Rebel fans finally get to pitch in together
In Cork on Friday night, a GAA supporters' club was launched with the county board's blessing, a move that might have seemed outlandish for many years but that now has an official stamp of approval.
Last month, efforts to have a training camp for the county hurlers were abandoned, the board complying with April GAA directives aimed at helping clubs, so not everything has changed. But there is an acknowledgement that costs are spiralling and revenue is laying untapped. A supporters' club is as much down to pragmatism as a shift in the moral compass; Cork county teams cost in the region of €1.5m last year to prepare.
The club, Cairde Chorcaí, is being headed by Teddy Owens, who was team trainer when Cork won the 1999 All-Ireland title. Owens seems to be a unifying figure, popular with both players and supporters as well as the Cork GAA establishment. Though the new group will have a relatively free hand to conduct its business as it sees fit, campaigning overseas as well as domestically, whatever revenue is raised will be filtered through the Cork County Board books. The board retains overall autonomy in terms of spending decisions.
Cork's hurlers launch their summer against Clare in Páirc Uí Chaoimh this afternoon, the opening defence of their Munster title. The decision to discourage a training camp was not down to parsimony, as it might have been in the past, but a board which has traditionally tended to toe the line. Other counties are believed to have breached the Croke Park rules which will leave them in line to lose home advantage in one of next year's National League ties.
Among those invited to the launch of Cairde Chorcaí was Billy Morgan. "I think it is about time that Cork did something like this," he said. "Going back a long time, supporters' clubs tried to be formed, but the board weren't in favour and they never got off the ground. I think it's no harm and with Teddy Owens, who has a good record with both Cork hurlers and footballers, they have a good man in charge.
"I was actually told at one stage by a prominent business man when I came back the second time with Cork (as manager) that there were people out there who wanted to put money into Cork GAA that - in his words - would put Kildare to shame. But 'twas a kind of thing where they would give it to teams but would not give it to the county board."
Cork hurlers play only their third match of the year today in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, where recently three Ed Sheeran concerts were staged. For years before the stadium had been paraded by critics as an example of the board's unwillingness to move with the times as it became increasingly out of step with modern designs.
Unofficial groups trying to wield influence in Cork GAA affairs tended to have a short lifespan. In 1995, there sprung, overnight, a group calling itself the Cork Concerned GAA Supporters' Association. Its chairman, Noel Looney, was a former Cork and Sarsfields hurler. RTé's Marty Morrissey ran it as an exclusive on The Monday Game after Cork hurlers were beaten in the Munster Championship by Clare.
It was noted that only 3,000 fans had turned up for the championship match with Clare in Limerick. The group didn't make any lasting impression and the board refused to get involved in a discussion or even acknowledge its existence. Concerned citizens kept cropping up though. Even the Cork Lord Mayor, Des Cahill, speaking in 2016, tried to rustle up greater support for the county football teams when they travelled to Croke Park to play Donegal in minor and senior championship matches.
"I feel that the Cork football and hurling teams have had a lot of negative press and negative feeling over the last few years, and even more so this season," said Cahill two years ago, after he had started an online campaign with a 'backing Cork' hashtag.
The Sheeran concerts, which were a massive boon to local business, stoked memories of previous concert events in the old stadium, including Michael Jackson in 1988, where you could get in to see the global superstar for £18.50 and Prince, who played a concert in 1990. The Lord Mayor of the time refused to attend Prince's gig because of issues with his lyrics. The county board chairman, Denis Conroy, when questioned about the suitability of Prince's material in a GAA ground, said the board were going to "have to sit down with Prince and discuss this". Minutes of this meeting would surely be worth seeing, had such a meeting ever taken place.
As for the Michael Jackson visit, those working the turnstiles were paid £50 for each of the two performances. At today's rate of inflation that might be worth €500 over two days, a tidy bit of money. "I would have sworn I would not go across the road to see Michael Jackson," admitted one Cork GAA man who worked at the concert at the time, "but it was an absolutely great show."
Cork will have two of their Munster Championship round robin matches at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, with Limerick also visiting there on June 2, while their other two matches are being played at what is considered a home from home, Thurles. Waterford, with Walsh Park not available, face Cork at Semple Stadium on June 17, as do Tipperary on Sunday next.
Sunday Indo Sport