Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The National Football League - Sure Lookit, It Is What It Is

There’s an ad currently on the radio currently to promote the National Leagues. All well and good, except that it sounds like it was written by someone who was never at a National League game in his or her life. Or if he or she was, he or she certainly had no idea of what was going on for the duration of the event.

Presumably, the GAA is trying to orient itself as a competitor against other sports entertainment products (rugby, in other words; the LOI isn’t likely to have the Croke Park mandarins trembling in their boots anytime soon) currently available to the Irish consumer.

If that’s the plan it’s a bad one, for two reasons. The first is that the GAA will lose. Professional sports can make demands of professional players that the GAA cannot and – hopefully – would not dream of doing. Rugby, even with that watery Magners League, can put on a show that the GAA just can’t. I believe they even have bucks to tell the crowd when to cheer now. Every detailed covered, the rugby lads.

The real pity about it though, is that the GAA doesn’t have to compete. The GAA is like nothing else on earth. It touches Irish people in ways and places that they can’t describe. And it would make more sense for the GAA to celebrate its own uniqueness, rather than trying to sell a spirit-duplicated copy of someone else’s game.

The conventional formulae of advertising are not best suited to selling the National Football League, the Zeppo Marx of the Irish sports calendar, to the expectant masses. Stuff about “brace yourself for impact when titans collide” doesn’t really describe the atmosphere in somewhere like St Conleth’s Park, that tight little bandbox of a stadium by the banks of the Liffey in Newbridge in early February, or the strangely lonesome feeling you get in your bones on a cold, floodnight night in O’More Park, Portlaoise or Pearse Stadium, Salthill, on nights when titans collide but no-one turns up to look.

The closest your correspondent has ever been to Páirc Uí Chaoimh is watching old footage of Siamsa Cois Laoi from the 1970s, but if you were to tell me the place is pretty much like the poop deck of the Marie Celeste for any of Cork’s League’s games – well, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

The League isn’t for winning, either. Every February, there’s a unanimous chorus in the media and from the GAA managers who drone on about the importance of the League but if you’re playing for the big pot, the League is only a training ground and nothing else.

It’s only in the lower Divisions, III and IV, that you see real competition, as everybody knows you’re not going to last long in the summer if you’re only cutting your teeth against the Wicklows and Waterfords of this world in the springtime. But for the big dogs, for all their rhetoric, it’s no real skin of their nose if they never win a League game so long as they’re set better for the summer in May than they were at the butt end of January.

Getting relegated, of course, wouldn’t be good, but it doesn’t have to be a disaster either. If Mayo, say, got relegated, while James Horan might need a bodyguard for a few months until the notoriously volatile support got over it, it would be worth it if the price of relegation were figuring out a way to get the O’Shea brothers and Barry Moran all starting together. Or if Horan found a bit of company for Cillian O’Connor in the forwards, where some old soldiers are surely burning a little diesel at this stage.

Paddy Power, when not making fools of themselves in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, have Dublin hot favorites to retain their National League title at 6/4 with 4/1 the field, headed by Mayo, Tyrone and Kerry. Westmeath and Derry, the two promoted counties from last year, are favorites to drop right back down again, with O’Byrne Cup winners Kildare at 13/8 to start missing the Geezer very quickly.

Even at that short price, Dublin to win the League is not a bad bet. The huge Dublin panel gives Jim Gavin options that no other manager has, and his problem isn’t whom to start but whom to leave on the bench.

However. A notion is now abroad that a Dublin dynasty is about to rule the land for the next five or ten years, and your correspondent isn’t quite convinced. Certainly, this is the best Dublin team since Kevin Heffernan’s time, God be good to him, but five-year navy-and-blue Reich is by no means a sure thing.

Dublin have a huge panel, but there are men on whom Dublin are heavily reliant, with Stephen Cluxton the most obvious of those. Michael Dara McAuley is another, and the volatile but gifted Diarmuid Connolly is a third. Dublin could be a different team if those men weren’t to start. They’d still stroll Leinster, of course, but Dublin could be suddenly vulnerable in those games of inches in August, when presence or absence of talisman can make the difference between and losing.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The summer is a long time away and in the meantime, we have to content ourselves with the League. For all the muttering in Mayo, the All-Ireland finalists will be disappointed with anything less than both points in Newbridge on Sunday, leaving just another three to be found from the remaining six games to guarantee safety. Westmeath and Derry must win their first games or else their years could be over before Valentine’s Day, while the others in Division I are likely to just keep on keeping on.

Division II looks quite competitive this year, with only two to come out of Donegal, Meath, Ulster Champions Monaghan, Down and Galway. If they don’t make it, at least they’ll learn something playing each other.

In Division III Sligo and Roscommon will be desperate to escape while Cavan surely want to build on momentum built last summer as the Kraken prepares to finally awake after all these long years.

As for Division IV, best leave that to the always sublime Keith Duggan in this marvellous profile of Leitrim’s great Emyln Mulligan in Saturday’s Irish Times. The radio copywriter could do with a read of it too – he or she might learn something about the true titans of the Association.