Let’s take the public first. Most sports fan in Cork claim a devotion to the hurling team but the funny thing is the vast majority of those people are not members of GAA clubs. Well, not if membership extends beyond dropping the children off at training or having once played juvenile back in the day. Some may never attend club matches either or even deign to support their favorite team in the less glamorous and altogether colder atmosphere of the National Hurling League.
Yet, once the warm(ish) weather comes, these same individuals are the ones who flock to Thurles and all other venues, bearing aloft that wonderful, international selection of flags. In the heat of the championship then, there is nothing to compare to the Cork public in full voice. Yet, the reality is vast swathes of them do nothing at all to contribute to the hurling team or the game in the county for the rest of the year.
Worse again is the fact a portion of these fans watch the games they supposedly savor with a few pints on board and then offer ludicrous opinions about the performances of individual players. If you drove a car after four Heinekens on a warm day, you’d be legally impaired. Yet, these characters reckon their ability to assess the way the match went is unaffected by the beer goggles.
It would be interesting to quantify just how many of those who turned up to march last Saturday, in what was an incredible show of loyalty, fit into the category of people whose only input to the sport is buying jerseys, merchandise and tickets. That number would be telling because, in its own defense, the GAA can and no doubt will point out that beyond marches, there are existing democratic structures available to their members to affect change within the organization.
Of course, these structures are hopelessly outdated, ridiculously outmoded and, in some cases so labyrinthine as to take years of politicking to negotiate. In some cases indeed, the exact inner workings are only understood by long-serving county board aparatchniks. Which brings us conveniently to the officials, the second group in this bizarre equation.
They are the least fashionable brigade in this war and, in a lot of ways, deservedly so. However, they also collectively manage to do the work that keeps the games going in Cork and every other county. These men (and it is still mostly men) and their predecessors are the ones who put in the long, selfless hours to ensure that the GAA is the country’s largest and most successful sporting body. Not to mention one with a land bank of grounds and stadia that is the envy of their competitors.
The officials though are guilty of not moving with the times. They are happy to go along with the existing system because, in their classic response, that’s how it’s always been done. And sure didn’t Cork didn’t win All-Irelands without ever getting involved in any of the new-fangled nonsense. Yes they did. But in the 21st century, soccer has never been stronger at grass-roots level because it offers kids more games, and the battle for other hearts and minds is being won through impressive marketing by Munster rugby. And did we mention the fact the divisional system is about half a century past its sell-by date?
For all the justified criticisms, these men put in the hours. Long hours too. Thankless hours. All they get in return is heaps of ridicule from the media and easy access to tickets during the couple of weeks a year when they are at their most scarce. For this, the public also begrudge the county board man. Surely, a couple of handy tickets is the least they deserve for all the meetings they turned up to. Of course, some of the players might rightly contend they turned up just to say “Yes Sir, No Sir, three bags full Sir.”
The players are the most fashionable group in the argument yet also the most maligned. They put in hours upon hours of preparation away from the bright lights and the big days. They sacrifice personal and professional lives in the pursuit of glory, and then discover that the county board they supposedly represent resent their holistic approach and consider every request for help to be an imposition. In the background, the fact the players are now entitled to earn a few bob from endorsements is held viciously against them by officials, most of whom do nothing to stop the widespread payment of under the county money to coaches all over the county.
Effectively, the players stand now where the Irish rugby team stood just over a decade ago. Remember back when the oval ball crowd wanted to be able to compete with the best in the world but IRFU heads who’d worn the jersey generations earlier still felt a bit of boot, bollock and bite would be enough to yield Triple Crowns? It took time but those suits eventually saw the light. Well, the Cork hurlers know the lengths they have to go to in order to compete but they are playing for a county the leaders of which are not yet prepared to accept the reality of sport in the 21st century.
Meanwhile, the public are stuck in the middle, growing increasingly desperate as they see their cherished summer passion slipping away. In the absence of prolonged sunshine, the only thing guaranteed by the calendar every year is a couple of days out with the hurlers. Take that away and the next march might not be so peaceful.