAA to create it in the first place. More games, more Croke Park and more Dublin would inevitably lead to more money. Right?

Wrong. Last week the GAA released figures showing a catastrophic drop in football championship attendances. Although six extra games were played, gate receipts fell by €4.8m and overall attendance by a whopping 18 per cent. The average attendance at championship games fell from 19,049 to 13,225, a drop of over a third. You could hardly get a more resounding vote of no confidence in Gaelic football's current direction.

The GAA ended up with the worst of both worlds, a restructuring which proved a failure in both sporting and financial terms. I'm more concerned about the former. Even if those figures had revealed a rise in attendances, the football championship would still have to be regarded as a failure because of the poor entertainment it provided for the spectators.

Croke Park, I suspect, will be more bothered about the financial side. They've grown so used to regarding everything in financial terms that the bottom line is sacrosanct. Never mind the quality, feel the dosh has become the justification for everything. But what their own figures show is that the football championship is also declining from this point of view.

The plummeting attendances shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Gaelic football's current awfulness has become proverbial. Almost every GAA conversation includes the observation that football has gone to hell and is a torment to watch these days. It's just a statement of fact, like saying that the weather tends to be wet at this time of the year, or that the country is better off in the EU. The aesthetic impoverishment of football's current incarnation is obvious to everyone.

Yet there is an irritating habit in some quarters of pretending that when Joe Brolly, Colm O'Rourke, Pat Spillane and others complain about the game's undeniable awfulness, they are engaging in some eccentric and curmudgeonly Grumpy Old Man routine. In fact, the pessimists have proved to be entirely in touch with public opinion, not least in predicting that football's increasing decrepitude would lead to followers deserting the game.

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That particular prediction was met with the complacent rejoinder that fans would stay loyal to their county team no matter how boring that team became. An 18 per cent drop in attendances in a single year would seem to suggest otherwise. It is somewhat ironic that in the exhaustive, condescending and smug dossier the GAA sent out to explain what a great boost to football the Super 8 would be, they mentioned the drop in attendances in recent years as one of the prime motivations behind their decision. The implication was that the new system would reverse this trend. That worked out well, didn't it? The decline in average attendance suggests that one in three of the supporters who'd gone to a championship game in 2017 stayed home in 2018.

There is an idea, shared by Croke Park, the inter-county managers and some journalists, that the likes of O'Rourke, Brolly and Spillane have a duty to the GAA to sit there and explain to the public that the terrible football they've witnessed is not terrible at all. I suspect the new sporting regime in RTé holds the same opinion about the necessity for pundits to act like Soviet spokesmen announcing that tractor production numbers are up and the latest wheat harvest is the best ever. Hopefully I'm wrong about this. We shall see.

Those who hold such views essentially want commentators on football to lie for the sake of the GAA. This is a very odd attitude, but there are parallels elsewhere. Páraic Duffy was laughed at when he said that the Sky deal was not all about money. But maybe he was right. Croke Park, one feels, also likes the way that Sky Sports can be relied on to inform the viewers that shit is, in fact, marmalade. It's the station's trademark and is firmly stamped on their Gaelic football coverage where there is no game so tedious that it cannot be camouflaged by excitable blather about commitment, intensity and 'the way Gaelic football is evolving, Rachel.'

The idea that football's declining popularity can be blamed on negative punditry betrays a touching faith in the power of the press. Do those who propound it really believe that if Brolly, O'Rourke and Spillane praised poor games to the hilt they'd be able to hoodwink the audience into a state of unquestioning positivity? It's reminiscent of the way that Irish political parties who find their support ebbing away in the polls kid themselves by saying, "We're not getting our message across," when in fact the problem is that the public know well what the message is and dislike it intensely.

Insisting that the public can be GAA-splained into liking Gaelic football as it is currently played betrays a certain contempt for the national intelligence. People know what they're looking at. You could replace the sceptics with a trio of cheerleaders and it wouldn't change the general opinion of Gaelic football.

That great, if somewhat depressing, American poet John Berryman once wrote, "Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so." Gaelic football, friends, is also boring. But we must say so. Because this boringness is not an innate part of the game, it is the result of conscious decisions taken by unimaginative managers and abetted by complacent administrators who seem content to let a great sport drift into public disrepute.

The drop in attendance is bad enough, but how many of those who still go are really enjoying themselves rather than going out of habit and duty, the way people used to go to Mass before the figures started declining there too? No sport has an automatic right to public affection. Last week's figures are truly shocking. If I'd predicted a drop like that before the championship started, Croke Park would have probably come looking for a retraction.

There will be talk of how a tiered system or closer integration between league and championship might rejuvenate football. But the fundamental problem is the nature of Gaelic football as it is currently played.

The torrent of managerial complaint when minor changes were proposed in an effort to make things more attractive showed that no help can be expected from that quarter. And the decision of the Gaelic Players Association to lobby Central Council delegates in order to have the limitation on the number of handpasses quashed before it could be properly trialled in the league showed that, from their point of view, the convenience of the players is far more important than the interests of the supporters.

So the onus is on Croke Park to try and improve the game. The laissez-faire attitude they've adopted in the face of football's decline may change now that the financial implications have become clear. Money is the language these guys understand.

The furious reaction to the recent ticket price rise took the GAA by surprise. Yet it can partly be explained by the fact that a lot of football fans, who still make up the majority of GAA followers, currently feel that they don't get a lot for their money. Gaelic football has become a game which increasingly feels more like a penance than a celebration. That won't do in a country where the Lough Derg spirit went out of fashion a long time ago. Fans need to be entertained, not subjected to lectures about their ingratitude in failing to appreciate the tactical sophistication of the blanket defence.

As for the Super 8, anyone thinking that mindless optimism remains an appropriate stance might cast their minds in the direction of Páirc Uí Chaoimh. When the stadium reopened last year it was obvious that the pitch was a complete mess. Yet the usual suspects counselled patience. "You'll see," they said, "it has to 'bed in' you see. Once it's 'bedded in', it'll be grand."

This year the Super 8 gets the chance to 'bed in'. Expect the same brilliant result we saw in Cork.

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