Friday, May 11, 2018

All-Ireland Championship Cancelled for Next Three Years, Possibly Forever

et in Arcadia ei
History matters in sports. One of the great joys in the completion of any sports season is the ranking of that season’s Champion among the pantheon of the greats.

We kid ourselves doing this, of course. All-Ireland Finals have been played over sixty, seventy and, for a short time in the 1970s, eighty minutes. The catch-and-kick game of the 1960s isn’t the almost-basketball game of the 1980s and the current game is the least like any of its predecessors.

What role would Brian Dooher, say, have played in the 1960s? Would the legendary Mick O’Connell of Valentia even get a jersey in this era where high-fielding really isn’t a thing anymore? If you were to play an imaginary game between a team of the 1980s and a current team, how do you even up the playing field?

Do you load up the men of the 80s with protein shakes, broccoli and weight programs? Or – your correspondent’s own preference – do you load the contemporary athletes up with warm Smithwick’s ale and a twenty-Carroll’s smoking habit, and see how much they fancy running up and down Croke Park then?

All good fun in the pub to while away the winter while the Championship sleeps, ready for another year.

Sadly, all that comes to an end this summer. The introduction of the so-called Super 8s means that this year’s Championship, and future Championships to come, are as different to the previous 130 years of competition as a brick is different to an ice cream cone.

The Qualifier system put great strain on the Championship by giving the Great Powers a get-out-of-jail free card while claiming to level the playing field for the smaller counties. But for all that, the fact that the eventual All-Ireland Champions still had to play three knockout games meant there was still a hint of what the Championship had been, and should be.

How many true knockout games did Kerry have to play in their ‘80s Golden Years? What about Galway coming into the hurling championship at the All-Ireland semi-final stage? Not that awful many.

This new age of the Super 8s, however, is a definite break with tradition. There’s no point codding ourselves anymore. Whatever puncher’s chance the underdog had prior to this is now legislated out of existence.

Powerful counties that have tradition and money on their side now have the rules of the competition itself in their corner as well. Dublin or Kerry can now lose twice, in their provinces and in the Super 8s, and still be in an All-Ireland semi-final, happy as Larry and licking their lips at the prospect of munching down whatever lambs are fed to their slaughter.

Darragh Ó Sé left the yerra behind in his column in the Irish Times during the week. The Provincial Championships doesn’t matter a tu’penny damn any more, according to Darragh. The Championship only begins in July in the Super 8s. Everything prior to that is shadow-boxing.

How has this come to pass? How has the Championship been turned on its head without Gaels seeing comets in the sky, or great cliffs falling into the sea, or any of those other portents of great change?
It’s all down to Money, of course, long-recognised as the root of all evil.

Eugene McGee once opined that the GAA lost its soul when it first agreed to shirt sponsorship. Whatever; whenever it happened the genie is out the bottle now, and there’s no getting him back in without some profound and uncomfortable sacrifice on many people’s part. And neither sacrifice nor restraint is a noted quality of Modern Ireland.

Quietly, unnoticed by many, an opinion grew within the Association, fostered by the GPA and their media enablers, that the GAA has a duty to offer the elite athletes of the nation a space or forum to display their gifts. This, aligned with Croke Park Teoranta’s insatiable desire for dollars, combined to bring about our woe.

The GAA that existed to provide the opportunity to play Gaelic games to as many people as wanted to play them has been pushed aside by a new organisation, eager to grab some of that sports/leisure industry revenue. The cuckoo has taken over the nest, and the end is nigh for the GAA as we knew it.

We are now on the slope that will tumble us, sooner than we think, towards a professional league of maybe eight football teams, six hurling. They’ll call themselves Leinster Lions or Breffni Badgers or the Earl of Desmond’s Rangers, and they’ll have woolly mascots that the kids love and it won’t be too bad, really, and we’ll get used to it sooner than we think, even whingers like your correspondent. But what it won’t be is what we once had, the pearl worth more than all our tribe that was the Championship.

Which makes it all the more important to speak truth to power now, before we are lost, and identify what it is that is before us. This new Super 8s Championship is a damnable thing. It is despicable, hateful, monstrous. It is an abomination, an affront in the sight of Almighty God.

And somehow it is here, all set to ruin the summer like one thousand showers or one million protests on the Garvaghy Road. It is a crime and a sin that the Super 8s now rig the Championship to ensure that only the rich can survive. We should shed a tear and keen a lament for that which is lost. We surely own it that much after all these years.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Why Mayo Don't Win All-Irelands

The Irish Examiner’s Kieran Shannon wrote a marvellous profile of Tommy Guilfoyle, the greatest Clare hurler of whom you’ve never heard, last summer. Tommy Guilfoyle was, and is, a prince. He is all that you could ask a man to be.

Guilfoyle's hurling career was dominated by injuries as freakish as they were frightening, and also he had to deal with the sort of personal tragedy that puts all those games we play in their true perspective. Tommy Guilfoyle spent the early ‘90s meeting with Triumph and Disaster, and treating both imposters the same.

And then, in 1994, it all came together. Injury free at last, Guilfoyle was back playing with the county and reminded the Banner of his talent by hammering two goals home against Tipperary, hated Tipperary, in a league semi-final in Limerick.

Ger Loughnane then took over as Clare manager at the end of the 1994 Championship. Loughnane is from Feakle, the same club as Tommy Guilfoyle, and Loughnane had trained Guilfoyle at Under-14. For Clare hurling, 1995 was going to be The Year.

And so 1995 was – just not for Tommy Guilfoyle. When Loughnane selected his panel for the 1995 Championship, Guilfoyle wasn’t on it. Guilfoyle wasn’t happy about this, and held it against Loughnane for sixteen years. And then news broke of Loughnane’s cancer battle and Guilfoyle, like the gentleman he is, put things in perspective and renewed his friendship with the man who denied him an All-Ireland medal.

Why didn’t Loughnane pick Guilfoyle? For this reason: Loughnane knew exactly the sort of team he wanted playing for Clare, and exactly what it would take to make them. The brutality of Clare’s training in 1995 is well documented.

Loughnane knew Guilfoyle couldn’t take that sort of punishment after all he had been through, and Loughnane also knew that there were no half-measures. No exceptions could be made. Everyone had to get equal treatment. And so, in the name winning, Loughnane cut Tommy Guilfoyle’s heart out and threw it in the bin.

If Tommy Guilfoyle had been a Mayoman, his would have been the first name down on every team sheet in 1995, and Clare would still be waiting for an All-Ireland. Clare people would love Tommy Guilfoyle and happily fight anyone who dared besmirch him or question his right to stand in the pantheon with Leahy and Whelehan and Pilkington.

But they wouldn’t know what it was like to hear the Clare shout ring out from Jones’ Road all the way west to the crashing waves of the broad Atlantic itself, as the team came home to the torchlights with the Liam McCarthy cup on the front of the bus. They’d still be waiting on that particular joy.

In Mayo we think they’re big-time because of all these finals we’ve been in. Mayo are everyone’s second county and we lap that plamás up like cats at a saucer of milk. We never stop to ask if all that milk is any good to us, or if it’d be any harm to have a shot of whiskey now and again instead, to put hair on the chest.

Anthony Daly was Ger Loughnane’s captain when the curse of Biddy Earley was broken in 1995. Nineteen years later, he resigned as Dublin hurling manager after Tipperary hammered Dublin into the ground in a quarter-final. He was doing colour commentary on RTÉ radio some weeks later when Limerick put up a heroic-but-doomed stand against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final on a wet day in Croke Park.

Joanne Cantwell asked Daly what TJ Ryan, the Limerick manager, would be feeling on the sideline. Daly, as ever, didn’t hold back. TJ Ryan will be proud of his men, said Daly, and would not feel the scalding humiliation Daly himself felt when he watched Tipperary lay waste to Dublin from the Dublin sideline earlier in the summer.

Daly went on to talk about the welcome the Limerick players would get back home, and how everyone would congratulate them on how well they played and commiserate them on their bad luck. They don’t commiserate you on back luck in Kilkenny, mused Daly; if Kilkenny had let a chance to win slip as Limerick had done, they’d go off and pick a team that wouldn’t let that happen. No forgiveness.

That’s the difference, said Daly. If you want to be big-time you have to be ruthless. You have to be able to cut the beating heart right out of your best friend and throw it in the bin like it’s nothing more to you than a chewing-gum wrapper. Winning has a price and if you can’t pay it, you can’t have it.

Up Mayo.