Thursday, June 05, 2008

In Defence of the Football Championship

Every summer someone else is at it. Sticking a finger in the football Championship pot, giving it a lick, pulling a face and saying “ugh! yucky,” ignoring the fact that generations have been raised from that same skillet containing that same stew. Kevin McStay is at it in this week’s Mayo News, Martin Breheny took a cut in Saturday’s Indo and, heartbreakingly, the gallant Willie Joe of the Mayo GAA Blog had a cut about a fortnight ago.

The cavils against the Championship are usually aimed at its structure, on the basis that the structure isn’t “fair,” whatever that means. Different structures are proposed, getting more baroque with each iteration. A Champions League style with eight groups of four, with seeding for the groups decided by the De Hondt system they use for elections in the North. Matches are then played in a anti-clockwise round robin, and the result, for a group made up of Carlow, Cavan, Roscommon and Kerry, say, is that the first three counties play each other in front of small crowds in games that mean nothing because there is no history between the counties, and then each one goes off to Tralee for a massacre. And when the smoke finally rises there’s the Kingdom, happy as you like in the quarters at the August Bank Holiday weekend. Just like now.

When people say the current system isn’t fair, they don’t outline what system they think would be fair. At what stage will it be alright for one team to give another a hiding? When Kerry are thumping Carlow or Antrim or Leitrim instead of Clare or Tipp or Waterford, what’ll be so far about that? And what’s so unfair about Kerry winning three in a row this year, as they look more and more likely to do? They’re only the best team in Ireland, after all. Who is being robbed? Or are all games to end in draws from here on in, and the winner decided by Tribunal? Where’s the fun in that?

People say Kerry have an easy run through Munster, and advantage they would not enjoy if they swapped places with, for instance, their great rivals from the first half of the twentieth century, Cavan. And that’s true. But isn’t it odd then that the Ulster Championship isn’t hailed as the greatest of the provincial Championships? It’s hailed as the very opposite in fact; our national football ideal is to watch Kerry exterminate some hapless goofs while the sun is declining above the blue sea. You can’t have it both ways, and in attempting to have it everyway, people are blind to what they do have in the Championship, a Championship that has lasted over one hundred years and is, thank God, still thriving today, despite meddlesome interventions and external pressures and hopeless naivety with regard to the threat of competing codes.

What is the Championship about? Is it about finding the best team in Ireland? No, it’s not. It’s a knockout competition – that is not the best way to find the best time in Ireland. The best way to find the best team in Ireland would involve in-depth statistical analysis of data, with the results being announced at the winter solstice on the Hill of Tara. It would find the best team alright, but it wouldn’t be much crack. My own sweet county Mayo are clearly the fourth best team in Ireland as regards consistency of Championship results since the century began – I don’t remember any laurels being handed out for that.

Can you be All-Ireland Champions without being the best team in Ireland? Of course you can. It’s wonderful to win an All-Ireland when you’re the best team in Ireland because it confirms your status, but being the best team doesn’t mean someone won’t come along and take Sam from in front of your nose. In fact, there are those who will say that is the sweetest way to win of all. Try S. Darby, Rhode, Co. Offaly – he’ll confirm the hypothesis. Even Kerrymen can tell you that – An Spailpín Fánach vividly remembers a Kerryman trying hard to remember a worse All-Ireland than 1997, while showing me pictures of his toddler sitting inside the cup. Thirty-odd titles followed by an eleven year famine confirmed for that man that you win them any which way you can, and when you get them you hang on tight.

So the Championship is not fair, the best team doesn’t win and it’s still the best cultural, social and sporting event we enjoy as a nation. How can this be? What makes it so good?

Ask Hannibal Lecter. He knows.

Remember the scene in Silence of the Lambs, the last time Hannibal meets Clarice, before he escapes wearing some poor eejit’s face as a disguise? He asks Clarice what do we covet, what do we want most? And he says we covet what we can see every day.

And that’s the magic of the Championship. It pits each of us against those whom we know. The fundamental fact of the Championship, the sine qua non, the very atomic structure of the thing is that it’s local. That’s what makes it so great. We get all het up is because the opposition is that county that is only be a field of rushes distant from us. The Provincial/county/parish division is arbitrary and irrational, drawn up by the cartographers of a British Empire ruled by a German king nearly three hundred years ago, but they are fundamental to the Irish psyche now. The birthright of any man from Knocknahaglish is that he can look down his nose at any man from Glendagower because Knocknahaglish Sarsfields beat Glendagower Pearses by three points in the Championship, and the Sarsfields with only fourteen men for the entire second half. That’s the miracle.

If Mayo play Donegal in the Championship, it doesn’t really mean anything apart from to either side. It’s a game, but it’s nothing more. But if Mayo play Roscommon, it’s another gracenote to a continuing unfinished symphony, with movements already devoted to Kevin Cahill and Locan Dowd, Enon Gavin breaking the crossbar, Derek Duggan’s seventy yard free, Dermot Earley being carried around in honour on his final day by Willie Joe Padden and Eugene Lavin, Joe McGrath crucifying Harry Keegan for 2-5 in the Connacht Final and Roscommon still beating Mayo out the gate. You’ll be a long time with your Champions League round robins before you replicate that.

The Championship is the distillate of those local rivalries writ large on the stage of glory, where the finest of each county are assembled to do battle for the honour a division on a map drawn by a man wearing a powdered wig, a cocked hat and breeches, and who didn’t know a double-hop from a foot block. That’s miracle of history and tradition, and that’s the miracle of the Championship. And I use the word “miracle” advisedly – it is genuinely miraculous that the Championship has survived into the twentieth century, it being the anachronism that it is.

The GPA are tearing at it, the backdoor has disfigured it and the country is warping and changing too rapidly for us to be able to say if any of this will be relevant in twenty years’ time, but while it’s here we should treasure the Championship for what it is – a miraculous freak of nature, happenstance, the dead weight of tradition and living pride of place that gives meaning and definition to every summer in Ireland. The backdoor will be closed soon now that the mania for wasting money is over, and the Championship will please God be restored to its natural order, when the five to five feeling of a high summer Sunday dictates whether you have another day out or if there’s always next year. Go máire an Craobh go deo.

Technorati Tags: , , ,