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The Great Divide: Should Dublin be split in two?

Colm O’Rourke and Robbie Kelleher debate Dublin’s future. Photo: Mark Condren
Colm O’Rourke and Robbie Kelleher debate Dublin’s future. Photo: Mark Condren
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Which side are you on in this debate?

YES: says Colm O’Rourke

In 2002 the Strategic Review Committee, who were setting out a vision of the GAA for the future, advised strongly that Dublin should be split in two in order for greater promotion of our national games to take place.

We are accustomed now to total Dublin domination in Leinster at all levels, so it is most revealing to look at the time when the SRC committee were making their decisions. In the five seasons from 2000 to 2004, Dublin won one Leinster senior title and two minor titles. Meath, Westmeath, Kildare and Laois won seniors in that time so of course there is an element of serious decline among Dublin's competitors since then.

However, the SRC were not viewing the splitting of Dublin because they were completely annihilating everyone else. They looked on this recommendation in the traditional view of what the GAA was about. It was not concerned with continuous success, commercial considerations, huge brand loyalty or building an image. That is the vocabulary of professional sport and the constant bombarding of Sky and all other media outlets has conditioned many into thinking that these ideas are what the GAA is about. Well, if that is the case then the media hype has won.

The GAA is not a model to compare with a top soccer club, the All Blacks, the New England Patriots or Boston Celtics. It is and should always be completely different.

All the above considerations should pale into insignificance with principles like participation, opportunity for young players, and allowing as many as possible of those young players achieve their maximum potential.

Does the current Dublin model achieve many of these principles? For the elite yes, and of course there is excitement in Croke Park when Dublin are playing. They are attractive to watch and they win too, something which encourages more young players to play Gaelic football rather than maybe soccer or, increasingly, rugby, which has many more high-profile opportunities in this country.

So Dublin in many ways is the complete success story of the GAA. It is one where resources have been targeted at schools, where coaching actually works on the ground, and where there is now massive amounts of money available to promote the game. Fundraising lunches at €5,000 per table are easily sold out, sponsors are eager to attach themselves to Brand Dublin, a fleet of cars are available to various Dublin panels and individual players have nice earners on the side which have arisen from playing with Dublin.

So Dublin are the best at everything right now. A semi-professional outfit operating in a very amateur league.

Underneath though there are literally thousands of very good players who never get a chance to play county football, especially at underage. They might get a couple of trials but in the teeming masses, many get overlooked if they have a bad day and there are any number of others to take their place.

In other counties the trawl for players tends to mean a few of fairly decent ability get lost overboard. Is greater opportunity to be dismissed forever to ensure that nobody interferes with a Dublin team who are always going to be involved at the business end of the year, with the big crowd on Hill 16 and all that goes with the blue machine?

Robbie Kelleher, who gave such distinguished service to Dublin, argues that at least part of his county's domination is due to the fall of former powers, Kildare and Meath especially, while the decline of Westmeath and Laois who won Leinsters in the past 15 years is even greater. What is happening here?

That is certainly a huge issue and it pains me greatly that Meath are so far behind. The great days of Meath football were when we went to Croke Park to take on the Dubs as equals. Yet that is a different argument entirely and should not be mixed up with an analysis of what is happening in Dublin.

Similarly, the idea that supporters would not warm to Dublin in two, three or four guises doesn't stand up in my opinion. What about just giving young players a chance to play in Croke Park? Surely that trumps money or support or commercial considerations.

The usual response from Dublin players, supporters or administrators is that it might be a good idea sometime but not now.

I am not sure if Robbie would ever countenance splitting Dublin into various administrative zones or just North-South to promote football. John Costello, Dublin's efficient chief executive, certainly does not and labelled those who promote the splitting of Dublin as puerile in his annual report. As I do not have his command of the English language I had to google the word puerile to find that it meant 'childish, foolish or silly'. I have since asked him if all three apply to me!

There are plenty of others around the country who have had traditional rivalries with Dublin who would not like to see at least a couple of different Dublin teams. It would not be the same, they might say. Quite true too. There is also the argument that an uncompetitive All-Ireland series is a fact of life and has been at most times in our history. That is true too. Should we merely accept all these things and do nothing?

Dublin is gobbling up the rest of the country in an economic sense, and in a GAA sense too. There is a real danger that by interfering with the Dublin brand you could end up with the worst of both worlds - overall support could decline and the financial bandwagon, which is Dublin, could stutter, which would be bad news for everyone. It is the Dublin supporters' money which fuels a lot of GAA fires around the country, but especially in Leinster. Is it worth that risk just to make sure more young men can fulfil their dreams? It is back to commercialism and profit versus participation and you know where I stand on that.

Places like Blanchardstown, Ballyboden, Kilmacud and Castleknock have catchment areas that can match those of entire counties, even if population itself is not the best way to measure GAA activity. Yet for all that, surely Dublin is too big for one county board, one senior team, one under 20 team, one minor team. It is not penalising Dublin for being successful but attempting to make the game a more powerful force and really the Dublin County Board should have been looking at this as part of an overall strategic development.

It is a great pity that this issue was too hot for Dublin to handle since the SRC review 16 years ago. In that time the Dubs were even unwilling to experiment with two teams in the league or even a second outfit at minor or under 21 level. How different would the GAA be now if a move was made then and for all the loyalty and rivalry that county boundaries bring there are about 20 counties that have not benefited at all by artificial lines on a map. Unfortunately the GAA has copied too many of the professional sports where the strong continually crush the weak, it should and can be different.

Successive directors-general and presidents have not been brave enough to take a line on the future of Dublin, or espouse any alternative to the present dominance. That may pass too, but whether Dublin win or lose this year or next makes no difference whatsoever to doing the right thing for the future.

The baton now passes to a new president, John Horan. The GAA has been waiting for a while for a man of vision rather than those who sought office while hoping nothing too much went wrong on their watch. The nation may not be holding its breath but whether many very young men merely watch from the Hill or get a chance to play in that great field needs to be addressed.

Ultimately it is the choice between a cosy consensus and striking out in the dark in favour of greater participation and opportunity.

 

NO: says Robbie Kelleher

Are Dublin getting better or the rest getting poorer? On the face of it, the facts seem very compelling. Dublin senior footballers have won five out of the last seven All-Ireland championships. They won four league titles in a row between 2013 and 2016 and they have won 12 of the last 13 Leinster championships. They played 46 league and championship matches in the last three seasons and lost only two. In the process, they had a run of 35 games unbeaten.

Many have concluded that Dublin football is in a position to totally dominate for the foreseeable future. Of those who believe this, many argue that population trends are at the heart of the explanation.

In particular, there is a perception that the resources available to Dublin GAA are being swollen by very rapid population growth in the capital, partly as a result of large outflows from rural counties.

Given this perception it is not surprising that we are increasingly hearing calls for Dublin to be split in two in order to allow other counties to have any chance of competing. Some commentators have even called for Dublin to be split into three or even four different units.

Let me make a few comments. The first is that the dominance of teams in GAA competitions has always gone in cycles. For example, the Kerry team of the 1970s and ’80s won eight out of 12 All-Irelands, but then went 11 years before winning another. More recently, Kilkenny hurlers won 11 out of 16 All-Irelands, but that cycle seems to have run its course as well. I have little doubt that the same thing will happen with the Dublin footballers in time.

But let me go back to the population argument as many of the common perceptions are simply not accurate. In the 25 years between 1991 and 2016, the population of Leinster expanded by just over 40 per cent, but the population of Dublin expanded by just over 30 per cent. In fact, over that 25-year period, Dublin had the slowest rate of population growth of all 12 counties in Leinster. In the two traditional strongholds of football in Leinster — Meath and Kildare — the population expanded by 81 per cent and 85 per cent respectively.

Interestingly, when you look at the success of Dublin in recent years, their dominance in Leinster has been much more pronounced than in the All-Ireland series itself. Of the five All-Ireland finals that Dublin won, four were by a margin of just one point and one twoafter a replay. Many Mayo people would, justifiably, argue that with a better bounce of the ball they could have taken at least a couple of those titles.

I think the real issue, therefore, lies in Leinster. The question is not why Dublin have got better, but why have the other counties gone so far back?

Take Meath for example, where the population has grown by more than 80 per cent in the last 25 years. They are in Division Two of the league and have made no impact at underage level. Their county champions regularly get beaten in the early rounds of the Leinster club championship. They haven’t even contested the final of a Leinster club championship since 2004 and haven’t won one since Dunshauglin triumphed in 2002.

But Meath were much more successful before this surge in population took place. Between 1986 and 2001 they won eight Leinster titles and competed in seven All-Ireland finals, winning four. The Meath team of the late 1980s and early 1990s would stand alongside comparison with any of the great Gaelic football teams, including the current Dublin side. team.

They had players of the calibre of Bernard Flynn, Colm O’Rourke, Trevor Giles, John McDermott and Robbie O’Malley (and many more) who would be serious contenders for a place on any of those great teams, again including the current Dublin team. But I don’t think they have produced a single player of that quality in the last decade. What has gone wrong here? That is the real issue and splitting Dublin into two, three or four won’t solve whatever those problems are.

The same could be said of most other Leinster counties. Population growth in Kildare has been greater again (85 per cent) and even the so-called weaker counties like Laois and Westmeath, who won Leinster titles in 2003 and 2004, are now hopelessly adrift when they play Dublin. Again, contrary to many perceptions, the population of both these counties continues to expand very rapidly.

Somebody urgently needs to examine why the other counties in Leinster have gone back so far, not why Dublin have been so successful.

Some commentators argue that the reason you should split up Dublin is not so much to level the playing field for other counties, but to increase the opportunity for more players in Dublin to play senior inter-county football and reach the hallowed turf of Croke Park. I find this argument spurious.

A second Dublin panel would give this opportunity to an additional 30 players or so, but that is only a tiny proportion of the playing population of Dublin. So the chance of a young lad who is now starting in the football nurseries of ever making it to the senior team would increase by only a very small fraction.

Would this be worth the cost of losing the tradition that is ‘The Dubs’? Traditions are a big part of the GAA — the Munster hurling final, clashes between Kilkenny and Tipperary, Dublin v Kerry and so on. We should be very careful not to lose these traditions and the Dubs clearly fall into this category.

I grew up on the north side of Dublin (Glasnevin) and played all my football on the north side (Scoil Uí Chonaill). But I have lived on the south side for the last 40 years and my three sons played their football with Kilmacud Crokes. If I were sitting in the Hogan Stand watching Dublin North play Dublin South I would find it very difficult to know who I should be shouting for. But I know that whoever I would choose, chose, I would support them with a good deal less enthusiasm than I currently support Dublin with.

To conclude, it is worth looking at the recent success of Mayo and compare it with the very poor showing of the larger Leinster counties. The populations of both Meath and Kildare are now considerably larger than that of Mayo and have been growing much more rapidly.

Indeed, the population of Mayo declined in the five years from 2011 to 2016. In addition, the burden on county players travelling from Dublin or elsewhere to train is much more onerous for Mayo footballers. But in the last seven years Mayo have competed in four All-Ireland finals and three semi-finals and lost to Dublin on two occasions after replays.

What are Mayo doing that Meath, Kildare and the rest of Leinster are not? That should be the focus of the authorities and the commentators. Not splitting up an entity that is a big part of GAA tradition and is clearly working extremely well.

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