GAA and its broadcast partners must be do more to promote Joe McDonagh Cup

Westmeath's Liam Varley gets the sliothar away from Antrim's Donal McKinley and Nigel Elliott during last Saturday's epic Joe McDonagh Cup game in Mullingar Picture: Seamus Loughran.
Brendan Crossan - The Boot Room

THE worst part about Mullingar is the windy roads to get there. They are never ending. Every bend looks identical to the last.

And you can bet your last euro you’ll be going at a snail’s pace for part of the way when you inevitably land behind a big, ignorant tractor that flicks muck on your windscreen and thinks it owns this stretch of road.

But it was worth weaving along the midlands last Saturday afternoon to reach Cusack Park for the Joe McDonagh Cup group game between Westmeath and Antrim.

Let me say, the Joe McDonagh Cup is an absolutely brilliant competition.

Not only did the GAA group six teams of similar standard together but there was the added incentive of the two finalists entering the Liam MacCarthy Cup, just one round away from the quarter-finals.

Last Saturday Westmeath and Antrim produced a dramatic spectacle. It was one of those hurling matches that had everything.

Two tactically astute teams, fantastic individual displays, an unbelievable second-half comeback, nerveless scores and numerous heart-stopping moments that would sate the appetite of the most demanding of hurling fanatics.

But you’ll have to take my word for it – and the handful of other reporters, housed at the back of the main stand, who were duly mesmerised by the action.

For there were no television cameras at Cusack Park last weekend to capture and archive Westmeath sealing their place in the McDonagh final on July 1 – a game that will act as a curtain-raiser to the Leinster SHC decider.

And that’s a pity.

The only way to watch the inaugural Joe McDonagh Cup is by attending the games or scrolling through Twitter for updates. Otherwise forget about it.

There were no caveats or directives on behalf of the GAA to its broadcast partners to ensure some coverage of the lower tiered competitions between now and 2022.

Is there a more elitist sporting organisation in the world than the Gaelic Athletic Association where nothing else matters other than its elite teams?

Even the lower tiers of English soccer get their fair share of screen time. Even Channel Five has managed to make successful pitches for the less lucrative packages.

Were the Joe McDonagh Cup or the Christy Ring Cup even mentioned in negotiations with broadcasters?

Imagine if the GAA insisted to RTE and Sky they show a couple of McDonagh Cup and Christy Ring Cup group matches, as well as the finals.

That would send out the right message to the lower echelons of the Association?

That the GAA is more than just a commercial enterprise.

That the GAA cares about trying to grow the small-ball game in places like Westmeath, Antrim, Meath, Carlow, Laois and Kerry.

Sports editors around the country can send an army of print reporters and photographers to the McDonagh Cup and Christy Ring Cup games, and it will give the competitions some status and prestige – but what captures the imagination is broadcasting the games, whether ‘live’ or in highlights form.

BBCNI, as expected, has ploughed its resources into the Ulster Senior Football Championship and do an excellent job – but hurling doesn’t get a look-in.

To illustrate the point, Antrim featured in last year’s Christy Ring Cup final at Croke Park.

It took place on a Saturday afternoon - June 10 - and clashed with a crucial World Cup Qualifier between Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan.

There wasn’t a single update of the Christy Ring Cup final – an All-Ireland final involving an Ulster team – on BBC Radio Ulster. No minute-by-minute blog. No tweets. Zilch.

TG4 ‘streamed’ the Christy Ring final online. They couldn’t show it on TV because it clashed with the Munster SFC tie between Cork and Tipperary that was being screened ‘live’ by Sky.

New GAA President John Horan has made it his mission to create a tiered football championship by the end of his three-year tenure.

Asked by The Irish News at the launch of the £1m ‘Gaelfast’ project a couple of months ago, Horan envisaged the lower tiers would get TV exposure.

“I’m quite sure,” he said, “the people negotiating our TV deals would have enough vision to see that a certain number of Tier Two matches be covered on television.”

Well, there hasn’t been a minute of Joe McDonagh Cup action broadcast.

If the football championship is broken into tiers, can the GAA really insist Sky and RTE show games from the ‘B’ Championship?

For the Joe McDonagh Cup to spread its wings and really take off, it needs the GAA to be stronger in negotiations with its broadcast ‘partners’.

And, of course, there was the disastrous scheduling of the first round of games in the Joe McDonagh Cup – May 5 – not even a week before the utterly futile club-only month of April had lapsed.

Managers and players were placed behind the eight ball from the start – and yet the teams threw up some incredible entertainment along hurling’s ‘B’ roads over the last six weeks.

Is it not too much to ask that BBCNI or TG4 lobby for some kind of highlights show or midweek magazine and delve into the rich narratives of the competing counties in the Joe McDonagh and Christy Ring?

Even online? Or behind the red button? Anything?

Has the question even been asked?

It’s a genuine shame that nobody knows who Allan Devine is.

He’s the nerveless Westmeath freetaker who never missed a placed ball last Saturday afternoon.

Outside of Westmeath, nobody knows who Liam Varley is either.

He’s the braveheart defender who played the shirt off his back in Mullingar.

You can read about Keelan Molloy’s dazzling solo goal for Antrim in Mullingar, but you’ll never see it.

Or the impossibly high standards Neil McManus has set this season wearing Antrim’s number 11 jersey.

Or Ryan Elliott’s brilliant saves. Or John ‘Rocky’ Dillon’s defensive master-classes.

These hurlers and hurling teams deserve a bigger, brighter stage.

Welcome to hurling’s wonderful, unexplored underbelly the GAA’s main broadcast ‘partners’ run a mile from.

The forgotten people.


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