GAA Football

Kicking Out: GAA has more than one way to engage

CLASSIC ENCOUNTER: Limerick’s All-Ireland SHC final win over Kilkenny was watched by 82,000 at Croke Park and a million RTÉ viewers, with the fact the game was played in July having no impact whatsoever on those figures. Picture: Philip Walsh

AS Limerick began to think that the dog biting at their heels wasn’t going to clear off no matter how many kicks it got to the head, the country’s pulse quickened.

82,000 people packed into Croke Park. July 17. The mercury boiling, the sod lush green, the stands baked in the same colour, perforated by pockets of black ‘n’ amber, all ready to believe again.

This is hurling weather. What better time of year for your showpiece? Any coincidence that the final was such a classic, a festival of scores?

On the sofas and in the bars, one million people were watching live on RTÉ as Limerick completed the three-in-a-row.

882,000 on TV, another 113,000 online.

A nation was captivated. Because that’s what big games do.

That’s what made it particularly difficult to listen to Donal Óg Cusack’s evening soliloquy about the need to extend the inter-county championships back out again.

Go back to September 19, 2010. Dimitar Berbatov had just put Liverpool on their backs with a brilliant hat-trick but no sooner was it over than thoughts turned to getting to a TV.

In the bar nearest Old Trafford, there were hundreds of Irish fans jammed into the place, their necks sore craning up at an 18-inch TV above the corner of the bar.

Cork were facing Down in the All-Ireland football final on the same day as Ireland’s most-watched cross-channel game of any Premier League season.

Or June 16, 2002, when Ireland played Spain in the World Cup and Derry faced Donegal in Ulster.

Thousands of Derry and Donegal supporters stayed on in the Creighton to watch extra-time and penalties.

In the summer of 1994, Dublin faced Kildare in the Leinster Championship. Ordinarily a big draw at the time, they drew 0-11 apiece that day and nobody really cared because Ireland played Italy in the Giants Stadium that evening.

Sports clash all the time. If the All-Irelands had been on their traditional dates, the 2019 Dublin-Kerry football final would have clashed with Ireland’s Rugby World Cup opener against Scotland the same day.

Yet Croke Park would still have sold out and a million people would still have watched the football.

We hear so much about what we’re lacking in schools around All-Ireland finals but it’s the one game of the year that sells itself. You don’t need the schools to generate excitement.

The buzz of All-Ireland finals is nothing new in the schools that tend to experience it. All-Irelands, particularly in hurling, are the reserve of a very small number of counties.

Contrast that to the week before the schools finished for summer.

Almost every school in Derry had red-and-white days on the Friday before big games.

Summer camps were held all over the place the first fortnight of holidays, and the Anglo Celt Cup touring around, getting its photo taken with every child before they spent the next four hours trying to emulate their new heroes. That was better than anything inside a school hall.

The inter-county game is about more than just an All-Ireland final.

Are we not better having the bulk of the season in term time than the two games that sell themselves?

All-Ireland finals are the centerpiece of our sporting world and always will be.

But they will always hold their own against any sport, no matter if they were played at midnight on Christmas Eve.

The 2022 inter-county season lasts just shy of seven months. Limerick played 14 games in that time. That feels like a decent balance but if hurling feels it needs more games, there’s space in those months to put them in.

Even rugby, which has decimated its own club game in the way we threaten to, has it right at the top end.

The Six Nations, the showpiece that pulls in casual fans in a way club rugby just doesn’t, lasts just six weeks. There are summer (post-club season) and autumn tours, and the clubs get the rest of the calendar.

The 2022/23 NFL season will run from early September until mid-February, just over five months. For the other six-and-a-half months, nothing. Doesn’t do it one bit of harm.

Donal Óg Cusack got four minutes on Sunday night to list all the reasons why the GAA’s split season was all wrong, and all he got was encouragement from Des Cahill and nodding heads from the rest of the panel.

There’s been a whole summer of listening to it and absolutely no debate, no counter-argument. Joanne Cantwell has summarily offered the Devil’s Advocate position but nobody has actually argued it.

Outside the self-serving bubble of the inter-county game, grassroots thinking on the debate doesn’t equal with what we’re being told by every talking head.

Surely there’s an onus here on RTÉ to have someone present the view from the other side?

As part of his argument, Donal Óg took a very selective slant on the game’s promotion, complaining about an unnamed newspaper’s devotion of 13 pages predominantly to Ireland’s win over New Zealand before it got to the hurling.

Yet if he had lifted an Irish Examiner, he’d have found the first 11 pages of both Saturday and Monday supplements dedicated to the hurling final.

It was as easy to find hurling in the media as it was to look somewhere you knew it wouldn’t be just so you could complain about it not being there.

Maybe if the GPA agreed to its grants being tied up in a deal for each county to do weekly media events, there wouldn’t be such a problem with fighting for airtime.

How many Irish people were up at 8.45am on Saturday to watch the rugby on Sky Sports? It sure wasn’t a million anyway, and of those that did, how many would have been able to watch it without a dodgy box?

When did a survey of club championship attendances in 2018, they gathered up crowds from 19 football and 13 hurling finals across the country. Over 170,000 people attended those games.

The GAA’s Central Fixtures Analysis Committee produced a report this year that showed there are 72,000 players (46,000 footballers and 26,000 hurlers) engaged in adult games across Ireland.

The report found that in Ulster, Dublin, Kerry and Kildare, club league football was deemed to be important.

“In football, strong club leagues correlate heavily with inter-county competitiveness,” it read.

The idea that the club game does not capture national attention comes from thinking that crowds of eight or nine thousand are nothing.

But they’re more than most National League games, and when you add them all up, the study suggests 350,000 people go through the gates for county finals each year.

That’s not to mention all the other club games, the provincial series’, etc.

Different does not mean less. In terms of engagement of people young and old, players and fans, the club game holds its own against inter-county.

We’re being oversold the idea that love only comes in the form of big crowds at inter-county games. That’s not true.

The split season has been far from perfect in 2022. Counties haven’t yet worked their club schedules out properly. Club leagues have been unnecessarily meaningless in places. America’s long arm has proven very attractive as a result of the uncertainties.

The calendar was very badly broken and in desperate need of fixing.

Big club games every bit as critical to the GAA’s survival and growth as All-Ireland finals are.

And as it stood, the club game was dying a very prolonged death.

If you want to go the rugby line, where the international team’s success covers for the death and wilderness of the club game, that’s grand. That will kill the GAA far quicker than having All-Ireland finals in July will.

Don’t let Donal Óg Cusack convince you otherwise, no matter how often he’s given an unchallenged platform.