Monday, May 29, 2017

The Football Championship - A Pageant, Not a Product

The Championship: Philly seems to like it.

Positing the notion that a two-tier Championship is inevitable in Tuairisc earlier this month, the great Dara Ó Cinnéide wondered in passing how anyone could have the idea that the Championship could ever be a level playing field, with county demographics and traditions being what they are.

In light of this, it’s interesting to remember just why the back-door system was introduced in the first place. The original idea was that many teams were denied either the Championship itself or a good long summer run by the vagaries of chance, with the Cork footballers of the 1970s being the most frequently cited example. Had they not had the ill-luck to share Munster at the same time as the Kerry Golden Years team, who knows what could have happened?

And that’s why the back-door was introduced. Not to level the playing field for all, but in the hope that no more should a flower like that Cork team be born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air, as Mr Gray might have put it.

The back-door is with us sixteen years now, and the Law of Unintended Consequences has kicked in. The back-door Championship was introduced at a time that the economy was booming and the enforcement of the GAA’s amateur ethos grew increasingly token. So an initially-flawed idea – Cork were going to have face Kerry at some stage, after all – mutated into an even worse one and left us the mess we have today, where the GAA is having an existential crisis without properly realising it.

The whinging about the format of the Championship that (correctly) bothers Ó Cinnéide is based on the idea that the Championship is a sports entertainment product competing in a marketplace with other sports entertainment products like European Cup Rugby and the English Premier League. But it’s not. It’s something completely, uniquely different to that.

The things that make the Championship great cannot exist as part of a sports entertainment product. The Championship is written about as if the GAA exists to present a sports entertainment product. That is not why the GAA exists. The GAA exists to allow as many people as is practicable to play Gaelic Games as often as they wish. The inter-county Championship is a by-product of those thousands and thousands of games. The Championship is accident; the club games are essence.

This fundamental point is being lost in the hubbub as the GAA striates further between the haves and have-nots, and the separation will get even worse when the Super Eight series are introduced next year. The people running the GAA think the increased revenue will improve the Association. It will not. The increased money will destroy the Association by creating a professional division that will leave the ordinary club players behind. The ordinary club players and members who, after all, comprise the vast majority of the membership of the Association in the first place.

Under pressure of money, propaganda and carelessness the GAA is inching along a road where the needs of elite athletes will be prioritised over the needs of the thousands and thousands of fat bucks, slow bucks, clumsy bucks and hungover bucks who need and deserve the regular games that the GAA can provide them. The prioritisation should be the reverse.

Ewan McKenna, a man never afraid to speak truth to power, tweeted this after Tyrone walloped Derry yesterday:

But McKenna misses the point. The GAA isn’t about providing yet another dish to the armchair fan’s sporting feast. The moment its raison d’etre becomes the production of a sports entertainment product it’s all over for the Association.

McKenna will have his two-tiered Championship then. There may be two or three Dublin teams, two or three Ulster, two Connacht, two Munster, two Leinster. They won’t be counties though – they’ll be Lions, or Kestrels, or Wolfhounds instead.

There will be transfers and big money signings. The media will get proper media access, where players will dutifully remark that today’s performance was no surprise as everybody in the unit knew that if they executed their process everything would come right on the day. Hurling will go the way of having grammatical Irish in programmes – a fond yet distant memory.

Is the situation doomed, then? Is there anything that can be done?

Happily, the cause is not yet lost and there is something that can be done. Three things, in fact.

Firstly, close the back door. The Championship is a knockout competition like Wimbledon or World Championship Snooker. If you lose, you lose. Get over it.

Secondly, the GAA needs to remember it’s an amateur organisation, and that means bread-and-water diets for those who’ve been spending like sailors on shore leave. Either a budget cap or, better again, revenue-sharing as in the NFL of the United States. No more lawyering up to escape bans and most of all, proper and painful sanctions for those who would flout these laws.

Finally, it’s perfectly possible to accommodate those who want a more equal inter-county playing field by reconfiguring the League. Three divisions, home and away, promotion and relegation of course, maybe playoffs for the crack. The better players in each county get to test themselves against teams of the same level. The great Kieran Shannon of the Examiner has made the point many times that reworking the League will do more to address the uneven playing inter-county playing field than a hundred tweaks to the Championship.

The League can be run off between January and June, and then July-August-September are free for the pageantry of the Championship. Sports scientists and protein-shake aficionados will know that the best team is the one that does best in the League, while the Championship retains its ancient glory and stays true to the notion that a commoner may challenge a king, and that one crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Seán Fitzpatrick Trial Collapses - Irish Media Lets the Nation Down

To an institution, the Irish media made the wrong call yesterday. Everybody – Morning Ireland, all the papers, Newstalk and the rest – saw the Manchester bombing as the most important story of the day. It wasn’t. Not in Ireland.

The collapse of the Seán Fitzpatrick trial was the more important story from an Irish perspective, and the across-the-board failure to cover that properly is another erosion of the public’s faith in the institutions of the state – an erosion that can lead to the washing away of the state entirely if it’s not addressed.

Seán Fitzpatrick was the face of the Irish Economic Crash. He was chairman of Anglo-Irish Bank, the bank that lead the field in terms of funny business, and which had over-extended itself to such a degree that the Government felt it had no option but to guarantee all debts of all Irish banks in 2008.

For the past ten years, the feeling has existed that the crash was due to reckless banking practices and it seemed right and just that certain reckless bankers should pay for that. But the collapse of the Seán Fitzpatrick trial suggests that’s really not going to happen.

The reasons why the trial collapsed or whether or not the law that deals with white collar crime is fit for purpose are questions for another day. What I’m concerned with this is the media’s inability to realise the importance of this story concerning Seán Fitzpatrick and the collapse of his trial.

In trying to come to terms with how someone so very unsuited to the job is currently President of the United States of America in Monday’s New York Times, David Brooks had some fascinating things to say about the phenomenon of alienation. It was, after all, the alienated who voted for Trump – those traditional Democratic voters in Wisconsin whom Hillary Clinton could not be bothered canvassing, for instance.

Angry voters made a few things abundantly clear: that modern democratic capitalism is not working for them; that basic institutions like the family and communities are falling apart; that we have a college educated elite that has found ingenious ways to make everybody else feel invisible, that has managed to transfer wealth upward to itself, that crashes the hammer of political correctness down on anybody who does not have faculty lounge views.

Does that sound at all familiar?

Fianna Fáil suffered the most catastrophic election result in its history in 2011 as a result of the electorate’s anger at the crash and, despite a recovery in 2016, the party is still struggling to regain lost ground. The electorate, meanwhile, disenfranchised with the last government because of a Labour betrayal and a tone-deaf Fine Gael slogan, remains in hostile mood as it still struggles to understand if democracy works in this country.

That’s what makes the Seán Fitzpatrick trial so important. The nation was going to come to terms with what happened through that trial. The nation would have become more educated in how banks and the state interact, the system would be able to strengthen its regulatory powers, all sorts of good and healing things would happen.

Not only will those things not now happen, the establishment of the state – and remember always that the media is the Fourth Estate of the Establishment – doesn’t even seem to register the nature of the crisis.

People are quivering with anger over the collapse of the Seán Fitzpatrick trial. They turned on Morning Ireland yesterday morning to hear about it and all they heard about was Manchester. The papers were all Manchester, and that’s how it continued throughout the day.

Micheál Martin told the Dáil yesterday that the collapse of the trial was a damning indictment of the Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement, and the Taoiseach agreed with him. But what does that mean, really? What is the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement? Where is it? Who’s in charge of it? To whom does it answer?

We don’t know. The Office seems just another quango, that just exists for the sake of existing, without ever doing anything. The nearest we came to finding out what exactly the ODCE does was from RTÉ’s Orla O’Donnell’s frankly terrifying account of why the trial collapsed which gained no media traction, not even in the “National Broadcaster” itself.

If your correspondent were in charge, Ms O’Donnell’s story would the front page story on my newspaper, the first story on my radio show. Instead; silence and the shrugging of shoulders.

The media are enjoying the soap opera of the Fine Gael leadership race or else hand-wringing about when we’ll have a Labour Party progressives can believe in. In the meantime, the poor sods who get up and go to work and pay tax and send the kids to school and hope they’ll have some future look at all this and wonder: what’s going on, and why doesn’t someone do something about it?

In their alienation, the citizens of the US took a chance on Trump. In whom will the Irish place their trust when the time comes?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mayo Championship Preview 2017

One of the perpetual debates that take place where two or more Mayo football folk gather is the one that looks back at the different teams that reached the All-Ireland Final in recent years, and wonders if that particular team let one slip away or if they were blessed to get there in the first place.

1996, above any, is seen as one that slipped away while 2004 vies with 2006 as years where Mayo were lucky to get as far as they got is the general feeling in the county.

Your correspondent, however, is nothing if not a difficult man and would argue that the 2004 and 2006 teams are under-rated, and it is the fact of their failing so badly on the big day that causes them to be judged more harshly than they deserved.

For instance, the 2004 campaign started in Castlebar with Galway going 1-3 to 0-0 up in the first ten minutes, and friends of your correspondent at the game contemplated turning to Buddhism, leaving all possessions behind and wandering the world with a begging bowl, anything but to have to watch any more of this.

But Mayo came back, helped in no small part by the arrival of David Brady from the subs’ bench, and later that summer put the All-Ireland Champions, Tyrone to the sword, again inspired by David Brady. You may cavil that Tyrone were still mourning their fallen hero, the great Cormac McAnallan, and of course that’s possible. But equally we’ve heard narratives going the other way too, that after a tragedy there was no way such-and-such a team were to be denied. Again, it’s one of these things that is only knowable in hindsight, and never at the time.

All of which is a long way of coming around to ask the critical contemporary question: did Mayo deserve their place in the All-Ireland Final last year, or where they lucky to get there?

Last year’s final was the reverse of the usual Mayo paradigm where Mayo play beautifully during the Championship and then blow up like the volcanic island of Krakatoa in the final. Mayo played like a drain all through last summer, only to rip off the disguise and give Dublin the fright of their lives in the Final. There was one Mayo supporter who could feel the hot tears of pride welling in his eyes looking Mayo’s defiance against Dublin. I know, because I was that Mayo supporter.

And then they lost, again, and then came this year’s League.

This year’s League wasn’t great. Armagh’s Oisin McConville was fairly withering in his assessment of Mayo on the Second Captains podcast after Dublin disembowelled Mayo on a Saturday night in March, and it was hard to argue cogently against any of the points he made. Where have Mayo got better? Why should we believe that Mayo are ready to that extra yard that has eluded them for so long?

The return of Galway to football’s top table casts a considerable shadow over the Mayo summer. Hopefully the team’s mind is focussed solely on Sligo, whom Mayo face this coming Sunday, but every supporter is thinking of that journey into the claustrophobic confines of Pearse Stadium, Salthill, three weeks later.

This isn’t the first time Mayo have gone to Salthill nervous after a poor League. James Horan’s second year in charge was such a time, when Mayo responded by buttering Galway up and down the seaside. But that was then and this is now. Mayo were young and hungry then; they’re not that anymore.

Mayo’s visit to the back-door last year was their best-ever campaign in the wilderness, but the difference between the front and back-door Championships for a team with Mayo’s miles on the clock can’t be underestimated.

In the front door, Mayo’s experience stands to them. Everyone they play knows who they are, has been watching them on TV for the past six years. There’s nothing the opposition can do that Mayo haven’t seen and aren’t ready for. If Mayo play a team with less experience, that’s what the young team will see.

But if Mayo play a team with less experience in the Qualifiers, what are the young lads thinking? It depends on who knocked the other team out. If they lost to a Division 4 team and half the panel are already in the States, they’re cooked.

However; if they’re Kildare, say, and they lost to Dublin, what have they got to lose? Dublin were always going to win but win just two more games are they’re back in Croker in high summer, exactly where they want to be! Isn’t that what we want boys? Isn’t that what all those long winter nights were about? Now come on and put these losers out of their misery!

Or whatever. Getting to Croker is a big deal for the up-and-coming team in a way it can’t be for a veteran team like Mayo. To be still playing football in August is an achievement for nearly every team in Ireland. It doesn’t mean diddly in Mayo. Sam or the Void for Mayo. There is no in between, and that’s a hard mark to make.

You may say that the Qualifiers did Mayo no harm last but there’s one more year’s mileage on the clock and fellas have to be wondering. Some of the selections and tactics have left supporters scratching their heads. If the team are scratching their heads too, Mayo are not long for the summer.

The Championship is about momentum. If Mayo beat Galway in Salthill, Mayo have some momentum.  They will still have to find an identity, but the League form will be on the summer breeze and another golden road opens up before them.

If Mayo lose or, worse, get hammered in Salthill, their momentum is zero and any young team with ambition will see them only as prey when Mayo are taken out of the pot. So; another light-hearted and carefree Championship in store for the sweet county Mayo, the finest county in Ireland.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

2017 Football Championship Preview

To consider this year’s football Championship is to long for the open competition of the Big Four era four or five years ago. The truth of the 2017 Championship is that there is Dublin, and there is the rest.

The Champions reign far above anybody else in the firmament and no circumstance can be imagined in which any path to glory can bypass them.

Kerry’s recent win over Dublin in the National League Final suggests that Dublin’s great historical rival may be on the way back, but being on the way and having arrived are two different things.

Kerry are the aristocrats of football – how could they not be? – and that made the artisanal nature of their game against Dublin so strange. One does not expect to see royalty with the shirt off, down in a hole, digging, but that’s exactly what Kerry did to do something, anything, to keep up with Dublin.

And more luck to them. Kerry people love to talk about beautiful football but that’s just blather for the tourists on the jaunting cars around Killarney. Kerry know that the only beauty is in winning, and whether that winning is done with the rapier or the broadsword is very much a secondary detail.

If Kerry and Dublin win Munster and Leinster – and goodness, what a shock it would be if they didn’t – they are not due to meet until the final and such a final would be a game everybody in the country could look forward to. But the chances of Kerry putting another one over on Dublin are slim.

A rare sight in contemporary football was to be seen in the League Final as Dublin’s Cian O’Sullivan, emperor of the Dublin defence, was utterly unable to figure out just what was going on. Kerry had found a way to get past him and for once O’Sullivan had little impact on a game. But what will Kerry do the next time, now O’Sullivan and Dublin are forewarned?

Jim Gavin gets insufficient credit for his tactical nous – Dublin have so many players the idea exists that all a manager has to do is roll them a ball and let them get on with it. But Gavin proved his worth in the All-Ireland replay. Gavin made three tactical changes for the replay, all of which worked. His opposite number made only one, and that blew up in Stephen Rochford’s face. Game, set and match, Gavin.

While Kerry are not in Dublin’s league, is anyone else in Kerry’s? It’s a hard case to make. For a time, it looked like Mickey Harte was about to do what only Seán Boylan has done, and build All-Ireland teams from two different generations. Tyrone faced Kerry in the 2015 semi-final and it is a fact that the Kerrymen were scared of a Tyrone returned to their opening-years-of-the-century glory – you could sense the fear in the players before the game, and the sheer relief afterwards among the Kerry support.

But the new model Tyrone lack the score-taking ability of their forebears and you can’t win games of Gaelic football if you can’t take your scores.

Donegal are still a threat, but that threat is lessening. There are hints of trouble in the camp and, while Michael Murphy is the best pound-for-pound footballer in Ireland, we are reminded of the remarks of Doctor Henry “Indiana” Jones, Junior, to Marian Ravenwood in their desperate flight from Egypt aboard the good ship Batu Wind – it ain’t the years, honey, it’s the mileage.

Galway were impressive in their win over Kildare in the National League Division 2 Final. They have forwards with that little bit of cut about them, and the day when Galway were too posh to press in defence are long gone. It’s been a long, long time since anyone outside the top flight won the All-Ireland however, and it’s hard to see Galway doing it this year for that reason. Seasoning counts in modern football.

For those who enjoy a longshot bet, I would consider Monaghan at 40/1. Galway are a shorter price even though Monaghan are now veterans of Division 1 and Galway haven’t played in the top league in years – this is the benefit of being glamorous, which Monaghan never have been. But if Sam is to go further than Dublin – and it’d be a really big surprise if he does – Monaghan at 40/1 looks the value bet to me.

Mayo? Tomorrow, friends, tomorrow. What’s one more day in a sixty-six year wait?