Sport Hurling

Thursday 14 December 2017

Begrudgers still don't get it

We're only midway through July and already there's been enough surprise and drama to enliven the most jaded palates. Photo: Brian Lawless
We're only midway through July and already there's been enough surprise and drama to enliven the most jaded palates. Photo: Brian Lawless

Eamonn Sweeney

Everybody knew Kildare had stepped up a level this year and would beat Meath, heralding the beginning of the end of Seamus McEnaney's time in charge of the Royals.

Everybody knew Galway were the big dark horses in this year's football championship and would hammer Sligo, who'd gone back since their exploits of two years ago.

Everybody knew that, bad and all as they were, Meath would beat Carlow out the gate in their first championship meeting.

Everybody knew that Dublin would repeat the ruthlessness they'd displayed against Louth and hammer a declining Wexford team.

Everybody knew that a woefully inadequate Roscommon side didn't have a hope against a resurgent Armagh side fresh from an unlucky defeat in a classic encounter with Tyrone.

Everybody knew that a Limerick team who'd failed to kick on from last year's encouraging performances under Donal O'Grady would ship a real beating from Tipperary.

Everybody knew that Dublin would bounce back from their defeat against Kilkenny and be too strong for an inexperienced Clare team who'd be looking to put down a few markers for the future.

And everybody really, really knew that the best Galway could hope for against Kilkenny was an honourable defeat against a team whose awesome strength in depth meant they had no significant challengers this season.

That's the problem with the championships. They're so bloody predictable.

It's been some All-Ireland campaign, hasn't it? We're only midway through July and already there's been enough surprise and drama to enliven the most jaded palates.

Well, maybe not the most jaded palates. Because I've a strange feeling that the professional naysayers and begrudgers who are ever ready to proclaim the decrepitude of the GAA's blue riband competitions won't let a little thing like actual results change their minds.

They're a rum bunch, these guys who sit high up in the commentary and press boxes and piss down on the degraded stuff they witness on the pitch below. The poor sap in the stands might think he's had a decent afternoon's entertainment but they want to disabuse him of his delusions. Football is going to hell in a handcart! The Liam MacCarthy Cup might as well be presented to Kilkenny now! We need major structural changes! We need a task force! We need an open draw! Or else we're all doomed, doomed I tell you!

No prophet of doom ever went broke in this country I suppose. But the problem with these gents is that they're a bit like the lad who decides to borrow his neighbour's lawnmower and on the way over starts thinking, 'he never liked me, I know what'll happen, I'll get there and he'll make a big deal out of it, like he's doing me a huge favour, like I really owe him now, making me feel small,' so that when he gets to the house and the neighbour answers the door your man says, 'you can keep your fucking lawnmower'.

These pundits look ahead to a season where Kilkenny steamroller the opposition in Leinster en route to an inevitable sixth All-Ireland in seven years, where Tipp walk through Munster, where defensive football rules the roost, the Connacht championship is a two-horse race between Mayo and Galway, Dublin and Kildare stroll past all opposition in Leinster and Ulster is a grim dogfight from start to finish. And like our friend without the lawnmower, they feel like the worst has already happened and pontificate accordingly so that when things don't turn out as they predicted, it almost doesn't matter.

Hence that most irritating tic of Irish sports journalism, the tendency to declare rather than surmise in match previews. You don't say, 'I think Kilkenny will probably beat Galway today,' you say, 'Kilkenny will beat Galway today.' Or, 'Sligo won't be strong enough for Galway' or 'Kildare will dispose of Meath without too much bother.' It sounds more impressive that way.

The only problem is that a world where everyone behaves as if they know what's going to happen rather than suspect what might happen, results can somehow seem by the by. The reputations of some teams, for example, seem impervious to how they actually perform on the pitch. Derry are a prime example of this. In the run-up to the Oak Leaf County's qualifier meeting with Longford a couple of weeks back, it was suggested that a victory over Derry would represent a major step forward. However, Longford had already beaten Derry in 2006 and have been a better team than them in recent years. There was nothing surprising about their victory. Yet the idea that Derry are a good side will probably survive this result too.

Laois and Armagh are other counties whose bona fides are perpetually adjudged to be intact no matter how poorly they perform on the field. The expectation that Armagh would eat Roscommon without salt flew in the face of the championship showings of both teams over the last couple of seasons but it was there all the same. It was just one more thing that everybody knew.

The big thing everybody knows at the moment is that the football championship is in big trouble. This will apparently be solved by the institution of a two-tier competition even though no-one can suggest which teams belong in which tiers. (I suspect the proponents of this arrangement would have Derry, Armagh, Laois and Galway in the top tier and Longford, Sligo and Roscommon in the bottom one). Or the competition would be improved by the scrapping of the provincial system and institution of an open draw. Ah yes, that old chestnut. Remember when people told us an Open Draw would institute exciting new rivalries which would really pack in the crowds? The relatively disappointing qualifier attendances give the lie to that one. By and large, it's still time-hallowed local rivalries that put bums on seats.

This year's wonderful idea was that the championship's start was too low-key and that we needed a big opener with Dublin at home in Croke Park to 'set the tone'. Of course. Like those big full-house National League openers with Dublin at home in Croke Park which are forgotten within a couple of weeks and have no effect on crowds for the rest of the competition.

The great thing about something that everybody knows is that it can't be disproved. It's just right in some integral unprovable way. It belongs to the world of faith rather than reason.

But in reality the championships are going pretty well. Everyone salivated over Euro 2012 but did it contain that many games which surpassed the Kilkenny-Galway, Tipperary-Limerick and Tipperary-Cork hurling games for sheer visceral excitement? Or the Meath-Kildare, Down-Monaghan and Sligo-Galway football clashes for that matter?

This country is struggling on many fronts. A fairly shocking survey published during the week by the Irish League of Credit Unions under the title 'What's Left' found that more than 1.8 million people in this country have only €100 or less left when their household bills are paid each month. Four out of ten adults have borrowed to pay a household bill in the past year, half of all households struggle to pay their bills on time, 602,000 have no money at all left when bills are paid.

But against this frankly frightening backdrop the hurling and football championships could boast an average attendance of 16,032 last year. You want to know how good this is for an amateur competition in a small country with a small population? It's better than the average for the Heineken Cup (14,423), the Brazilian Serie A soccer league (14,058), the Russian Premier soccer league (13,066) and England's Aviva Rugby Union Premiership (12,925). And it compares pretty well with the averages for America's mighty NHL (17,455) and NBA (17,244).

If you're getting the sort of numbers the GAA attracts in through the turnstiles, chances are there's nothing drastically wrong with the championships after all.

Why doesn't everybody know that?

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