Monday, June 10, 2013

Addressing Inequality in the Football Championship

The Championship has never been equal. The hurling is the more unequal of the two major codes in Gaelic Games, with three counties holding 75% of the All-Irelands, but that doesn’t seem to get the same why-oh-why coverage about inequality.

Maybe football gets more coverage because it’s played more widely or because, football being a simpler game than hurling, people always think every county has some sort of a mullocker’s chance at football. Mullocking will never save you hurling against Kilkenny, but playing Kerry on your patch on a horrible day – well, men can dream, can’t they?

Maybe that’s why the current inequality seems so traumatic. Even though the Championship is built on counties, and counties have never been equal, in either population or football tradition, there was always that chance of dogs having their days. Now even that is gone. The other reason has to do with the state of the modern Championship, of course. We’re four weeks in now and nothing’s happened. Nobody’s lost. They’re all still there, waiting.

So what to do, with this inequality built into the system? People write in newspapers or post on message boards about new Championship formats, some of them quite byzantine in their complexity, but none of them address the basic inequality, that some counties are bigger than others and always will be.

To find out if inequality is an issue, the GAA has to ask itself what is the Championship really for. Is it to achieve the highest standards in athleticism, or is it partly that, but more so a pageant of county’s pride and heritage, where the flying of the colours is more important than winning or losing?

If it’s the former, what will that entail? Do we do away with county boundaries? Do we amalgamate counties, redraw provinces, introduce a transfer system, go professional? Will Irish children support teams in the future the same way they support English soccer teams now and in your youths, through dumb luck with no local connection, no pride of place? Is there any turning from this road, or is it an inevitable evolution?

Your correspondent hopes not. Your correspondent, dreadful old Tory that he is, misses the nobility and the honour of the old Championship, when it was all about representing home, hearth and heart in one ball of white summer heat.

All that is gone now. Now, not only are the historical haves and have-nots with us, but the gap is now greater than just population and tradition. The gap has increased exponentially by the new professionalism that exists in the game, where scientifically devised methods of training have created a new breed of footballer playing a new type of game.

Workrate is the buzzword in football now. Workrate is what you have to up when there’s some buck in a suit standing at your shoulder in the office with a clipboard ticking off how many times us visit Facebook or the GAA Board or, God save us, An Spailpín Fánach, that well-known blog on contemporary Irish life, when you should be filling your spreadsheets or writing your few yards of code. Football is meant to be about glory, drama, fun – all those things that work is not.

How did it come to this? An arms race, at the start. County A starts spending X pounds a year on the county team, with dieticians and GPS trackers and psychologists and what have you. County B has to catch up, so they sign up for all that and throw in cryogenic chambers and bonding sessions in upscale resorts and motivational speeches from retired rugby players. And then County C have someone fly home from ‘Merica on his private jet with a slideshow and a bag of used bills and a plan to set up the old homestead on the map, yes sir, you see if I don’t. And then County A realises it’s fallen behind again and – well, you get the picture.

That creates one level of division. What really stretches it is that this new level of training has created a football that isn’t really recognisable as football any more. None of the great teams of the past could live with a modern All-Ireland contender. If a modern team played Eugene McGee’s Offaly of the 1980s, the modern team would eat Offaly without salt.

Spit and sinew was the underdog’s only chance against the big gun. Now, it’s the big gun’s chief weapon. Offaly’s skill level would couldn’t for nothing against the modern team’s workrate, and there weren’t many soft boys on that Offaly team. It’d be like fifteen frogs being fed into a combine harvester. Whirr, splat.

The rules have failed to evolve with the greater physicality of the men playing the game at the highest level. And it’s only through the rules that change can come, and some of balance can return between physicality and the more finesse type skills of the game.

Perhaps there should be rule differences between county games and club games? There is already a time difference – why not introduce a few more differences? Limit handpasses, redefine the tackle, be less naïve about tactical fouling. Identify the true skills of the game and reward them. It’s not that hard to do if people put their minds to it.

This isn’t about punishing good teams to level a playing pitch. The greater team must always beat the lesser, but that greatness must be because they are greater at football, and not because they are better at pumping iron or at eating more boiled chicken for breakfast.

FOCAL SCOIR: Second Captains let themselves down badly on their podcast of last Tuesday week by having a crack at Leitrim’s potential place in the last twelve of the country. “Leitrim playing into the middle of July having not played a county from Ireland … [compared to Tyrone], who have just engaged in a war with the best team in the country and now have to win three Qualifiers to get to the same position. I mean, it’s just utterly ridiculous.

Your faithful narrator doesn’t get how beating New York and London makes Leitrim children of a lesser god. How is that a lesser achievement than Kerry also being in the last twelve having beaten Waterford and Tipperary by a combined total of 6-39? Either county can only dance with the girls in the hall.

Leitrim aren’t even in the Connacht Final, but if they do make it it’ll mean the world to them. A provincial final appearance means less than nothing to Kerry. The Second Captains should pick on someone their own size.