Once again, as the championship draws near, Kilkenny were ominously good. It wasn’t that an emerging Limerick side tugged the forelock or anything like it as they lost by six points, 3-11 to 0-14, it was just that Kilkenny were Kilkenny.
The annual game in GAA is to play down the importance of the league, and to direct the main beam of light at the All Ireland title, but under Cody, the hurlers of Kilkenny have invariably been bristling with intent from March onwards. Thus, the accusation that the reason Kilkenny have now won the secondary competition for the fourth time in five years is because they take it more seriously than the rest.
Wrong, said Cody. “We just take hurling seriously, to be honest. Our players try very hard to get on the team and to stay on the team, and that’s what it’s all about.”
The perception too is that the GAA takes its hurling seriously. If football has its fascinations, its availability to a wider audience, it is essentially a hybrid. Hurling, by contrast, has an individuality, a value that makes the sight of two players rising high in the air to break a ball down, or of a long-distance puck soaring through a clear sky, especially Irish.
To witness the dexterity, bravery and sheer color of an All Ireland hurling final before a packed Croke Park is to have tasted a rare dish. Heading into the winter after yet another summer of intense competition, we realize one more time why hurling is held so close to Irish people’s hearts.
Yet, for all the fervor that exists in counties like Kilkenny, Cork, Clare, Waterford, Galway, Tipperary, Wexford, Limerick and Antrim, hurling is nowhere near as healthy as it should be. The sport that defines Gaelic games is played with such a limited commitment and passion, that at best only eight or nine teams are strong enough to win an All Ireland title.
Take counties like Kerry, Mayo, Meath, Roscommon, Tyrone and Armagh where hurling is a second-class citizen. Proud areas of Gaeldom where football rules, and where hurling has suffered from neglect.
Dublin, meanwhile, is the elephant in the GAA’s room. Despite its population base, the county has consistent punched below its weight when it comes to hurling, and the last time the county even reached an All Ireland decider was as far back as 1961.
There was a victory in the league’s Division Two final over Kerry last weekend, but of late there have been nothing but false dawns in Dublin hurling, and right now, Kilkenny’s footballers would have nearly as good a chance as Dublin of winning an All Ireland championship.
Well-informed commentators such as Liam Griffin, who coached Wexford to an All Ireland title in 1996, has bemoaned the lack of interest in hurling outside of the mainstream counties. The sweep of football is much wider, giving any number of counties a shot at either provincial or All Ireland glory, but the GAA has failed to spread the hurling gospel.
The recent appointment of Paudie Butler as national hurling co-ordinator is an indication that the GAA realises it has a problem. One of Butler’s main missions will be to coach the coaches, and to reinvigorate the counties which have been left to their own devices.
As muscles are flexed before another championship summer, the top tier of hurling is alive and well, but below the waterline there is far too much stagnant water.
Player welfare might
top Brennan’s agenda
The new GAA president Nickey Brennan had his first meeting with the Gaelic Players Association earlier this week. One topic most certainly not on the agenda was pay-for-play. At his inaugural speech to Congress, Brennan had insisted that the issue of pay-for-play would not be “entertained or even discussed” over the three years of his presidency.
Subsequently, there were suggestions that he was being mischievous by ascribing a pay-for-play agenda to the GPA, an agenda which the players’ body has strenuously denied, but Brennan wasn’t about to be deterred adding that he believed remuneration was one of the GPA’s goals.
So, quite how the new president skirted around the issue is anybody’s guess right now; but what is certain is that player welfare will be a recurring theme of Brennan’s presidency. While at this early stage he appears to be speaking the GPA’s language, it could be that the GAA has begun an attempt to defeat the GPA at its own game.
In already announcing a plan which includes the appointment of a player-welfare officer, the provision of college and university grants, the promotion of players making personal appearances for gain, as well as the involvement of players in marketing the games, it appears that Brennan’s ultimate aim could be to subsume the GPA into the GAA.
Chief Executive Dessie Farrell and the GPA will surely reject any plan that they might see as compromising their independence, and as the wheels of the GAA tend to turn slowly, progress between the two sides could be painfully slow.
Brennan’s predecessor Sean Kelly cleared the way for soccer and rugby to be played at Croke Park, and that was the overriding legacy of his presidency. Brennan will have to spend much time dealing, or possibly not dealing, with a group of players take has grown more militant in the past few years.
Watch this space.
Howzat? Irish team
went, saw, conquered
Cricket? It has had one or two red letter days over the years, but frankly, no one in Ireland gives that much of a damn. Too rarified, too British, a hangover the days of colonial influence, and it’s undeniable that the sport is mostly confined to a certain coterie.
The private schools of Dublin, parts of Northern Ireland and the merchant princes of Cork have kept the game alive on the island, but then there are outposts such as the villages of North Dublin were cricket is played with a real zeal, and without any emphasis on class.
Even if interest in this neck of woods is largely generated by England’s fortunes or misfortunes, the Ireland team continues to plow a furrow, and last weekend, it made the headlines with an extraordinary win over one of the top English counties.
Ireland traveled more in hope than expectation to play Gloucestershire in Bristol, and came away with a highly impressive victory. While it might not have been in the same league as the historic win over the all-conquering West Indies in the late 1960s — the word was that the West Indies were a bit tired and emotional after a late night — this was the first time the Irish had beaten and English county team outside of Ireland.
Admittedly, Ireland were permitted under the rules of the competition to field a couple of overseas players — one, Shahid Afridi from Pakistan, emerged as the key man — but there was also some superb batting from Eoin Morgan and Peter Gillespie as victory was achieved by 47 runs. The game’s denouement took place in a stunned silence as the home supporters found it hard to believe what they were seeing.
When he was captaining America’s Ryder Cup team, Tom Watson had a motivational thought for his players on the first morning of the matches against Europe: “Remember — everything they invented, we perfected.”
For a moment last Sunday, Ireland’s gallant cricketers felt the same way.
Brady plays host in
Highbury’s last days
This reporter managed to deliver on a promise recently for a star-struck, Arsenal-obsessed 10-year-old, by procuring tickets for one of the English soccer club’s last games at Highbury, North London, before the stadium is demolished and the team moves to a gleaming new facility nearby.
The day at Arsenal was made all the more memorable by the fact that Liam Brady — a former Arsenal and Ireland legend, and all-round good guy — had agreed to meet and greet us at the stadium. In fact, it was initially difficult to get through the throng to talk to Brady as he remains a magnet for even the youngest of autograph hunters at the club.
Later a star player with Juventus, Inter Milan and Sampdoria in Italy, and now Arsenal’s head of youth development, it was easier for the older members of our group to recall a time in the 1970s when Brady, Frank Stapleton and David O’Leary — all Dubliners — formed the backbone of the Arsenal team.
For our game against Tottenham Hotspur, there wasn’t even a single English player in the Arsenal line-up, never mind an Irish player, such is the cosmopolitan nature of soccer in England these days.
Still, a small sense of national pride was salvaged by a flick through the match program, which revealed that the Arsenal ladies team — the current English champions — has three Irish players on its books.