Boom to bust: Can the GAA bring back those glory days of uncertainty?

Fifteen years ago, Dublin did not seem to be the unbeatable monolith they have become

Dublin’s Ciarán Whelan and Pádraic Flynn of Leitrim in their  All-Ireland football qualifier round two match in July 2004. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Dublin’s Ciarán Whelan and Pádraic Flynn of Leitrim in their All-Ireland football qualifier round two match in July 2004. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

During the peak years of Ireland’s nervous breakdown – commonly referred to as the Boom – one of the pastimes for the crowd gathered at GAA matches was observing the helicopters landing just minutes before throw-in, carrying the glamorous and important to the venue, and then trying to guess whether Johnny Ronan or J-Lo had shown up for the big derby in Tullamore or Castlebar. It was a strange country then: headily optimistic, unapologetically blingy and wilfully clueless. Perhaps the best way of explaining to someone what Ireland was like during the Boom would be to hand them a box-set of Weddings by Franc and assure them it was like that.

In July 2004, Dublin came to Carrick-on-Shannon to play Leitrim in a first-round qualifier match. Both counties have featured heavily in GAA conversations this week. Leitrim are gunning for a promotion from division four for the first time in a decade. If successful, they will get to play a national final in Croke Park, a prospect which Emlyn Mulligan, the emblematic Leitrim player of this era, described as “something I’ve always been dreaming of”. Dublin, meanwhile, are taking increasing heat for the advantages of being Croke Park’s resident team and by proving virtually unbeatable there – just one championship defeat since the year 2012.

That occasion in 2004 was a big deal for Leitrim. Dublin may not have won an All-Ireland title in almost a decade and their defeat in the Leinster quarter-final(!) to Páidí Ó Sé’s ebullient Westmeath team was a source of national delight. Even before the Dubs were “up”, taking them down a peg or two was a general sport. Westmeath’s rising was like an affirmation that this was an Ireland in which anything was possible. The Dubs were humbled and, like Kerouac, they were on the road.

Significant Dublin crowd

It was sunny that weekend and a significant Dublin crowd headed down to Carrick. Some had made a weekend of it. A small room adjacent to the press box in Páirc Seán MacDiarmada had been set up for refreshments. Among those who took a pre-match cupán tae was Dublin supporter and then-taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who, as usual, eschewed the flamboyant entrance, materialising in the room with the trademark lack of pomp before standing around with the cup of tea and complimenting the currant bread.

Dublin were suspected of being fragile that day but won; Leitrim concocted the only goal in the 1-04 to 0-13 score-line. A fortnight later, the Dubs were on tour again, this time to play Longford in Portlaoise. They came through that one as well, where they promptly ran up against what had become their perpetual nightmare: a knock-out championship game against Kerry in Croke Park. Their summer ended there and, having won just one All-Ireland title since the twilight of the Heffernan era in 1983, everyone vaguely wondered if the Dubs would ever get their act together, and then moved on.

Last summer’s visit of Dublin to Healy Park to play Tyrone was one of the most hotly anticipated games of the championship. Even then, the resentment at the home advantage enjoyed by Dublin in the inaugural “Super 8” rounds of the All-Ireland championship was simmering. Dublin supporters were instinctively thorny about the implicit suggestion that their team “needed” Croke Park to win. That visit to Omagh proved a point. What it also proved was just how much the city team and its supporters bring to the competition when they play championship football down the country.

It’s one of the elements of the current debate that has been ignored. Several things have happened at once to bring about the furore over the perceived unfair advantage that Dublin enjoys. Dublin’s obvious transformation from a team blindly groping for a way to win an All-Ireland into a formidable squad with clinical know-how and poise in the closing stages of finals has brought them to this point: chasing five unbeaten championship summers and leaving the rest of the country torn between admiration and resentment.

Dip in standards

However, their revival has coincided with a general dip in the standards of other strong football counties. Meath, in particular, have fallen away as Dublin’s arch rivals in Leinster, even if they have begun to redress that. Kerry are beginning to build a team that may, someday, be comparable to the Kingdom teams that habitually appeared in All-Ireland finals in the 2000s. But Donegal, Galway, Tyrone and Kerry have been building teams over the past three years. Only Mayo have had the physical maturity and depth and bloody-mindedness to consistently go toe-to-toe with Dublin in their Regency phase. The other counties simply could not aspire to match the All-Ireland champions through this period.

All of this has led to too many days when Dublin have played in Croke Park in championship games so quiet that a couple could sit opposite each other in the Hogan and Cusack stands and have a blazing row and easily hear each other’s insults. “Funereal” is often used to describe the atmosphere at Croke Park on such afternoons. But funerals are hugely emotive occasions, often with laughter and tears. Those one-sided Croke Park games in which Dublin steamroll lesser counties just feel empty.

It was a reminder that the GAA don’t always have to depend on Dublin to fill Croke Park

This problem with Dublin and Croke Park isn’t going to go away. Dublin’s resentment at the insinuation of unfair advantage is understandable: nobody was complaining when they couldn’t win a round of bingo. Croke Park is the national theatre for the GAA: it’s where the marquee games will always be held, irrespective of Dublin’s presence. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that Dublin will be a football presence in the way Kilkenny are a hurling presence. The days when Dublin slummed it in the qualifier rounds are over.

Truly democratic

So the Super 8s was and remains a chance to be truly democratic: just carve it up so every team has one home game, one away game and one game in a neutral venue. For a Super 8s group featuring Mayo and Tyrone, for instance, that neutral venue could be Croke Park. And it would sell.

That adventurous summer of 2004 was also the year when the Ulster final between Armagh and Donegal was played in Croke Park. It drew a capacity crowd of 69,500. Maybe the enthusiasm was partly down to the giddiness of the Boom. But it was a reminder that the GAA don’t always have to depend on Dublin to fill Croke Park and get those turnstiles clicking. If the GAA have enough vision and courage, they can create a championship in which Dublin’s out-of-town games become the best part of the competition.

If their visit to Tralee for a league game generated the excitement it did, then imagine the rumpus of an away game in Killarney or Castlebar or Clones. Tickets would be like gold dust. The pubs would be standing-room only. The entire country would tune in and turn on for those days of electrifying uncertainty which are supposed to be the essence of the championship.

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