Hailing from the Aran Islands, O hEithir didn’t understand that an entire constituency all over the nation wouldn’t have complained if that had been the case. Those who know firsthand the singular joy that particular day of days can bring would surely have filed any such proposal under never getting enough of a good thing, and cited it as further evidence of how in tune that taoiseach was with the spiritual needs of his public.
O hEithir’s would-be put-down came to mind last week when it emerged the GAA are already busy trying to come up with a new format for the hurling and football leagues and championships. A constant willingness to try to improve its competitions like this is one more reason why it can claim to be the greatest sports organization in the country, and quite possibly the finest amateur body in the world. Yes, yes, we know the GAA isn’t perfect, but where else would you find the sort of soul-searching that meant a few days before Cork and Waterford drew 52,833 to Thurles, a high-powered committee was meeting to examine the current structures and to try to better them?
Something definitely needs to be done because the present system, which ends next year, is far from perfect. Great as it is that players now get more than one day out, flaws persist. Since the maniacal brand of training came into vogue in the early 1990s, demanding much larger sacrifices than before from hurlers and footballers, it was imperative that they be given a second chance at advancing. A more significant reward for the incredible effort put in over the six or nine months leading up the championship, this welcome change has also wrought an inevitable devaluing of certain other currencies.
Even before Paidi O’Se’s side exacted revenge in Croke Park, the Cork footballers’ defeat of Kerry in the Munster championship last summer inevitably inspired much less satisfaction than in previous years. After all, there’s a big difference between ending a team’s season and merely interrupting it. How much sweeter would Laois’s recent dismissal of the Dubs have been back in the day when the denizens of Portalington and Emo could have known they were marching on while the Arnotts jerseys were going back into the wardrobes for another year?
In the Irish Independent last week, Vincent Hogan floated a scheme for hurling that will be at the very least a worthy contribution to any forthcoming debate on this subject. With counties separated into Divisions One and Two, Hogan touted a “merit league” which would be run off between April and June. The seedings for the subsequent knock-out, quarterfinal stages of the All-Ireland would be based on the results achieved in those games. A strict schedule of weekly games using extra time instead of replays for draws would also eliminate instances where some counties get two weeks rather than one between matches. To appease traditionalists, the Munster and Leinster counties with the best league records would still get to meet in their respective provincial finals.
Would a Munster final held under those circumstances be somehow considered inferior? This is the crux faced by the committee. How do you retain the special quality of the championship while ensuring teams get a proper number of competitive outings? The financial strain placed on the association by the reconstruction of Croke Park means the funds generated by intercounty matches are more important than ever but changing the format to incorporate some sort of league structure and increasing the number of fixtures that can be termed championship games may not be the way forward.
At one point during UEFA’s persistent tinkering with the Champions’ League, Johann Cruyff said that it was in danger of becoming a decaffeinated competition. And he was proved right. Those of us who soldiered long and hard on Wednesday nights in the 1980s, eavesdropping commentaries from all over Europe via the crackle and hiss of a dodgy BBC Radio 2 signal were initially thrilled to have so many of these games shown live on television. Yet, now, there are plenty of people who regard the present elongated version of the European Cup as a pathetic imitation of what it used to be. Things don’t really heat up now until the quarterfinals. Far too much foreplay and not enough consummation.
Another potentially enormous drawback from more championship games is that it would place increased pressure on the players. At intercounty level, Gaelic football and hurling are already fast becoming the preserve of single teachers, students and those few lucky enough to have understanding employers and wives. Creating a format that would demand more commitment from the participants will inevitably lead to calls for them to be properly recompensed for their role. While no hurler or footballer should ever lose money for his contribution to the games, can an association so financially compromised by that fantastic stadium afford pay-for-play?
One more caveat is the way some people say this quest to improve the product on offer is essential to the development of the so-called weaker counties because it will offer them more high-profile games. Well, the most successful hurling county in recent years has been Kilkenny and anybody who cares to look behind their All-Ireland successes will find that they are putting more effort and enterprise into the development and coaching of young players than any other outfit in the country. Their talents don’t just burst out of a vacuum into Croke Park. The lesser counties would definitely get a boost from playing in the sun on the big day in the nice stadium. Still, there’s nothing like the long-term benefits available from just tending the grassroots properly over a number of years.