Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Gospel According to Darragh

This column likes to consider itself second-to-none in its admiration of Darragh Ó Sé’s weekly column on Gaelic Football, published every Wednesday by the Irish Times during the Championship.

Yesterday, in his preview of Sunday’s All-Ireland Final, where only Kerry remain standing in the way of a historic five-in-a-row titles for Dublin, Darragh presented his masterpiece.

This may not have been obvious on first reading of the column. Some prophets are born to shoot from the hip. John the Baptist made it quite plain to Israel that the new covenant was at hand. Roy Keane, in those happy times when he annually righted the nation’s wrong as part of his charity work for the Irish Guide Dogs Association, and before the misery of his having to put his money where his mouth is began, was of the same school. Seán Báiste and The Boy Roy both gave it to us straight.

Darragh’s is of a different style. Darragh’s way is more subtle, more gnostic, more allegorical. Darragh’s is the way of parable and imagery. He is more in the tradition of Jeremiah or of that other John, servant of Jesus Christ, to whom was granted the Apocalypse.

To truly read Darragh we must engage in exegesis. We must carefully parse the text in order to lead out its true meaning.

As we consider Darragh’s column of yesterday, we note that it begins with a parable, The Parable of the Bomber. On the face of it, it’s a reminiscence of the two big men exchanging bantz before the 2009 final, and very middling bantz they are. But reader, shun the easy path. Look more closely. Ignore the instruments. Feel the Force.

Darragh decides to have a bit of fun, but the bit of fun he has – “as long as the three Sés are in it” – isn’t actually funny. So why tell the story? Because the prophet is telling his followers, lo, remember, I am Darragh the Trickster. I like to have a bit of fun. My words are not as they seem.

The next section is pure stodge, with a lot of old yak about the Killarney Races and the Rose of Tralee and how training is different from Darragh’s day. This is to scare of the unwary, who will lose the will to go on. The true followers continue, however, knowing the House of Wisdom is only reached after wading through the swamp.

And then, through the mist, we espy the first turret of that same house. “The one thing I’ve noticed this year with Dublin is that Jim Gavin seems to have settled on a team and more or less stuck with it.”

“The one thing I’ve noticed.” It’s straight out of Columbo. Just as the murderer thinks he’s got away with it, the LAPD ragamuffin says “there’s just one thing that’s been bothering me …”

Jim Gavin’s is a settled team, muses Darragh. In other years they chopped and changed. Not this year. The competition for places isn’t the same.

Dublin were training in Cooraclare, but Darragh is not at all sure they were going hammer and tongs at it. They’re well used to this, says Darragh.

Reader, does that sound at all like the Comfort Zone to you? Could Dublin be … complacent? Could Dublin be … stale? If Darragh were as his forebears, a voice clamouring in the desert, his acolytes’ ears would be pricking up big style at this stage.

Then Darragh remarks that, while caution may have got you to an All-Ireland final, an All-Ireland Final itself is a place in which to throw caution to the wind. “A final is a place to be borderline reckless in,” remarks Darragh, almost as an aside.

Reader, think back to the Parable of the Bomber. Of the nine (nine!) All-Ireland Finals in which he played, which one did Darragh discuss with the Bomber? It was 2009. Was anyone “borderline reckless” in 2009, borderline reckless in a way that would lead to the winning of the game? Reader, that sonorous booming noise in the distance is not the ringing of a marriage bell. It is the sound of the Prophet dropping a hint.

Having dropped that hint, the Prophet goes on to disrobe, oil up, and start whacking that great big gong that used to start some British movies in the 1950s, the better for his followers to pay attention.
Mayo caned Dublin in the first half of their semi-final, Darragh points out, but did not make it count on the scoreboard. The boy-king Clifford, Stephen O’Brien or that Geaney fella won’t be missing many from twenty-five yards, and Dublin have been slow starters this season.

His colours nailed to the mast, Darragh re-vests and ladles on the yerra, in case the Empire have sent their spies. He tells a Parable of Jacko, yea, and then he goeth even further unto the praising of the Dubs. He points out that Dublin are so strong that Eoghan O’Gara probably won’t make the 26-man cut. Golly. A team must be good if not even Eoghan O’Gara can make the grade.

Kerry's price had held steady at 9/2 since the semi-finals, but it went out to 5/1 with Paddy Power yesterday. The price went on the board just as Darragh was published, but before he had yet been digested. Reader, I fell it on like a thunderbolt. Adveniat regnum.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

The Hateful Eights

Filleann Rí a'Chnoic
Filleann Rí a'Chnoic
In his match report from the ballroom dancing in Omagh on Sunday, the Irish Times’s Malachy Clerkin enjoins us never to speak of this again. If only, Malachy. If only.

Sadly, it’s all too necessary to speak of it. The match in Omagh was the Super 8s equivalent of Old Shep being taken to the vet and the vet, on completing his examination, saying “I can’t do no more for him Jim.”

The GAA has no option now but to pick up its gun and send the Super 8s to half-witted-ideas heaven, where it may rest easy with the remixed Sunday Game theme tune, hurling gloves and the B-Championship.

How did this mess come about? Money, of course. For some reason, without any resolution being passed by Congress or any of that palaver, the GAA accepted a change to its fundamental identity in the past decade or so.

Instead of being an organisation that would offer an opportunity to play Gaelic Games to as many people as wanted to, the GAA decided it was in the sports entertainment business. Just like the Premier League, or European Championship Rugby, or even the MMA, the supreme sports entertainment product of our times.

There wasn’t a need to put motions before Congress. This sort of an idea is one of those you circulate at social functions, and let it go viral. There was an obvious gateway – the burning desire of the Gael to believe we’re just as good as the soccer/rugby/Brazilian Ju-Jitsu crowd.

Reader, do you know the absolute favourite story of any good Gael? It’s the one where Sir Alex Ferguson, or Bill Belichick, or Richie MacCaw is shown footage of some football or, ideally, hurling game and Sir Alex/Belichick/Richie are suitably impressed. But then, the kicker.

Whoever has provided the footage tells Sir Alex/Belichick/Richie that the players are all amateurs, every one. And Sir Alex faints, or has a heart attack. Belichick goes mad, and has to be taken to a home. Richie has to have a cavity block smashed over his head to calm him down, being driven demented by the news that amateurs could produce such sporting beauty.

Screw you, Team of Us.

Of course, once you get into the sports entertainment game, you find yourself always worrying that you’re a bit short on Product. Content is King. Give the people what they want. So we need to find a way to dig up more matches, somehow.

Lightning strikes in hurling. The provincial championships change from a dead weight to a Philosophers’ Stone, as a round robin format suddenly finds matches bursting out all over. A round robin doesn’t sit so well with the football formats, so what else to do but force it?

Hence, the Super 8s. For the Super 8s to work, there had to be eight teams of about the same level every year, or four in every five years, say; a combination of the provincial Championships and the open-draw qualifier system had to be the best means of identifying those teams, and each of the eight teams had to play one home game, one away game and one game at a neutral venue.

Advocates of the Super 8s may argue that the way things have fallen out are just unlucky. The happenstance of Dublin’s current dominance, how a little tweaking can make all the difference, and so on. It’s all blather.

The idea of the Super 8s is inherently flawed on two levels. On the most superficial level, it’s flawed because a competition can be a league or it can be knockout, but it can’t be both. The backdoor stretches the credibility of the knockout format to its elastic limit, but it doesn’t quite break it.

The Super 8s shatters the knockout idea into dust. Championship means do-or-die. It does not mean Dublin and Tyrone holding a seventy-minute teddy-bears’ picnic on the August Bank Holiday weekend.

The more fundamental problem is the nature of GAA itself, and this redefinition by stealth that it’s up to. The increased number of games was the expeditionary force. The special congress in the winter when they try to introduce a tiered Championship will be the tanks crashing through the walls.

The GAA is not, and should not be, in the product-selling business. Its purpose is to provide the opportunity to play Gaelic games to as many people as want them. Watching Fat Tony hauling his great tub of guts over and back some god-forsaken field on the side of a mountain might not be up there with watching Lionel Messi at the Bernabeu in terms of sports-entertainment-product, but dammit, running around that field means a lot to Fat Tony. And the GAA is made up of thousands and thousands of Fat Tonys.

There is an argument about the amount of training put in by senior inter-county players in the modern era. Firstly, nobody’s making them. It’s not like there’s a GAA-Stasi kicking players’ doors down in the middle of the night and checking their carb intake.

Secondly – and nobody finds this more bizarre than your correspondent – people in Ireland now routinely put in that sort of training because they like it. They like it. People run Ironman and Ironwomen competitions all the time, but there’s no idea that the nation somehow owes them something because of it. It’s quite easy to remain dry-eyed at the more heart-rending tales of woe from the GPA and their acolytes if you grant yourself a little perspective.

For all that, the genie is so long out of the bottle that the situation can’t return to what it was. The GAA was the sport of a poor country, and Ireland isn’t a poor country any more. Money is more important now that it’s plentiful than it was when it was scarce and the GAA can only exist in the real world.

Therefore, a modest proposal. Let the GAA meet its need for more product by expanding the League. Address the current inequality by having more teams in Division 1, broken into two conferences, as the Examiner’s Kieran Shannon has been preaching for so many years. And satisfy the need for more product by doubling or even trebling the number of League games.

Return the Championship to provincially-based single-knockout games, and run it off quickly the summer. The people will quickly choose whether they like the professional league or the amateur championship, and let the cards fall where they may.

It may be the end of the GAA as we know it. It may be that the GAA as we knew it has been gone for some years. But at least we’ll find out, one way or the other.