Andy Watters: It's not your All-Ireland final but it might be theirs - Money-makers target GAA Golden Goose

What a battle. Armagh versus Galway at Croke Park last year
What a battle. Armagh versus Galway at Croke Park last year

IF ever there was irrefutable evidence that the GAA is risking killing the golden goose with the current schedule, it’s the tickets that are left over for Carrick-on-Shannon on Sunday.

Armagh versus Galway, a clash of two heavyweights, and they can’t sell out Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada – capacity 9,300! Last year this fixture was part of a Croke Park double-header that drew over 70,000 to Croke Park!

Just 12 months on and the public have voted with their feet. The Championship cut-and-thrust that we love is being blunted by these group games when there just isn’t enough at stake. Armagh could lose in Carrick-on-Shannon which would mean their last four Championship games will have gone – lost, won (by a point), lost and lost and yet they will still make the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Come on now!  

This weekend we have the final round of Sam Maguire group games AND the Tailteann Cup quarter-finals.

It’s too much. So many games in such a short space of time has left the public weary and probably broke and going to county Leitrim is just a bridge too far for Armagh fans, their Galway counterparts and the casual supporters who like to pick out a game or two to go to on a Saturday and Sunday.

This incessant glut has put even them off.

In some ways the GAA can’t win. We all want to see games – keep them coming – but the whole schedule is too convoluted even though it is being played out with almost indecent haste. Couldn’t more games be provided by a home and away League format and then a knockout Championship (Sam Maguire and Tailteann Cup) to finish the season?

At present we’re risking allowing the Championship, the jewel in the GAA crown, to be reduced to providing content for pay-per-view GAAGO. If we keep going down that road there might be no coming back.

There weren't many there to watch but Laois played like the Sam Maguire was at stake
There weren't many there to watch but Laois played like the Sam Maguire was at stake

A SIGN for spectators to read in front of the stand at St Peter’s in Lurgan (you see it at lots of grounds) includes the line: ‘Remember this is NOT the All-Ireland final’.

Spot on. You want spectators to watch and enjoy the games with a calm sense of perspective.

But it occurred to me that clubs could also erect a sign which faces into the pitch and is just for the players: ‘Remember this IS your All-Ireland final’.

You want players to go on the field and give absolutely everything they have on it. The players who treat every game like an All-Ireland will win far more than they lose.

So many players put their heart and soul into the GAA and too many get only grief back in return.

At a match recently a fella told me about a guy he’d been having a few pints with beforehand.

“He’d be a hell of a lot better than some of them boys out there,” he says, gesturing towards the pitch.

“Och, he couldn’t be bothered,” added the guy with a laugh.

I should have told him to have a bit of respect, I wish I’d pointed out how easy it is to say that.

“If this guy thinks he’s good enough then, on you go son, get out there are show us,” I should have said but, then again, you don’t want to be arguing with strangers. I let it slide.

The lads who can be bothered, the ones who put their life on hold and give up their evenings to train and their weekends to play don’t have the luxury of supping a few beers with the boys but sometimes they’re at their mercy.

There weren’t too many fans at the Fermanagh versus Laois Tailteann Cup game last Saturday evening. It was a long, long way from the All-Ireland final but anyone who was there will have witnessed an absolutely intense battle.

In the first half the Fermanagh players struggled to raise a gallop but a bit of argy-bargy when the teams were heading for the changing rooms sent them out for the second half with a point to prove.

They lifted their game but Laois wanted it more and they got over the line in the end.

Afterwards I spoke to their manager Billy Sheehan who was a mixture of happy and angry. Happy that his team had won, angry that his players had taken such a battering on social media throughout the week after they’d drawn against London.

“To hell with the begrudgers,” he said in one of the more colourful post-match interviews I’ve ever done.

Fans expect a lot, far too much at times.

Laois haven’t had a great season but they’re still in there and still fighting. Their full-forward Evan O’Carroll scored three points against Fermanagh and he put in a whistle-to-whistle shift.

Heart racing, adrenalin pumping, he was struggling to keep his emotions in check afterwards.

“Finally,” he said, breathless.

“The last couple of games we’ve been going well and we couldn’t seem to close out games. But we persisted, we knew it was in us and I’m just glad for the lads. We’ve a tight group, there’s not too many in the travelling support (I’d estimate around 50-60 supporters) but it’s great to get over the line and we deserved that.”

The match got maybe a couple of minutes on The Sunday Game but you could see how much winning it meant to O’Carroll and his team-mates and after speaking to him you couldn’t help but wish him and Laois the best of luck in the remainder of the competition.

“This means a lot to you,” I said, stating the obvious.

The tears weren’t far away for O’Carroll.

“Oh…yeah…God…yeah…emotions are high there,” he replied.

“We’re after getting a lot of stick from people – a couple of them are keyboard warriors – and we’ve blocked it out. I think the lads deserved that win and I’m so, so happy for the group. I’m just really happy.

“We’ll block them (the critics) out. We’ve a long journey home and we’ll enjoy it. A couple of the journeys home we’ve had have been tough, they’ve been disappointing but we’ll enjoy this one. It’s great to be back next week (against Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds on Saturday at 3pm) and we’re all looking forward to it.

“We showed a bit of resilience and we’ll have to do it again. Billy will have us prepared, he puts in hours and hours of work, and whoever we get will be in for a game.”

So, yes, we should all remember when we watch the club or the county that it isn’t YOUR All-Ireland final but it could be THEIRS.  

What a battle. Armagh versus Galway at Croke Park last year
What a battle. Armagh versus Galway at Croke Park last year