Martin Breheny: Underdogs deserve a fair share
Brennan a star of Rules clash but Clare hero may not play in Croker again
As Gary Brennan left Croke Park last Saturday night, he might well have thought to himself: when next will I play here?
Having performed so efficiently for Ireland, it's unlikely that at the age of 26 he would have considered that this was his last outing at HQ but, unfortunately, it's a possibility.
The International Rules tie was only his second game in Croke Park, the first coming in April 2014 when he was on the Clare team that played Tipperary in the Allianz League Division 4 final.
Brennan's prospects of playing in Croke Park again probably rely on Clare reaching another divisional league final and/or a return visit with the Ireland squad in two years' time.
A Division 3 or 4 final (it's difficult to see Clare reaching the Division 1 or 2 finals any time soon) isn't exactly a massive occasion so the International Rules represent Brennan's best chance of being part of something big in Croke Park. It will be two years (always assuming the series continues) before Croke Park hosts another international game. A lot can change for players in that length of time.
Brennan was one of the Irish stars of the show last Saturday, making some spectacular catches around midfield at a time when the Australians were on a major recovery roll.
"Just when we needed it most, Gary Brennan had a fantastic last quarter. His three catches were unbelievable and I think everyone in the whole country would be proud of him," said Ireland manager Joe Kernan.
They were certainly proud of him in Clare and his home club Clondegad. Not only did he match his higher-profile Irish colleagues, he also outfetched and outmuscled well-paid Australian professionals.
Apart from having no understanding of how amateurs reach such high levels of fitness and conditioning, the Australians are puzzled by the imbalances that apply among GAA players.
For example, Irish captain Bernard Brogan operates in a totally different world to Brennan and many others from last Saturday's team.
Brogan is serving Gaelic football well, but the game is looking after him pretty nicely too, in terms of promotional outlets and the many opportunities that arise from them.
Good luck to him and the other 'brand' names in Dublin and beyond in the other leading counties, who enjoy considerable spin-off benefits. However, the game belongs to everyone, yet its share-out of the goodies is not only totally unequal but becoming increasingly so every year.
You won't see Brennan - Tipperary's Ciaran McDonald, John O'Loughlin (Laois), Longford's Michael Quinn or Eoin Doyle (Kildare) - all of whom played for Ireland last Saturday, exhorting us in a TV ad to shop local or whatever other promotional opportunity comes the way of the exclusive range of 'brand' boys who are wheeled out with monotonous regularity.
It's against that background of 'haves' and 'have-nots,' which is decided almost exclusively by place of birth, that the current debate on inter-county fixture structures is taking place.
The provincial championships will remain because the majority want it. That includes so-called weaker counties, who can aspire to making the occasional local breakthrough, while accepting that it's unlikely they will win the All-Ireland title.
The big powers take most of the provincial titles but the rest can dream too. Leitrim, Sligo, Roscommon, Clare, Kildare, Laois, Westmeath, Cavan, Derry and Monaghan (Louth should be there too) have all won provincials inside the last 23 years, prizes which meant an awful lot to them, even if they didn't win an All-Ireland.
The big dilemma is how to organise the championships beyond the provincial scene. There are so many suggestions floating around now that it's difficult to collate them into an order of merit.
So, for discussion sake, let's personalise it. What's the best way to optimise Gary Brennan's prospects of having a really fulfilling year?
Is it best served by heading for the qualifiers after defeat in Munster or by Clare entering a secondary championship for counties of similar standard? There's a lot to be said for the latter option, provided it was actively promoted and fully-supported by the GAA centrally and by county boards.
Most of all, the final has to be in Croke Park as the curtain-raiser for the All-Ireland final, thus giving it real status. That means removing the minor final from its traditional slot, which would be resisted, mostly by strong counties.
Still, here's the key question: who is more entitled to be in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, Gary Brennan and his likes or minors (which could be U-17s from 2018 on), usually from the superpower strongholds?
The answer is obvious. And if you doubt that, check back on Brennan's performance last Saturday.