Tuesday 23 July 2019

The odd couple: Soccer and GAA remain bitter enemies

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

JOHN ROONEY is hardly a name that evokes memories of great Irish domestic soccer days gone by. But his story is one that reflects the curious and often vexed relationship that has existed between the game of soccer and its Gaelic sport rivals over the years.

Rooney played briefly for Cork Hibernians in the late 1960s and also had a spell with Sligo Rovers at around the same time. A lithe, athletic figure, he came on match days, played his game and disappeared before acquaintances grew deeper.

His dalliance with soccer however didn't last long and for much of the next four decades he became a household name on the GAA pitches, sidelines and meetings rooms of the country. He passed away last year in Canada.

John Rooney? A household name in Gaelic games over the last four decades. Surely not? Well, not exactly. Rooney was among Brian McEniff's best friends and when McEniff went undercover to pursue his other sporting pastime during the time of the GAA's ban on 'foreign games', he borrowed Rooney's name. There were many 'John Rooneys' in the late 1960s. McEniff has since reached high office as a GAA administrator and of course his playing and managerial achievements are well documented. But he was always been ecumenical in his outlook towards sport and in his heart there was always a soft spot for soccer.

Rooney's name was required to avoid the glare of the vigilantes who roamed soccer and rugby grounds seeking to enforce the old rule 27.

A few weeks ago, when rugby came to Croke Park, the links between the oval ball and Gaelic sports were numerous. By comparison to the crossover that exists with soccer, it's a mere trickle however.

Kevin Moran, Niall Quinn and the current Irish international manager Steve Staunton, a former Dundalk Clanna Gael footballer of some prominence, are just the tip of a very large iceberg.

Just as there is scarcely a young soccer player who hasn't dabbled in either of the GAA codes at some stage, 'exclusive' exponents of Gaelic games are rare too.

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The pathological links between soccer and Gaelic football in particular are far stronger than they are with rugby union.

The shape of the ball and the basic fundamentals of both games adhere to a far less complicated crossover. The complexity of loose head and tight head, openside and blindside and rules at the breakdown don't exist.

If McEniff's enjoyment of soccer comes as a surprise, it should pale by comparison to the Irish Independent columnist Eugene McGee's recall last year of the former Ulster Council president Micheál Greenan's playing days with Cades County in the 1970s, a well-known Longford soccer team at the time. It hasn't stopped him from leading the chorus of opposition to the opening of Croke Park to other international sports on a number of principles, chiefly that the GAA was risking its position in the market place.

But if some of the fundamentals of the games are shared the culture and ideology are much more disparate. Rugby was greeted warmly in Croke Park last month. Soccer, you sense, will be no more than tolerated. GAA's claims of photo opportunities and triumphalism last November, amplified by one of the presidential candidates next year, Seán Fogarty, underlined the suspicion with which one association views the other.

A chance remark by a highly prominent FAI employee of the time at the opening of the Special Olympics in 2003 that "the place (Croke Park) was built on bigotry" reflects an attitude that still exists in soccer circles.

There are bridge-builders on both sides of course and the FAI chief executive John Delaney has been keen to highlight a very strong working relationship with the GAA on a number of fronts, not just Croke Park. But the fact remains that for all the hardliners in the GAA there are as many in the layers of soccer administration.

The 'GAH', with its 'stickball' and 'bogball' is still viewed with derision as a backward outpost of De Valera's Ireland.

The GAA in general perceives soccer in this country as a prodigal, profligate entity that hasn't the ability or nous to sustain itself. The absence of real infrastructure around the country is an oft-used reference point. Both perceptions are at odds with the reality of the progression they both enjoy today.


Yes, the GAA will be a little more cautious with their welcome today than they were some weeks ago because that is the nature of the relationship between the organisations, not just at central level but in every town, every parish and even every estate. They are constantly seeking a greater share of the same marketplace.

The ongoing deliberations over the use of the stadium in Tallaght and the failure of the Government to deliver a simple quid pro quo agreement for the opening of Croke Park, far more valuable than money perhaps, still rankles.

For all the success of the international rugby team, the GAA still knows that the greatest drain on its playing population is soccer.

Conversely, soccer knows that traditionally the GAA has always been and always will be the barrier to tapping into far greater resources.

That's the way it has been, that's the way it always will be. Sporting rivalry that brings a hard-line edge.

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