It’s f***in’ even worse than last week
I don’t know where the vendor who had set up camp near Mackey’s pub for the Waterford-Clare match on Sunday had been the previous week but he must have thought that things were bound to be better in the vibrant temple to Gaeldom that is Thurles. Instead a paltry crowd of 12,296 turned up. It was so bad that even the Munster Council didn’t try to pretend that this was acceptable. You could put such an attendance in its historical context. According to the match programme the 1962 clash between the two counties attracted 2,500 punters to Thurles, and even the 1992 first-round replay could only manage a crowd of 7,500. Factor in the 2010 game mentioned by Seán Walsh (11,000) and crowds are actually on the rise, right?
Enough with the smart-alec attitude, clearly something is wrong. Tickets are too expensive – I cringed at the sight of my neighbour piling into his car with his family. I dread to think how much it cost him – and Thomas Keane summarises the arguments for a price cut pretty well. His point about not worrying about what other sports get up to is particularly apposite. However, it’s unlikely ticket prices are going to fall. They would have to halve to make an appreciable difference to people’s pockets and while it’s all very well grabbing at low-hanging fruit like hurl walls most of the expenditure of the Munster Council would be missed by the plain people of the Association were it to be withdrawn. As Thomas notes, there was a time when the GAA could charge what it liked. But it’s not just recession that means people don’t go to games. Matches between Waterford and Clare outside of a Munster final have lost their lustre, just as they didn’t appeal to the punters of 20 and 50 years ago when prices would have been counted in pennies. The hardy 12,296 souls who turned up last Sunday would probably have paid €40 while slashing prices to €15-€20 wouldn’t have led to a huge increase in attendance. Are they gouging the dedicated supporter like my neighbour? Yes they are. Alas, the GAA has to get its money from somewhere and that’s the road it has chosen to go down. The trick for the GAA going to forward must be to make games like last Sunday’s more attractive. And what I would propose has been inspired by an article a few weeks back by Ewan MacKenna about the Dubs and their use (and abuse) of Croke Park.
MacKenna catalogued the benefits to Dublin of playing in Croke Park and his piece had the near-unrecorded effect of changing my mind on the subject. And buried within was the observation that staging matches in Croke Park has the unintended impact of reducing the hype surrounding the build-up to the match. Part of the thrill of the championship summer is chasing tickets. Discussions of who is going and who might have access to the oh-so-precious tickets creates a positive feedback that is worth having itself. Imagine if our game on Sunday had been played in Walsh Park. It can hold 12,000 people, and you can be certain that there would have been thousands of extra people for whom being there would have become the most important thing in the world and they would talk of nothing during the week before the match than of how some pen pusher in the County Board was hoarding all the tickets for their cronies. And that’s before you consider that people would be forced to put their money down before they know what the weather would be like. No more deciding on the morning of the game whether you were going (can you imagine what the crowd would have been like on Sunday had the weather been as bad as it had been in the week leading up to the game?)
Unlike Cusack Park in Ennis, Walsh Park is not a serious prospect for packed Championship games. There’s a perfectly valid stand-in as Waterford’s home venue less than an hour up the motorway though – Nowlan Park. It was floated as an idea eighteen months ago at the county convention and when you look at the attendance on Sunday it looks that bit more attractive. Both Limerick and Clare would doubtless be thrilled at the prospect of home-and-away arrangements and it would mean never having to visit Páirc Uí Chaoimh again for matches with Tipperary outside the Munster final – that’d spike Frank Murphy’s guns and surely no-one could object to that.
Of course the Munster Council will probably object, and I’m sure a few of my fellow Déisigh will feel humiliated at the thought of going cap-in-hand to the Cats for a place to rest our weary head. But is it any more humiliating than the turnout last Sunday? Everyone in work on Monday was buzzing about the match, an example of the greatest game on Earth at its tub-thumping finest, yet the only other person who had gone to Thurles was an American! Something has to change. That’s my proposal, for what it’s worth. The authorities cannot seriously think ‘more of the same’ is the way forward. Can they?
That was a curious old affair in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Wednesday night between Tipperary and Cork in the Munster Under-21 championship. For 55 minutes it seemed rather bloodless and despite never stamping all over Tipp, Cork always seemed to be in control. When they took an insurance-score four point lead with seven or eight minutes to go it looked like that was that.
Then suddenly Tipp went nap. Five points in the last five minutes and the only time in the match they were in front was the only time when being in the lead mattered. It was to Ger Fitzgerald’s credit in the post-match interview that he managed to remain so calm in the face of such a collapse. Having lost both matches in the Minor championship we can all anticipate a bout of Corkonian navel-gazing at their woes at underage level, and that can only be a good thing.
Result of the night thought had to be in Port Laoise where Laois knocked out the defending Leinster champions Dublin. When the results came around near the end of the programme it took me a few second to take the news in. This was partly because the word ‘Toradh’ at the top of the screen hit my synapses not as ‘Results’ but as ‘Fruit’. Which makes sense, when you think about it. Once I’d gotten past that piece of Pythonesque farce the enormity of the result sunk in. My nephews are from Laois and while they are too young to understand – 3½ and 1½ respectively – they will be brought up to support Laois. It suddenly looks like a less grim prospect than before. Maybe when they reach their teens I’ll be vicariously living off their happiness rather than the other way around.
One final thought. I’m all in favour of the back door, but the decision to leave the Under-21 championship as pure knockout is a stroke of genius by the GAA. I’d go so far as to say that the do-or-die nature of the competition, combined with the grown-up nature of the competitors, makes the Under-21 championship more prestigious these days than the National Hurling League. No pressure on our Under-21’s next month . . .
This week in your IR£1.18 – get ready, it’s coming back – Tramore Hinterland the strange circumstances that created a sense of solidarity around the Irish provinces in the Heineken Cup, and why it might not be what the IRFU were looking for.
The Heineken Cup semi-finals take place at the weekend and there has been much feverish debate about . . . whaddya mean you didn’t know they were on? I thought you were the biggest baddest rugger-supporting mutha in the land. Oh right. Only when Munster are involved.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Read more…
Far be it for me to scoff at another website for giving out duff information after having the wrong date of our final NHL match against Galway on the site for, ooh, about six months. But you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t laugh at the Indo’s blunder on Thursday when they let a generic match report prepared in anticipation of the Leinster Under-21 football final between Wexford and Longford slip through the net. The link is gone, but with the magic of Print Scrn. . .
Between the matches on Sunday I asked my sister’s boyfriend if he could check on his Blackberry what was happening in Croke Park. “World War III” was what was happening. The events at the end and in the aftermath of the Leinster final throw up three areas for discussion:
- the violence displayed towards the referee
- what should be done in terms of awarding the game to Louth or having a replay
- the quality of referring
Number 1 can be disposed of easily enough. There’s no justification for the violence meted out on Martin Sludden and it’s astounding to see the extent to which the likes of JP Rooney are doing just that. Anger isn’t a justification for violence whether it be because you’ve been robbed of a first title in fifty-something years or someone spilled your pint in a nightclub. There are tangential issues regarding the response of the Gardaí and the security staff at Croke Park, the same people who whisked Jimmy Cooney off so fast as to make a restarting of the notorious Clare-Offaly match in 1998 impossible. Then there’s the noteworthiness of Peter Fitzpatrick’s response, calmly (or as calmly as you could expect) remonstrating with the ref on behalf of his entire team and physically defending him from the fellow countymen who sought to bring shame on them all. Ultimately, it needs to said loud and clear: it was unacceptable, and hopefully prosecutions will follow.
The second issue is what should happen next. At the time of writing attitudes are hardening in Meath towards the notion of having a replay, and you can see their point. Colm O’Rourke touched on it on The Sunday Game when he wondered whether there would be the same furore if the roles were reversed. The answer to that is: absolutely not, everyone would be chuckling at Meath’s misfortune and rejoicing in how the fates had delivered a wee county from a hemicentennial famine. If we are to ask Meath to make what An Spailpín Fanach has referred to as “a truly regal gesture” then we have to accept that they have the freedom to be merely ordinary and say that no, what we have we hold. As for the Pontius Pilates in Croke Park who have washed their hands of the whole affair, you can see their point too. In an era when the GAA are habitually ridiculed for the Byzantine lack of decisiveness of their appeals procedure, establishing a precedent where every referring decision is up for grabs would be a recipe for anarchy – indeed, Ben O’Connor’s ‘point’ is even being seriously referenced as something Waterford should be able to query. Hard cases make bad law, and they don’t come much harder than this. It looks like Louth are going to have to console themselves with the reality that the back door means their season isn’t over like it would have been back in the day.
(It probably should be noted that I might not be so blasé about the phantom point if Waterford were still chasing their first Munster title since 1963. This would be entirely correct, but that only emphasises that the last people who should be asked for a lucid opinion on the Louth-Meath game are people from Louth and Meath.)
Finally we come to the more long term issue to arise from this debacle, that of the standards of referees. It’s easy to feel sorry for Martin Sludden if you look at things from the point where he frantically demands of a guard to know what he was doing as the mob descended intent on tarring & feathering him. Remember, the bottle that struck a steward on the head was directed at the referee and God knows what manner of items could have been hurled if they were available. But rewind things back a few more seconds and it becomes harder to feel sorry for Sludden. Given what had just happened the response of the Louth players was relatively restrained, mainly because of Peter Fitzpatrick’s firm handling of the situation. There were no Roy Keane-style spittle-flecked tirades. Yet there was Sludden blithely firing out yellow cards, at one stage even looking like he gave one to a supporter!
The extent to which referees exist in their own bubble of certainty is one of the great problems facing not just Gaelic games but all sports with an adjudicator. Seven years ago, I wrote about a soccer referee who, when watching the footage of a clanger he had made in match in the 1970’s, could not bring himself to say that jeez, that wasn’t one of my finest hours. You could argue this doesn’t apply to Martin Sludden who has admitted his error, but in some ways that only makes things worse because the likeliehood is that he knew he’d gotten it wrong at the time but was too stubborn to admit it. Look at the Frank Lampard goal against Germany that wasn’t given during the World Cup. People watching it at home on portable TVs on the far side of the room could see it had crossed the line, yet the referee and linesman couldn’t. Kevin McStay criticised Sludden for not getting closer to the action, but how much closer did he need to be to see that Joe Sheridan had not kicked the ball over the line, the only way he could possibly score once he had caught the ball. Neither Jorge Larrionda or Martin Sludden should have needed video technology to tell them that the ball was over the line / not kicked over the line. I would suggest that had they taken a few seconds – several, if need be – to digest what they had seen they would have come to the right conclusion. Instead they both made their minds up instantly and insisted that reality would have to bend to their will rather than let them be seen to be weak. As Martin Sludden trotted in to talk to the umpire any thoughts that crap, I’m not sure that was a goal, were ruthlessly crushed by the mental processes that have informed referees since time immemorial.
Referees have got to realise that the tough man stance that may have served them well back in the days before cameras were scrutinising every move are long gone. Perhaps taking your time will only bring another set of problems – you only have to look at the aggro when an offside flag is late to see that – but it certainly would have done Martin Sludden the power of good.
Picture it. Waterford. 1991. Since we had won our first ever title in 1929, we had managed to win something – anything – in every decade. Until the 1980’s, that is, when we had not only won nothing but had plumbed the depths of Division Three hurling and been massacred in our three Munster final appearances. We’d even had the privilege of watching the team implode live on national television in the 1989 final. Not a good time to be following the Déise.
The 80’s had been a grim time for the GAA. An All-Ireland hurling semi-final had been attended by a mere nine thousand souls (Galway – Cork in 1985) and the Ulster and Connacht football championships were utterly bankrupt – the champions of those provinces had not beaten a team from Leinster or Munster since Galway in 1973. It’s hard to sustain interest in a sport when there is so little competition among all teams in general and from your own in particular. Add in the thrill of Italia ’90, and people were asking in all seriousness where the GAA was to go from here.
The first step in the rehabilitation of the GAA came from Meath, or specifically the sensational clash between Meath and Dublin in the 1991 Leinster championship that captured the imagination of a nation. It was so all-consuming that even my mother sat down to watch the fourth and decisive match. I had developed a loathing of the Royal County in the preceding years, fuelled by paternal links with Cork and the cast of, er, characters that populated Sean Boylan’s team. Every match you’d watch hoping they’d trip up, every time they’d sail close to the wind, and every time they’d squeeze through. They were behind for most of the semi-final against Roscommon but with a mixture of grit, nerve and (I can admit this nearly 20 years on) talent, they were ahead at the finish. Another failure from the Connacht crew. It was galling, and all the more compelling for that.
Meanwhile in the other half of the draw, Kerry had sucker-punched a previously dominant Cork to come out of Munster. No one was thinking they were world beaters – the hiding they had taken in the 1990 final and the less-than-stellar manner in which they had disposed of Limerick saw to that – but they were still Kerry, right? Yes, they were and while Down had a cute record of never having lost to Kerry in the championship, they were still from Ulster and thus were going to fill their appointed role as the Munster team’s bitch. Even leading for much of the game did not change that. Had Tyrone not done the same in 1986?
Then it happened. It may not have played out exactly as I remember it, but the sentiment is what matters. A slick Down move saw Peter Withnall put clear through on Charlie Nelligan and he smashed the ball to the net with aplomb. Suddenly Down were in a winning position and they never faltered in the remaining time, belief that they would do it coursing through every action. Watching it at home, I was gobsmacked. A minnow could put it up to one of the kingpins of Gaelic games and succeed.
Five weeks later Down were back in Croke Park against the evil Meed, and it was clear they meant business. The sea of red and black that rippled across Hill 16 was utterly inspirational, one Tricolour-wielding fool only slightly marring the beauty. Down duly shot down Meath, even withstanding one of those famous zombie-like comebacks. For the first time in my lifetime, a team who had no expectation at the start of the year to winning the All-Ireland had won the All-Ireland.
A year later another county would unexpectedly taste success. I genuinely don’t think this is a coincidence. Could Donegal and Derry have won Sam Maguire if Down had not shown them the way? And why should such a transmission of belief stop at the Ulster border? Since then, I’ve always had a soft spot for Down. They showed the rest of the GAA world that it could be done. And more importantly, they showed me that it could be done, something has sustained me to this day.
The 2009 All-Ireland hurling championship starts this weekend, and the marquee game is unquestionably the one in Thurles between Tipperary and Cork. The more interesting one though for those of us who obsess about how the GAA is run is in Portlaoise between Laois and Galway. Taking place at the time of writing, you don’t need to be Nostradamus – or even someone could really predict the future – to see this one is going to end badly for my wee nephew’s county. Still, the prospect of seeing Galway in the mainstream of the championship as opposed to standing outside demanding the mainstream divert itself into their path is a positive development.
This isn’t a cut at the Leinster championship. It is self-evident that the Leinster title lacks the allure of its Munser counterpart, but this isn’t because of an inherent lack of competitiveness – indeed, if lack of competition were a reason to denigrate a tournament, we wouldn’t be bothering with the Liam McCarthy Cup itself. It’s that for those of us willing to defend the centrality of the provincial championships in the All-Ireland series, the absence of Antrim and Galway was a glaring anomaly that needed to be addressed.
I’m unconvinced that any open draw system will make the hurling championship ‘work’. People talk of Champions League-style group stages, but we had that a few years ago in the qualifiers and it was not a success. Waterford whipped the mid-ranking teams then had their fate decided by their efforts against Clare (an away defeat) and Galway (a home win). However devalued the provincial championships might have become by the back door, and there is no point in pretending that there has been no devaluation, there is still a frission of tension generated by competing for trophies with a century-old pedigree. It would be hard to retain any of that in a round-robin format, and the amount of dead rubbers will reach Ireland-Davis-Cup-match proportions.
Of course, that’s not to say the provincial championships are inviolate. If they are so damaged that they can’t be fixed, it would be time to replace them. Even the Railway Cups had to put out of their misery. Hopefully the fix getting its first run today will prove sufficiently robust to keep these venerable old competitions on the road.
Leinster’s tremendous win in Murrayfield yesterday will doubtless bring the usual bout of GAA hand-wringing about the threat of the oval ball game to the association, concerns exemplified by Tom McGurk’s self-satisfied observation aprés match that Leinster had players from “Carlow, Louth, Kildare, Wexford . . . and Dublin” (the last place was admittedly a good quip).
And it would be foolish to deny that Leinster’s success is going to be a tremendous boost to Irish rugby. This time last year, all the egg-chasers eggs had been put in the Munster basket. Now they have another team of winners to look to, and the Grand Slam to boot. As someone whose time and energy in Gaelic games is invested in the efforts of a high profile team – in fact, I’d go so far as to say that if I couldn’t anticipate a few big matches with Waterford during the summer, I wouldn’t be bothered much by the All-Ireland at all – it would be ill-advised to ridicule rugby’s grass roots efforts.
Obviously that’s the cue for some ridiculing of rugby’s grass roots efforts. For while I may be a bandwagon GAA supporter these days, I did at least play the games back in the Mesolithic, something that was essential to the development of any interest later on. Waterford should be fertile ground for the advance of rugby yet with the relegation of Waterpark, the title of being the nearest senior rugby club to the city is a close run thing between Midleton and County Carlow. When the best that Waterford has to offer is managing to lose a mere two of their fifteen games by seven points or less, the GAA needn’t be quaking in its boots.
People had questioned our integrity, our pride, our passion, but we produced a big passionate performance today
Brian O’Driscoll is one of the classiest acts knocking around in sport. Quite apart from being a genuinely world class player who applies himself with diligence to his craft, he is modest in victory and generous in defeat. When asked a number of years back after another quarter-final disappointment for Leinster who he would be cheering for in the rest of the tournament, he replied “Munster, of course!” and you could see he meant it – it never entered his head to think otherwise.
Which makes the quote above all the more significant. Even someone as mellow as O’Driscoll found the constant cuts at Leinster’s supposed lack of pride to be galling. Imagine if he had read Leinster being described as “those British chaps from Dublin“? Imagine then his thoughts as he went out to face that bould son of Erin, Lifeimi Mafi. Pain? In the words of another fake Irishman, the trick is not bothering about the pain.
I’m generally dismissive of the notion that players can be buoyed up by the words of their opponents (see: Richie Bennis), but that doesn’t mean you should tempt fate. Munster and their boosters have being doing this for years now, and it well and truly blew up in our collective faces yesterday. If nothing else, the embarrassment factor should mitigate against such behaviour.
Of course, some would argue that Waterford are in no position to be lecturing anyone on pompous jersey-kissing antics, to which I’d say that you are right. The embarrassment factor certainly applies when the men who would die for the jersey are as good as their word on the biggest occasion. But at least no one from Waterford has ever said or implied that pride in their county / province is unique to ourselves. When the Irishmen of Leinster take to the field against Cardiff or Leicester in the ERC final, it’ll be interesting how many of the proud Paddies will be rooting for them.
One of the more nauseating media spectacles in recent times was when Ireland played England in rugby in Croke Park for the first time. The levels of ludicrosity were turned up to 11 when Girvan Dempsey dived over for the first try and some wag noted that it was the spot where Michael Hogan had been shot by the Black & Tans on Bloody Sunday, thus demonstrating that we had finally grown up as a nation. Even more so than when we finally grew up as a nation when we removed the ban on divorce from the Constitution. But not as much as when we will finally grow up as a nation whenever the next requirement for us to grow up a nation hits the collective hack in-tray / inbox.
But speaking of immaturity, am I the only one who upon hearing the words “Croke Park” being uttered by a British accent does an immediate double-take? With the Munster – Leinster clash in the Fizzy Dutch Pilsner Cup coming up this weekend we’ve been hearing it said quite a lot in that accent from the likes of John Inverdale, which is quite separate from all the times I hear it in, uh, my own house.
It’s not as if it bothers me that soccer and rugby are being played in Croke Park (well, not much). It simply seems alien to have the Brits, who for years were blissfully unaware of the existence of the GAA, to be referring to it at all. It’s like the episode from the cartoon The Critic, when Jay Sherman decided to moonlight as a trucker. He is accosted by a Sheriff Buford T Justice-style lawman and his simpleton goon and, far from being made to squeal like a pig, is lauded for his cosmopolitan city ways from the Mostly Mozart-loving hicks. It just doesn’t seem right, and it never will.