Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Time to Shut the Back Door

Frankie Dolan - The Broken Heart of the RossSeán Moran remarks in this morning’s Irish Times that attendances at the weekend GAA games were not as wretched it as it would appear – Mr Moran has looked at the figures and, as it turns out, the figures have been wretched for some time. And this is still the Championship proper, you know – wait until the un-appetising qualifier fare of Waterford v Longford, or Antrim v Clare, rolls around, and you’ll know what the deserted village looks like without ever once having to consult your collected volumes of Goldsmith.

If the Irish Times’ GAA reportage of the past number of years is to be believed, attending GAA games is a deeply spiritual experience, that is not only rewarding in itself but a Holy Day of Obligation, which brings Dire Punishments on those who make mock of The Faith – witness Tom Humphries’ excoriation of the Mayo supporters who left the All-Ireland Massacre of 2004 early. That unknown but immensely gifted priest who put an eighty-year curse on the Clare hurlers because of their supporters leaving Mass early was only in the ha’penny place with Big Tom in late September ’04.

And as for those who thought that gifting Croke Park, the jewel in the GAA crown, to competing codes was like turkeys voting for Christmas – they were damned to the Hills as troglodytes, bog-hoppers and “backwoodsmen.” Backwoodsmen was an interesting assignation, actually – there are very few remaining woods in Ireland since Cromwell’s visit in the 17th Century, revealing that those who gloried in the use of the pejorative simply read it in a book, instead of thinking up their own material. But never mind – the simple GAA man or woman was assured that for as long as the shamrock would bloom in Erin the masses would pay €25 a scalp and more to games that didn’t matter a damn to either the players who played in them or the three boys and a man who watched them.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that cruel fate has condemned you to Cork. You are sitting by the Banks of the Lee, ating crubeens washed down with Murphy’s stout, and fashionably dressed in a Roy Keane t-shirt. You are considering driving to Limerick for tomorrow’s game. But you have over one-hundred All-Ireland titles in the bag already – after that, it takes something to be on the line to get you out of the cot in the morning.

What was on the line for Cork yesterday? Nothing, and nothing will be on the line for some time. A visit to the qualifiers is no real big swing to a county thinking in terms of All-Irelands. They know the real thing doesn’t begin until the August Bank Holiday weekend, and everything before that is just so much throwing of shapes. Pass the crubeens.

What, then, was on the line for Limerick? This is where it gets interesting, because the evidence shows that the real legacy of this Back Door System is to comfort the strong and afflict the weak. If you’re a Limerick football supporter, what was on the line for you on Sunday? If you lost, you know the past few years have been for nothing. But if you won, what progress have you made? How nearer to glory are you? You’re in a Munster Final, but you’ve been in Munster finals before, and don’t remember getting all shivery on the strength of that alone. Will Kerry fear you because you dispatched Cork? Well, no, they won’t – Kerry, like Cork, are thinking Sam, and they know that this is just shadowboxing as well.

This is issue of the devaluation of the Provincial Finals. It’s not that winning a title means less, although it clearly does; it’s that losing a title means less, and simply gives the strong teams more room to manoeuvre.

People who condemned the old knock-out system as “unfair” forget that unfair cuts both ways. While it might be “unfair” that your non-traditional power gets hammered like a nail nineteen years out of twenty, that one twentieth year when the non-traditional power strikes back and leaves the traditional power dead in a ditch is equally unfair. It’s unfair on the traditional power, who would certainly reverse the result in a replay, and it’s unfair on the rest of Ireland that some middling team is that much nearer an All-Ireland than the rest of the country because they had a lucky day at the office.

If a system is “unfair” to both sides, doesn’t that mean, by definition, that it must therefore be fair to both sides, and thus universally fair? An interesting syllogism, don’t you think?

If abstract reasoning isn’t your bag, consider the very concrete case of Roscommon, who host Galway this weekend in Hyde Park. Roscommon have been considered a top-table football power since Jimmy Murray’s day. The past five years suggest that Roscommon are now second division, and that slide is likely to continue unless something happens very soon. How did that happen?

The popular perception is that it all stems from rank indiscipline in the Roscommon ranks, nudie pool, porter babies and all the rest of it. Now, when their was a story in the Sunday Times the week before last about Vinnie Murphy of Dublin exposing himself to Star Trek actor Colm Meaney and quipping “Beam Me Up Scotty,” there were no photo sensation stories in the Sunday People. And young men having a taste for porter is hardly news in Ireland – it seems unlikely that a Roscommon man’s preference for the Devil’s Buttermilk should be any stronger than a civilian’s. So maybe the explanation of Roscommon’s decline being due to Mr Booze is a superficial and incorrect one, and perhaps greater detective work is required.

It’s interesting, when one talks to the Rosserini, that the chief gripe the Roscommon supporter has with his or her football team over the past number of years is a distinct lack of pride in the jersey, something that was never, ever, associated with the primrose and blue before. This is not a result of porter – the jersey smelling of last night’s booze and fags is a result of porter. What can make a man lose respect for his county jersey, which he has loved since he was a child?

Could it be the perception that the jersey doesn’t mean what it used to? An Spailpín Fánach has been wondering over the past number of months if what happened to Roscommon in the 2001 Championship had the same effect on the Roscommon football psyche as a meteorite crashing into Strokestown – was that loss an extinction-level-event for the Roscommon football psyche?

Consider the facts of that Championship. Roscommon went to Tuam as massive underdogs against a Galway team that were unlucky to lose the previous year’s All-Ireland after a replay. But Roscommon won the day, because Séamus O’Neill played the game of his life, and because Paul Noone marked Michael Donnellan so closely that an ecstatic Shannonside radio commentator Willie Hegarty was moved to remark “If Michael Donnellan went down the town for a bag of chips, Paul Noone would be in the door ahead of him.” After winning the subsequent Connacht Final, Roscommon’s first Connacht title in ten years, Roscommon marched on to face ... Galway.

Galway? But surely Galway were already slain? Up to a point Lord Copper; Galway were cast from the light, but, like the most beloved of the angels, Galway rose from the lake of fire to contend for greatness again. They arrived in Castlebar to put down the insurrection, and put it down just as thoroughly as Major General Havelock put down the Indian Mutiny. And Roscommon haven’t been seen or heard of since. They fluttered briefly in the qualifiers in 2003, until they were coursed out of Croke Park by Tommy Lyons’ Dublin I believe, or possibly Kerry. But other than that, they’ve been dead in the water.

The GAA, surveying the wreckage in Castlebar after that Galway-Roscommon game of 2001, decreed that the slaughter of the innocents was a bit much, and put an addendum into the back door system, forbidding rematches unless they became inevitable, but the damage was done. It is now clear that a traditional power has two lives in the Championship, whereas a weaker county has just the one. The most thing that a weak county had on its side, the element of surprise, is now denied it, while the traditional powers continue to scheme for September as they always did, except they are now aware that they have a greater margin of error until the hay is saved and August has rolled around.

The spectators aren’t getting a great deal either. A philosopher and Roscommon man remarked to An Spailpín at the time of the introduction of the new system that the people of Ireland were now denied what he coined as “the five to five feeling”; meaning, in the old days when all the games started at half-three, by the time five to five rolled around you know whom was slaughtered and whom had survived; whether the traditional power still stood mighty, or whether it had been slain by an underdog team that suddenly had the gates of glory yawning open before them, if they would only take their blessed opportunity.

No more. Now when five to five rolls around, the crowd mooches out of the ground just like they mooched in, fully aware that the real thing doesn’t begin until the August Bank Holiday weekend and this has been like a league game, only with better weather. And when the August Bank Holiday weekend rolls around and Croke Park is sold out, Marian and the Irish Times and the rest of them will tell us all is well with the GAA and isn’t it great those frightful backwoodsmen have been beaten back to their shacks, but by then another county will have atrophied, and another light will have gone out where the GAA used to be.

It’s time to shut that back door while there’s still a horse left to bolt. No knock-out system is going to be foolproof; if the GAA wanted a foolproof system to decide who would be All-Ireland Champion they should hire a consultant from KPMG to write a report, but it’s hard to imagine a full house at Croker turning up to hear him read it. What the knock-out system provides is hope and glory, but this is a glory that has been diluted by the advent of the back-door system and a hope that has been all but extinguished. The back door must be closed before the candle finally gutters to its end.

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