Championship critics fretting needlessly about GAA showpiece

Perhaps we ought to stop worrying about what it should be and just enjoy it for itself

It was about midway through the second half in Mullingar on Saturday night when the shout came down the seats in the Cusack Park press box: “Attendance 4,524, lads. Four, five, two, four.”

Now, there isn't an exact formula for working out whether a GAA crowd is any good or not. It's far more of a taste test in search of a thumbs-up than a theorem in search of a QED. Still, if you broadly take the sum of the star power of the teams on show minus the time of year and the time of day, then divide your answer by the square root of how many minutes it's likely to get on the Sunday Game, you won't go far wrong.

On Saturday night, the gathered beautiful minds of the press corps did the sums in our heads. Oh, yeah, we can do that. Stephen Hawking is all well and good but he never had to worry about keeping track of subs and scorers (plus black card subs now), not to mention whether or not a long pass that goes out over the end line is actually a wide.

Anyway, we figured that 4,524 was just about okay. For two teams who didn't win a game between them in the league, for the first match in a provincial championship that we've all decided is a forgone conclusion, it wasn't terrible. On a Saturday night where you could walk into the ground happily slurping away on an ice-cream, it was hard to be churlish about anything.

Slow burner
The temptation always is to declare that the summer starts with a whimper. To wring hands and gnash teeth at the poor look we're giving our games by starting the championship in such an understated way. Where's the big launch? Can't we gin up some excitement for this thing? Can we get some razz for ma tazz?

Politely, it’s guff. All of it. The championship is what it is. A slow-burning, quietly-building, slow-revealing slice of what we are. It ratchets up at its own pace depending on who you are and where you’re from. If it felt low key in Mullingar on Saturday night, it was anything but in Omagh yesterday. So it goes, so it will continue to go.

All the marketing campaigns in the world will only drum up so much business. We know by now that good fixtures and a scorching summer will likely drum up more. That was the case last year when attendances mushroomed in every province at every step along the way. Louth played Laois in the opening game on the same weekend last year, just in case anyone’s forgotten.

A not so distant cousin of the starts-with-a-whimper crisis is the only-a-few-teams-can-win-it crisis. This has become particularly acute this year in football since the wretched Dubs have apparently just discovered that there’s a lot of people living in their city. And without Jim Gavin’s army, there aren’t more than three or four teams worth the mention.

So you will hear over the coming weeks plenty talk of two-tier championships and the need for reform – be assured, those conversations are only a hammering or two off in the distance. Aidan O’Shea’s contention from a couple of weeks back about the eventual inevitability of counties merging will be held up as a great truth, just as the Sky deal’s apparent hastening of the days of pay-for-play was.

Yet lost amid all these big GAA questions is maybe the biggest one of all. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why all the fuss over something that has survived and thrived for 130 years? There are roughly as many teams in with a shout of winning the football championship as are going to Brazil with notions of winning the World Cup. Nobody's saying we should split Spain in two.

Player motivation
The point is, this is our thing. The format is nuts and you'd never come up with it if you sat down with a blank piece of paper. But it's our kind of nuts and it's exactly what happens when a people's history falls upon itself layer by layer.

In Mullingar on Saturday night, the Louth team came out for their warm-up wearing their club jerseys. It was midfielder Paddy Keenan’s idea, a small, symbolic statement about coming from where you come from and using it for where you want to go.

“Well, it’s not a massive thing,” said Aidan O’Rourke afterwards. “But we have spoken at length about what it means to play with Louth. It’s a very strong part of their background. We just felt it was a nice reminder for them of what they were representing before the game started.”

The question nobody has an answer to is what happens to all that if you start merging counties or if a player decides which team to play for according to who pays most. The agitation for change and modernisation only ever looks at the big things, with a sort of nagging fear that things should be done differently.

But the GAA is an ocean of mostly small fish, all trying to keep moving through the current. On Saturday night in Mullingar, Paddy Keenan took a game that looked to be slipping out of reach and turned it his team's way. A small-time game was decided by a big-time player and just for that hour or so, it didn't matter that they mightn't go much further or that the Dubs will swallow them whole if they ever get to meet them.

And if it didn’t matter then, maybe it doesn’t matter at all. Maybe we ought to stop worrying so much about what the championship should be and just enjoy it for what it is.