Wednesday 22 November 2017

Daniel McDonnell: Soccer still the biggest ticket

Insecure GAA folk revel in football's woes but fans will flock back under right manager

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

THE Catholic Church has suffered a fair bit of shame and embarrassment in the last couple of decades but, even in the darkest days, you wouldn't hear commentators speculating that it could be good news for Judaism or Protestantism or the Jedis or whatever you're having yourself.

It is curious, however, that in this supposedly sports-mad country, where the devotion of fans is frequently caked in religious language, there is a natural assumption that one sport's misfortune is immediately another's opportunity.

The beauty of timing placed this year's All-Ireland hurling final between Ireland's fateful World Cup double header with Sweden and Austria.

When Clare and Cork served up a classic, there was no shortage of experts queueing up to unflatteringly compare it to the frustration and lethargy of the loss to Sweden at the Aviva Stadium 48 hours earlier.

OVERPAID

In the RTE studio, Liam Sheedy could barely contain himself, sniffily drawing a comparison with the fare served up by the 'overpaid' footballers in the Swedish encounter.

This is a familiar theme, a boring old chestnut. On radio a few weeks back, in the midst of the understandable euphoria following the Dublin-Kerry thriller, Ray Silke saw fit to refer to the low-scoring Premier League fixtures in the preceding 24 hours as though this was somehow landing a jab.

It's a strange mindset. With the GAA continuing to sell out their marquee games and the hurling replay set to net the association a further €2.7m, there is a bizarre insecurity about the temptation to give other codes a dig in the ribs – and it's generally 'the soccer' – in the afterglow of a superb Croker afternoon.

What are they so worried about? The wages in football are obscene of course, but the sport is swimming in cash because of television revenue and that's because people the world all over want to watch the Premier League.

Hurling is still a minority pastime in large parts of Ireland. There are a few more bridges to cross before it conquers Bangkok.

In all seriousness, though, it is an absolute nonsense to theorise that the exploits of hurling's best practitioners could somehow have a knock-on effect for the football team in this supposed battle for hearts and minds.

We are given the same spiel when the rugby provinces deliver on a blue-chip Heineken Cup weekend.

It suggests that the empty seats at Lansdowne Road for soccer internationals, a product of bad pricing and an unattractive style of play, have been vacated by people who are now devoted to the sliotar or the oval ball.

That may be true in the corporate world, an area that seems to have an unhealthy number of lifelong rugby fans who discovered the sport in their early 30s, but it is simply not the case when it comes to the general areas of the ground.

There are plenty of disillusioned football fans out there who who could fill Lansdowne 10 times over if they were happy with the state of the national team. They were deeply frustrated by the Trapattoni era and chose to keep their money in their pockets.

The disaffected congregation extends from embattled League of Ireland followers to people who save their cash for trips to England. Take the Dublin Decider as an example, the glorified Celtic-Liverpool friendly which sold out in minutes.

Similarly, the launch of the Champions League group stages this week will show the lure of Messi, Ronaldo, Van Persie and Co is as strong as ever. It will dominate Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and keep pubs in business through the winter. The challenge for the FAI is to tap into the appetite that exists.

In participation terms, their sport is still the pacesetter, and the weight of national news coverage which accompanied Trapattoni's departure last week asserts that, ultimately, the Irish football team has the power to generate more discussion than any other sporting unit in this country, even if that chat manifests itself in the form of an underhanded swipe from the righteous.

What is it they say is the only thing worse than being talked about?

For the Abbotstown brains trust, the hope is that a new manager delivers in the short term, while they must prioritise speaking to the right people – Brian Kerr springs to mind – about concocting a coherent long-term strategy.

There will be occasional battles with their counterparts over elite players but that's about as far as the competition goes.

The success or otherwise of other sports is irrelevant to their next step. Certainly, a challenging time lies ahead, yet they can progress safe in the knowledge that the latent support is there.

Their priority has to be getting their own house in order. Put that right and they'll have no reason to worry about the neighbours.

Irish Independent

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