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Ewan MacKenna: Cracks are appearing in the Dublin GAA model - and it's time to ask if their house really is in order


11 August 2018; The Dublin team prior to the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship semi-final match between Dublin and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

11 August 2018; The Dublin team prior to the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship semi-final match between Dublin and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile


11 August 2018; The Dublin team prior to the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship semi-final match between Dublin and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

There's a Renaissance-era paradox that accurately portrays the Dublin dilemma right now.

Called Buridan's Ass, after the French thinker who came up with the philosophical concept, it involves a donkey that's equally hungry and thirsty but that finds itself halfway between a bale of hay and a trough of water. Unable to make a decision, it will instead stand still and eventually die.

With those in the capital, there's that impossible balance between enjoying success and playing it down. For how much do you boast about what you are doing on the field, when the impact of that highlighting is to potentially hurt one of the major reasons for it?

It's why we've had fans and pundits talk about a mere one-point win over Mayo in 2017 as an example of competition, off the back of a championship where they averaged the greatest winning margin per game (12.5, although this year they are at 13 heading into the final) in the modern era; it's why we've Jim Gavin constantly talking up opposition they are about to or just have humiliated; it's why even Jack McCaffrey was wheeled out to talk up a relatively paltry crowd after last Saturday's semi-final.

What they've all in common is falsifying reality and their true dominance via see-through PR.

By now we know the truth, for what we said all along would happen, has happened. As Paul Caffrey planned in the mid-2000s, their aim was to start winning Leinsters, before burying Leinster. The same was always going to happen on a national level, as only one or two could and can ever keep pace in short bursts. And now even their own fans are bored of the predictability.

At the start of summer, and being generous, say 11,000 of the 12,000 for their game against Wicklow were from Dublin. That was a rare neutral outing, served by great public transport, that welcomed the champions back, to a guaranteed win. But as a proportion of total population, had that percentage from, say, Carlow showed up, that would amount to 450.

Without a sell-out since, let's put the semi-final under the looking glass too and imagine 45,000 of the 54,716 were local. Had that amount showed up between both sides in the other semi-final, considering religion and using the same population proportions, it would have meant a total of 5,040 in attendance for Tyrone-Monaghan. Imagine the concern had any of that happened.

All those years, all that money, all those bad side-affects for the rest, and this is where we are with Dublin?

It gets worse as, for a long time, the senior team were the 32-inch rims that kept anyone from checking under the bonnet as the rest were told to get their own houses in order.

Initially, it brought about a reply as to what more could Mayo or Tyrone or Monaghan actually do given achievements with limitations, what more could Kerry or Kildare be doing at underage, what more could Clare and Tipperary be doing in football given hurling, what more could Cavan and Roscommon be doing given population, what more could Carlow be doing given the whole hand they've been dealt?

Sure some improvements could be made, but forget those and all others for a minute for the pointed purpose of such deflection is to try and get you to look away. This is about Dublin and now the cracks are there in inter-county interest, it brings us to this.

After all that investment, is their house really in order?

* * *

Back at the start of the year, when the latest government capital grants for sport came out, there was a lopsided list in the direction of Dublin. Of the 11 GAA clubs to be handed the maximum of €150,000, all but one were in the city. Their GAA chief executive was quickly out as usual, attacking as a defence, saying had they alone got the entire €56m it wouldn't be enough. There were two problems with John Costello though – a lack of understanding as to how tough everyone else has it, and a lack of development around what they've done with relative riches.

He and Dublin GAA are faced with challenges around space and prices, but being in a city with a massive population surge, off-the-charts economics and living standards compared to elsewhere, and a huge percentage of the young working population, that has an upside too. They know that from the AIG income as theirs is the only market worth the while of such a company. But such sponsorship should be a start to maxmimsing, not an end. And though Dublin rarely make annual accounts available, those for 2016 were released on the website of St Sylvester's. In the category marked fundraising, the total brought in across 12 months was a tiny €57,336.

When the GAA started pumping the place fat with euros in 2004 due to the perceived need for the game to be brutally strong there, and the actual wisdom that it was in fact struggling in parts, you wonder did it in part make Dublin lazy.

Why work when it's given to you? And why squeeze every penny too, as on the flip-side of those 2016 accounts, the county board spent €523,954 on office salaries including Costello's and €134,557 was miscellaneous.

If you are investing so heavily, you want to get bang for your buck but the GAA have kept throwing good money after what could well be bad.

That's because if, as stated, the purpose is to grow the game in the standard pyramid fashion with a wide base, a further 40 per cent of all expenditure going solely on intercounty teams doesn't scream maximisation of growth and benefit for the most. It is true that the figures nationwide for this have become obscenely bloated and it's also true Mayo spent €100,000 more than Dublin in 2016. But €580,547 was travelling expenses that Jim Gavin's side barely have, and another €447,280 was catering with Dublin having an official food partner.

Those intercounty teams may be a plaster over the scab – and don't pretend that money hasn't made a huge difference as to claim otherwise is to rubbish the multi-billion dollar worldwide sports science and coaching industry - but in football in particular, it's quite astonishing they aren't dominating ever more given not just resources, but how those resources are being pointed in such an elitist direction.

At senior there is complete control but they haven't been in in a minor final since 2012 and have won only one All-Ireland since 1985. And if their four titles this decade at under-21 is the conveyor belt for the seniors that helps crush the rest, that they haven't captured more – they haven't been to the other five finals – is not what you'd expect from a skewed numbers' game.

Still, true health is to be found away from this top end, so how about this. GAA studies show that registered players in Dublin grew by 43 per cent between 2011 and 2015 and that's not something to be laughed at. But remember this was a place given unprecedented levels of income due to starting out so low with so much room for growth and, for key context, look at what others did with less.

They got 22 times the games development money of Kildare who grew 29 per cent; they got 29 times the money of Donegal who grew 31 per cent; they got 19 times the money of Meath who grew 32 per cent; they got 30 times the money of Monaghan who grew 36 per cent; they got 24 times the money of Louth who grew 37 per cent; they got 22 times the money of Limerick who grew 42 per cent.

Those places haven't had All-Irelands to inspire and yet, nominally on a national scale, 17.5 per cent of player growth was in Dublin, when they got 42 per cent of all games development funding. To put it another way, over two-fifths of investment triggered less than one-fifth of the growth.

That matters outside of Dublin for while, in football, their hammerings of other counties have resulted in less interest, those other counties as a result are enduring increased competition from other sports. From rugby where there is one club for every 37,739 people in the capital, but it's one per 35,981 in Ulster, one per 33,995 in the rest of Leinster, one per 21,182 in Connacht, and one per 19,110 in Munster (IRFU officials are also confident of further growth in these areas). To athletics, where one in 152 of county population is registered in Dublin, but that's one in 92 in Kildare, one in 75 in Galway, one in 73 in Cork, one in 62 in Donegal and one in 50 in Meath.

But in GAA just 2.91% of those in Dublin are lining out – that's against 7.53% in Munster, 7.76% in Ulster's nationalist community, 8.16% in Connacht and 8.6% in the rest of Leinster. It begs the question of whether Dublin should have done more, or at least done it very differently. After hearing so often they did so much right, was it actually that the money limited how much they could do wrong?

Back around the Newbridge-or-Nowhere mess, the notion of build better grounds and they'll come cropped up, but what have Dublin built and where would would they be without the €260m national stadium in their midst? They haven't had to build so much as a centre of excellence either as DCU was theirs when needed with student athletes told to move aside when they shacked up, while they also briefly used Abbotstown before getting out when seeing a facility for all wasn't just for them. That lack of attention to detail away from Sam Maguires trickles down. Indeed their championship is in sickly shape too as, if the 9.6ppg winning margin in 2017 was somewhat explainable due to a large 32-team format, this year with just 16 teams in place, now that gap is at 18.25ppg.

So much of this is fur coat and no knickers as open a button or two and theres's nothing. That's not an excuse for more funding either, rather a call to review more recent spending instead of listening and accepting the brilliance of their strategy. What the GAA has given them has alienated most of the association, ruined the intercounty game, and brought about the Super 8s to bring in numbers. And for what? A Premier League-style side with a few academy clubs while so many are struggling along for facilities at best and grass at worst?

A few years ago, playing a game in Croí Ró Naofa, it was astonishing that they played on a green in Tallaght with the posts too close together and broken glass meaning you couldn't go down for a ball. But it isn't isolated and while of course also a government and an urban development issue, that doesn't excuse Dublin GAA from this as it's their job. This year alone we've had Na Fianna talking of going out of existence, Tyrrellstown in a battle with NAMA, and Kevin's hurling club and the many they support being put in jeopardy.

Back in May, the latter's facilities chair JJ O'Mahony speaking on their dilemma of playing space summed up much. "This is a litmus test for the GAA," he said. "Are we a community-based association, or are we more focused on the finances? Is the GAA about developing community, or developing property. Because the GAA finances can resolve this."

Better again Dublin's finances could and should. Although with the model so many are mistakenly in awe of though, they haven't.

That in many ways is Gaelic games' modern paradox.

Online Editors