Friday, July 30, 2010

Falling GAA Attendances - Of Course It's Economic

The All-Ireland quarter-finals on the August Bank Holiday weekend were the shining proof that the qualifier system worked, once. Full houses on two, or maybe even three, days, the city en carnivale as the nation celebrated its Gaelic games.

That was then. Now, the GAA will count itself lucky to get eighty thousand people in total through the turnstiles for all four games. There was an extra-ordinarily ungracious movement in 2006 to have the Tommy Murphy Cup final moved from Croke Park in order to make way for more Dublin fans for the semi-final against Mayo that was on later that day. The GAA would be very grateful to know where exactly those Dublin fans have been this year, that were beating down the gates to that extent four years ago.

Tom Humphries' Locker Room column in the Irish Times last Monday week argued that the fans are not staying away for reasons of economics. Humphries dismisses the argument in a sentence, claiming that “if the elasticity of demand for tickets to sporting events were price-related Gaelic Games would fare well being comparatively cheap and good value entertainment.”

To which An Spailpín cannot but wonder: what sporting events? What events in Ireland compete with the Championship? The only team game comparisons that An Spailpín can think of are rugby, for which you cannot buy a ticket, and domestic soccer, for which you cannot give the tickets away.

Ireland isn’t like the States, where the major sports compete with each other. In team sports in Ireland, there has been the GAA and then there has been the rest. Club rugby’s profile has taken off with the arrival of professionalism – and the redefinition of “club” of course - but whether that’s something that will last is worthy of a post in itself. Perhaps when the leaves start falling.

In the meantime, An Spailpín’s dollar says that the failing attendances are due to economic factors. Economics, as Tim Harford as Steven Levitt have pointed out, is about more than the price on the packet. There is a such a thing as inherent value, and the inherent value of a Championship is lessened by its current formats.

The double header was made much of in the glory years, with a lot of old blather about your day being just backed with Gaelic games goodness. Well, not quite. It’s like those multiple DVD sets you see in HMV. You might want to watch one, maybe two, but never all three. And that’s why they package them – because there’s no way they’ll move the glugger otherwise.

The double header format is like its odious twin from the Tiger years, the two bedroom apartment. A format that allows the seller to maximise profit to the disadvantage of the buyer. Double header formats are value for money for the fan if your team wins the first game and will play the winners of the second. Otherwise, it’s an extra twenty bucks tariff on your ticket price. But back in the Tiger days – what was twenty bucks?

The double header name comes from baseball. But the only reason – the only reason – they play double headers in baseball is because games are lost to rain during the season and it’s only by playing two games on one day later in the summer that they can catch up, as baseball is played daily.

Nobody pretends that a double header is some sort of bargain. It’s a necessary evil to play a 162 game regular season. The double header format for Championship games here is the second bedroom in the apartment – what you don’t need and can’t afford, but what generated some serious cash in boom times.

And the other problem is the back door system itself, of course. After ten years, it’s obvious the back door favours the strong and punishes the weak. The only chance weaker counties had of glory in the old system was shocking a power. Now that’s gone because the power can dust himself off and rise again, making damn sure not to get caught the second time. One of the reasons that attendances are down until now is because it’s only now that they’re playing for keeps. It’s happened year after year, and in both codes.

Tom Humphries sets great store in the Locker Room piece already quoted about what a glorious game Waterford’s win in 2004 Munster hurling final was. All An Spailpín knows of it is this – that the team that lost that 2004 Munster final, Cork, went on to win the All-Ireland. Not every team can win the All-Ireland of course, but did Cork’s winning the All-Ireland then devalue the Munster win for Waterford? Ask yourself which of them was happier that Christmas, and you have your answer.

Enjoy the football at the weekend. For anyone that has any money left after following An Spailpín’s tale of woe this season, two bets. A small tickle on Roscommon against Cork, because that 8/1 price is an insult, and if anyone has a market on sendings-off in the Dublin v Tyrone game, that could be worth a tickle too. It won’t be pretty in those trenches on Saturday evening.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Triumphant Return of Mr Sherlock Holmes

It was hard not to grin like an idiot watching the updated Sherlock Holmes on the BBC on Sunday night. Updating an icon is a little like defusing a bomb – cut the wrong wire and it’s curtains.

Instead, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss successfully remained true to the spirit of the original while updating Holmes and Watson from Queen Victoria’s London to Boris Johnson’s.

It’s not the first time Sherlock Holmes has been updated, of course. The marvellous Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies were updated to the 1940s for reasons of patriotism and they worked, because the character stayed the same. There was nothing eminently Victorian about Holmes – he is the timeless archetype of the man who can figure anything out. He transcends eras in that sense.

How, then, to make Sherlock Holmes work in 21st Century London? The great city herself is a start. London looked wonderful in the first episode of Sherlock, and certain iconic London landmarks are used with great skill, not least the house at 221B Baker Street itself.

An Spailpín made it his business to pay it a visit on a trip to London once, being a fan of long-standing, and it was just wonderful to see Holmes and Watson fly out the door into the recognisable 21st Century night on Sunday.

Stephen Moffat has a gift for casting. After the triumph of Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor Who, Moffat has hit the jackpot again with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson. The tense, coiled spring presence of Cumberbatch is reminiscent of Jeremy Brett, and no greater praise exists.

Watson is a triumph. Watson represents the plodding mortal against the Sherlockian superman, viewing Holmes with our eyes and ears. Martin Freeman’s glum, stoic and impossibly, glorious British Doctor Watson is a triumph. He is the mustn’t-grumble Britisher that took Quebec and held Rourke’s Drift. And he gets some terribly droll lines too.

The writing is another triumph. The dialogue crackles and, while the plotting was a little weak in the first episode, the primary goal was to establish the characters and these are now already carved in stone as a truly great Holmes and Watson.

The sublime nature of Mycroft Holmes’ entrance leaves little room for doubt that the next two episodes will be of sufficiently fiendish cunning that even the Sunday Game itself will have to take a back seat to the rejuvenated bloodhounds of Baker Street. The game is very much afoot.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

So. Farewell Then, Alex "The Hurricane" Higgins

The Hurricane is at peace at last. Alex Higgins, the most glamorous, sulphurous and exciting snooker player in the history of the game has finally succumbed to cancer at the age of sixty-one. One generation will feel very old at the news, and struggle to explain their sense of loss to a coming one.

Snooker is not now what it was then. The standard is higher, but the appeal is less. Ronnie O’Sullivan reeling off yet another maximum break doesn’t make the news now, because nobody cares. Back in the 1970s and 80s, it seemed like everybody cared, and it was Alex Higgins that made people care.

In the 1970s and 80s, Alex Higgins was exactly what mothers didn’t want their sons to turn into if they heard young Johnny had started hanging around snooker halls. Nobody approved of Higgins. He drank, he smoked, he chased women, and he even wrangled an exemption from the WPBSA that meant he didn’t have to wear a tie.

Mothers hated Alex Higgins as a supreme bad influence on their boys, while the snooker establishment despaired of a rising generation ruined by Higgins’ unorthodox, cavalier style of play.

Snooker in the 1970s was a staid game played by retired Welsh postmen and policemen. A wide boy drunken Irishman, with a blond on each arm, a bottle of whiskey under his seat, and a tendency to lance the cue ball like a matador applying the coup de grace to a particularly truculent bull was not what the authorities wanted.

Naturally, Higgins then proved to be the best thing that ever happened the sport, because he was that bright flaring light, blazing away in the smoky fug over the baize while the outside world dealt with oil crises and miners’ strikes.

Higgins as a player was probably at his best when he won the first of his two World Championships, in 1972 against John Spencer. But 1982 was Higgins’ masterpiece, and fixed the sport in the popular imagination for the next twenty years.

Snooker, in its days of immense popularity, was never about the game alone. Snooker at its height was soap opera, and 1982 provided melodrama in spades.

The WPBSA had a limit of 128 professional players at the time, and that meant the players were all known, even to casual fans. They were recognisable personalities who appeared over and over again. The grand old men, Reardon and Spencer and Pullman. Steve Davis, the heir to the throne. Kirk Stevens, who was so zany he had long hair and a white waistcoat. Jimmy White, the teenage star whose talent would surely claim the World Championship someday. And Hurricane Higgins. The crazy, drunken Irishmen whose natural talent for snooker was in perpetual battle with his equally felicitous talent for self-destruction.

The 1982 final opened up as a contest when defending Champion and red hot favourite Steve Davis lost in the first round to Tony Knowles. Davis would go onto dominate the game in the 1980s but his early exit in 1982 allowed the final became a twilight of the gods event when Higgins played Ray Reardon, a six time winner whose final great showing at a tournament this was to be. Higgins outlasted Reardon, and the erstwhile Hurricane’s tearful embrace of his wife and child at the end of the match is one of the iconic images of sport in the 1980s.

For both Higgins personally and game of snooker itself, things were never as good again. As the standard of snooker got better in the next twenty years, the drama slowly drained out the game. The players’ talent evolved past the limits of the twenty-three balls on a table to the point where watching snooker became like watching expert craftsman building a wardrobe. You know not everyone could do it, but it’s not very exiting to watch for four hours.

Everything went downhill for Alex Higgins after 1982. He only won one other ranking competition, in 1983, as he slowly faded away as the years went by. The hard living caught up with him, as recent pictures so distressingly proved.

An Spailpín saw Alex “The Hurricane” Higgins in action once, playing a pool exhibition in Sally Long’s bar on in Galway in the early 1990s. He came into the bar surrounded by bouncers fore and blondes aft, played some frames against selected opposition, and took great care not to mingle with the locals at any stage, his attention being concentrated on the ladies instead. It seemed a lonely and empty life.

But Alex Higgins’ worldly troubles are over now. He’ll feature heavily on the news bulletins tonight, and young men will momentarily look up from their wiis or x-boxes and playstations and wonder what all the fuss is about. Sic transit gloria mundi. God have mercy on the Hurricane.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Two Gaelic Football Bets for the Weekend

Tradition is the funny man. The lazy notion that’s been prevalent in some media about the Connacht Championship being strictly an either/or affair between Mayo and Galway down the years is not true.

Roscommon have had a nightmare decade but they have a proud football tradition – not as successful as Mayo or Galway but considerably better than the other three Connacht teams combined. Roscommon have two All-Ireland titles, nineteen Nestor Cups and four All-Ireland runner up appearances, and every man, woman and child in Roscommon are fully aware of that as they fly under the radar to the Connacht Final in Castlebar on Sunday.

Roscommon were never as successful as Cavan in their pomp but Roscommon haven’t fallen as far as Cavan yet, although it looked very bleak for a while. Boxing Sligo’s ears for them would be something that would help remind the new generation of their responsibilities to those that wore the primrose and blue with such staggering pride in the past.

An Spailpín has seen the Rossie support at matches in recent years, their constant hearts breaking as humiliation heaped on humiliation. But still they came back. They never deserted the colours. The desolate stands at Salthill or as expected later today at Headquarters are hard to imagine replicated in the Hyde, and that fierce pride counts.

Counting against Roscommon is the fact that Sligo are the better team this year, any way you slice them. Sligo have better players and, while you can only dance with the girls in the hall, Sligo’s will and resolve will have been tempered by a path to the Final that went through Mayo and two games with Galway.

Historically, Sligo would have wilted in the replay after Galway reeled them back in Salthill, but this is a New Model Sligo. If the Yeats county do win on Sunday they are the unquestionably the greatest Sligo team ever and there’s no reason why they should set a horizon on their ambitions.

The media will set the provincial title as the limit of their ambition but if you look at the road to September and of whom Sligo should be afraid – well, it could be one Hell of a summer for them yet.

But first they must get past Roscommon. Sligo are no price at 2/7 and, while we wouldn’t be surprised if the Ross rose again, we wouldn’t expect it so much as to part with folding green in a recession economy.

However, there is a good bet available for the Connacht Final, and that is that there will be more than one goal scored between the two teams, currently quoted at 4/5 and rising on Betfair.

The Sligo fullback line is dodgy and Roscommon suffer from a lack point-scorers. This suggests that a few scuds into either Donie Shine or Karol Mannion on the edge of the square will be an avenue that Roscommon will be eager to explore.

Equally, the Sligo corner forwards have shown an assassin’s touch so far this summer and the mighty Cake is no longer between the sticks for the Ross. Over 1.5 goals in the Connacht Final is a good bet.

Only a madman would bet on Derry v Kildare or Offaly v Down, as not one of the four of them can be relied upon to play up or down to recent form, which is very much when the only way to make money is to keep it in the póca. Cork will almost certainly slaughter Wexford, but they’re no price at all and that’s no good to us.

However, Armagh are quoted at 13/8 against 6/4 on favourites Dublin at a deserted Croke Park later today and that is one price that An Spailpín cannot get his head around at all. The matchless Kevin Egan believes that Dublin can win pulling up but Dublin appear a team in disarray swirling down the crazy river to your regular correspondent.

Armagh have their problems since the glory days ended but my goodness gracious, 13/8? I am kurious, Oranj, but that’s a hearty bargain that doesn’t come along every day. A bag of groats, then, on the Orchard County this evening before looking to the blessed West tomorrow.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Meath's Unique Opportunity to Make a Truly Regal Gesture

Fate has gifted the Meath County Board a tremendous chance to remind the nation of what the GAA is truly about. If Meath to offer a replay to Louth after the bizarre ending to today’s Leinster final they will make it clear that how you play the game really is more important than winning or losing.

Sport is a funny thing. In the fury of battle we have tropes about games being more important than life or death, but they’re not. They’re just games. They’re important because what we do in play should reflect what we do in real life. The values of our society should be reflected in the values of our games.

Meath can turn today’s refereeing blunder to everybody’s advantage by saying that titles come and go but values are eternal. This is why there’s a tremendous moral obligation on Meath to offer Louth a replay of the Leinster Final. Meath are big enough; another Leinster title won’t effect them one way or the other, and even if they lose they’re still in the All-Ireland Championship.

But by offering a replay Meath will demonstrate that in their bones they understand why we play the game. They cannot concede the title of course because Louth did have enough chances to put the game away and not get caught in the 73rd minute – Louth today learned that you really do have to play better than the referee referees. But in offering Louth a replay Meath can show that football is not about war or conquest but about honour, nobility and dignity.

Sportsmanship counts for more than titles. What worth is a title when nobody admires you for winning it? If Meath march on in the Championship, they will be like men who dressed as women to climb into the women and children’s lifeboat, and the stain will last forever.

The title is poisonous for them. Everyone they play will know what happened today, and they will think: you’re Meath. You’re meant to be bigger than that.

Meath is the royal county, one of the perennial aristocrats of Gaelic Football. They are fourth in the roll of honour with twenty Leinster titles and seven All-Irelands. They can afford to make a sporting gesture to a neighbour and a sleeping giant of the game.

Tommy Carr was on the radio earlier this evening saying that a replay was impossible. Why? There is precedent. Didn’t Clare offer Offaly a replay in the hurling in 1998? Could that replay have gone ahead if Clare hadn’t put the good of the game first, to their own great disadvantage? Why can’t Meath do the same?

Meath could offer a replay and it not to happen. The GAA could refuse (and open a whole other can of worms, but we won’t worry about that for now) or Louth could think completely outside the box and decline the replay, to try their luck in the qualifiers. What a supreme gesture that would be against the vicissitudes of Fate, but Meath must offer the replay first as Louth cannot do anything to change things now. Meath must seize the day and say the game is bigger than us all, and the game will best be served by our offering Louth a replay. Whatever happens after that happens, but Meath’s honour demands they offer the replay.

There have been references made to Thierry Henry’s handball in the soccer last year. The difference is that FIFA is all about money and product, and nothing else. If it were, diving and cheating would not be as endemic in soccer as it is. Money has no time for honour.

But the GAA is an amateur association, and should therefore represent higher values. Now is a once in a lifetime chance for the Association to show that we are about honour and sportsmanship above anything else, and the power to make that statement rests with Meath. Meath is the home of the Hill of Tara, seat of the Irish High Kings. A disastrous refereeing decision has gifted Meath a supreme chance to make a supreme gesture. Let’s hope they seize the day.

FOCAL SCOIR: The abuse of the referee that occurred after the final whistle raises a number of separate issues, to do with stewarding, speed of Garda response and the rest of it. They are separate issues and any attempts to play one outrage against another is disingenuous. Two wrongs never make a right.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Des Cahill, and the Most Important Job on Television

The jury is in. Des Cahill is doing a superb job as host of The Sunday Game.

There were concerns in some quarters – in this quarter, actually – that Des was too much of a party man to host the most important sports show in Ireland. The Sunday Game is the true Dáil Éireann, the meeting of the Gael where issues of great national import are discussed. You can’t – or at least, you shouldn’t – have any eejit in the chair and the concern was that Cahill’s tremendous need to be liked would cloud his journalistic judgement.

Des used to get very uncomfortable on Sportscall when people called in to question refereeing decisions – how would he handle the white heat of the Sunday Game sofas?

As it turns out Des handles the challenges like Jack O’Connor handles his footballers – both are men fully in control of their kingdoms. Now in mid-season form in his second season, Des Cahill’s particular gifts are clear, and the Sunday Game is much better as a result.

Cahill’s first gift is his ability to put people at ease. Cahill’s immediate predecessor on the Sunday night show, Pat Spillane, not only had no interest in putting people at their ease, Pateen rather revelled in making his guests suffer. If people stood up to him and gave as good as they got, it made for great TV. But nobody ever did.

A Sunday Game panellist is not a media creature. He is more familiar with Anton O’Toole than Anton Savage, and for this we should all thank the good God. But it does mean that the panellists are often uncomfortable in the studio, meaning that they clam up and say nothing. And that’s no good.

Cahill gift is to coax the panel’s real opinions out of them. He establishes a bond of trust with them that makes them visibly more relaxed, making them forgot they’re on TV in the first place, and allowing them to express the same opinions they would to the buck standing next to them at a game. It looks easy, but it’s not. It’s a gift as much as it’s a skill, and Cahill has it.

Cahill’s second gift, his remarkable empathy, is the reason that the panellists so warm to him. Cahill is a man who is actually interested in what they have to say, even to the extent of getting lost himself in the conversation.

Some presenters will look at the clipboard to see what’s next to the detriment of the conversation. A panellist could remark as an aside that a certain county has introduced the revolutionary idea of conjuring the Hornèd One on Walpurgis night to see if the Dark Lord can play on the edge of the square for seventy minutes on Sunday as they’re wild stuck.

This won’t knock a stir out of Clipboard Man, who will only make a hamfisted link to the Lory Meagher Cup item that’s next on The List. By contrast, Des will happily clear the decks to discuss the prospect of the smell of sulphur outweighing that of Deep Heat in coming years, and let Lory paddle his own canoe for a while.

This attention to detail is the pearl beyond price for this sort of show, because Des Cahill wants to discuss what everybody is discussing on Sunday night, rather than being in thrall to a running order set in stone.

An Spailpín suspects that Des is a little starstruck after all these years, which is wonderful. One problem with working in TV is that people can think they’re the star. Whereas last Sunday night Cahill was clearly awestruck in having Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin in the studio, and thrilled to broadcast the Rock’s famous point against Limerick again.

It was the same when Cahill hosted that tribute to the Munster Championship last year. It was hard not to have one’s back up slightly at one Championship being elevated above all the rest, but Cahill was so drawn by the stars in the room that it was impossible not be drawn in just as much. Cork legend Kevin Hennessy was a particular star that night, and An Spailpín hopes he’s still doing well.

Gaelic Games are amateur sports played in a very small country where everybody knows everybody else. That makes them extremely difficult to report on, because you can’t pick on amateur players who do not pull down the sort of money Ronaldo et al do, but you can’t not analyse the games either.

The Sunday Game doesn’t always get it right. An Spailpín thought the Leitrim full-back could have done without getting patronised by Pat Spillane a few weeks ago, for instance – but Des Cahill’s enchantment with the games reflects the enchantment of the Gael, and we rest easy that the true Dáil is at last in full session. Besides; Dara Ó Cinnéide still has time on his side.

Friday, July 02, 2010

The Nature of Barry Murphy's Genius

Is Barry Murphy the funniest man Ireland has ever produced? Twelve years and four World Cups from their debut, Après Match continues to get better and better. Risteard Cooper and Gary Cooke are good players, but Barry Murphy is a great player, the shining light of them all that elevates the sketches from funny to inspired.

Murphy's greatest gift as a mimic is to find a trait in someone that nobody noticed before, expose it and have the nation realise that it's been there all along. If that's not genius, what is?

Dogs might have heard that tiny whine in Liam Brady's voice before but no human being did until Barry Murphy made it an integral part of Brady's Après Match character. Now you realise it's been there all the time, and informs that determined streak of curmudgeon that is so much a part of Brady as his being the best ever Irish player, a heart-on-his-sleeve patriot and an excellent TV analyst.

Murphy's Vincent Browne has been the revelation of this World Cup's Après Match, where Murphy captures Browne's particular brand of passive aggression. Browne's abrasiveness has been famous throughout his career - John Waters' memorably describes how difficult Browne was to work for in Jiving at the Crossroads - but again Murphy identifies that defining characteristic that's overlooked.

It's the fact that Browne, for all the bluster, is supremely indifferent to whatever anyone says to him. As far as Vincent is concerned, it's all a game that exists for his exasperated amusement. Browne is often angry, but never moved. He seems to consider most things beneath contempt, and holds everyone at arm's length, like Raymond Chandler's famous gardener sneering at a weed. Here's Barry/Vincent running the rule over Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar. Superb.