Wednesday 11 December 2019

Eamonn Swenney: 'No other sport maintains the direct link between elite and grassroots players like the GAA'

‘This day last week, Brendan Maher found an extra 10 per cent from somewhere. That somewhere was Borris-Ileigh.’ Photo: Eóin Noonan
‘This day last week, Brendan Maher found an extra 10 per cent from somewhere. That somewhere was Borris-Ileigh.’ Photo: Eóin Noonan

Eamonn Swenney

Did you see Brendan Maher last Sunday? If you did you'll agree it was a privilege to witness his performance for Borris-Ileigh against Ballygunner in the Munster club hurling final. If you didn't, you really missed something.

This was the real thing. This was the pure drop. It wasn't just the half-dozen points from frees or the countless defensive interventions, it was the sense of a player inexorably bending the course of a game to the shape of his will.

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Two moments epitomised this. The first came in the 46th minute when Maher, like some great bird of prey, swooped down on a loose ball before striking a huge point which reduced the deficit to one and turned the momentum in the outsiders' favour.

The second came in the first minute of injury-time when, with Borris desperately hanging on to a one-point lead, a ruck of players converged round the ball in their half. It was one of those absolute schemozzles apparently requiring a whistle and a throw ball. But Maher plunged into the thick of it, flicked the ball up into his hand and surged forward to win a free. It was like he'd painted 'This ends here' in big letters across the pitch.

Borris-Ileigh's provincial triumph is remarkable. They hadn't won a Tipperary title since 1986 and this year's win didn't make them obvious provincial contenders. There'd been only one Tipp victory since 2008 and reigning champions Ballygunner, Patrickswell, representing a county which had provided four of the last six winners, and a Sixmilebridge team experienced at this level looked much better bets.

A narrow semi-final win over Glen Rovers seemed underwhelming next to easy wins over Sixmilebridge and Patrickswell which made Ballygunner look potential All-Ireland champions. The Waterford side began Sunday's showdown as 2/9 favourites with Borris at 7/2.

The horrible wintry day in Páirc Uí Rinn functioned as both an argument against the wisdom of winter hurling and the most strenuous test of character possible. This was one of those games where the underdogs kept hanging in there and the longer they hung on the more you got a feeling this would be their day.

So it proved as they edged home by 1-12 to 1-11. As always at this time of the year we saw the emergence of heroes largely unknown outside the bounds of their own county. Jerry Kelly, a full-forward in the old-fashioned mould, looked a cult hero in the making as he grabbed three points from play. Teenage wing-back, Richie McCormack, shone in defence and created Borris's goal for Kevin Maher with a spectacular run up field. Seamus Burke had a stormer in the full-back line.

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Yet for all the winning team's hunger, courage and determination, they wouldn't have won without Brendan Maher. He made the difference.

We like to claim unique status for lots of things in the GAA. Like the amount of voluntary effort put in, but there are underage soccer leagues all over the world which depend on the same kind of unpaid work. The big crowds at the showpiece occasions are impressive for amateur games, yet a dozen college football teams in the US have higher home attendances than the capacity of Croke Park. Those ostensibly amateur teams would leave most inter-county sides in the ha'penny place for rigour and expertise of preparation.

However, I can't think of any other sport which maintains the direct link between elite and grassroots players like the GAA. Lionel Messi or Tom Brady do not follow a Champions League final or Super Bowl by returning to play in front of a smaller crowd for the team which gave them their start.

But that's exactly what players like Brendan Maher do, segueing from an All-Ireland in front of over 80,000 spectators and surrounded by a tsunami of hype to club games watched by one or two per cent of the Croke Park crowd whose results will go largely unnoticed.

No matter how well you've done at HQ you must return to battle it out against guys who may have been cheering you on all summer but see no contradiction between that and giving you an extremely hard time on the pitch. Some players return at intermediate or junior level where the crowds are even smaller and the contrast even starker.

There's been a lot of talk lately about the essential spirit of the GAA being under threat and being flouted by Croke Park or the GPA. But as someone paid to write about sport, I find it hard to get up on my high horse about the prospect of players making a few quid from the game. I'm not sure either that people in clubs are wholly disposed to regard inter-county members as an alien species acting against the interests of the grassroots.

That's because they don't think of 'The GPA member' in the abstract. If they're from Borris-Ileigh they think of him as Brendan Maher giving that display last Sunday, or if they're from Castlehaven they think of the 12 points Brian Hurley got against Nemo in 2013 or if they're from Ahascragh-Fohenagh they think of the 1-13 Cathal Mannion recently scored as they won a relegation play-off to stay in senior hurling.

They think of those days and find it hard to begrudge those players anything. The best thing the GPA have going for them may be the link between county players and their clubs. It's the sundering of that link which would mark the moment when the apocalyptic predictions about the future of the Association might come true.

Will it ever happen? I'm not sure. But I do know that there is now a path a young player can take, through development squads which can start at under-13 level and transport him to the county underage teams, playing secondary school competitions and then Sigerson or Fitzgibbon Cup before being subsumed into a county senior set-up, which can see him play an awful lot of football or hurling with minimal club involvement.

It's possible certain figures within the game see the creation of such an elite corps of players as a desirable outcome. There are already hints being dropped that if clubs want a proper fixture calendar they'll have to be prepared to play championship games without their inter-county players.

Which would be a disaster obviously. Nothing will sour a club's attitude to their county team like losing an important match by a couple of points when their four best players are sitting idle. They might start to wonder what the point is in developing really good players if, in effect, they're simply making a rod for their own backs.

Club members do feel an enormous amount of pride when their stars shine in the inter-county arena, but even on the biggest of those occasions, at the back of their minds is how these players are going to go in the local championships down the line.

The County Man is a precious thing for a club. A lot is expected from him and he often delivers. Sometimes the expectations placed on him are wildly unrealistic. Sometimes the expectations are unrealistic and he still delivers.

I've been thinking recently of the NASCAR stock car racing series in America which, a decade ago, seemed like an unstoppable success story as the fastest growing sport in the States with perhaps the most fervent fans. Today the story is different with both TV ratings and attendances having dropped precipitously. Insiders say the problem is that in trying to appeal to an audience outside the traditional one, the sport began to ignore its base. They alienated them further by contriving convoluted new championship structures which no-one could make sense of and rule changes which altered the essential nature of the sport.

Then there was the move towards ever greater professionalism which essentially made the thing a closed shop, so no-one outside the major teams could crash this party anymore. Does any of this sound familiar?

The effect of big TV money also meant that fans couldn't identify with the stars anymore. In the words of veteran motorsports journalist Norris McDonald, "Once upon a time drivers would go to Disney World and drink beer with NASCAR fans they bumped into. Nowadays drivers prefer to fly to Italy and drink wine." So hordes of fans are deserting NASCAR and returning to the dirt track racing from which it originated.

Roots matter. Which is why anyone who belittles the club by comparison with the county game is merely betraying an ignorance of the country they live in.

Brendan Maher is a great player who's been in the form of his life this year. But even that can't fully explain his tour de force against Ballygunner. This day last week he found an extra 10 per cent from somewhere. That somewhere was Borris-Ileigh because his local club is part of who he is. And part of what we are.

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