What will the GAA remember in time to come about 2022?
For followers of the games, there’s the usual equation of a year with All-Ireland winners. Then for those supporters of counties or members of clubs fortunate enough to have won things, it goes down as ‘a good year’, the memories of which will warm the spirit in less gilded times.
Have there been, though, standout, ‘I was there’ moments in the last 12 months?
Apart from the novelty of All-Ireland finals in July, not especially. On the field, Kerry footballers registered the long-anticipated return to the podium whereas there was no sign of Limerick hurlers leaving theirs any time soon.
History seeps into our consciousness and is only properly visible in retrospect. Kerry extended their dominion on the roll of honour to 38 – still eight ahead of Dublin despite the latter’s unprecedented consumption of titles in the past decade.
Limerick have also broken new ground, winning a first three-in-a-row having taken four of the past five All-Ireland titles, a feat bettered by only Kilkenny with six from seven (2006-12) and Cork, five from six (1941-46).
Viewed in isolation, it makes Limerick one of the eight most successful teams in history and certainly the most successful from the county. Next up is the target of becoming only the third team to win four successive hurling All-Irelands.
There should also be an acknowledgment of the first running of the Tailteann Cup. Finalists Westmeath and Cavan started the new competition as favourites and engaged fully before the former won the inaugural title.
The Tailteann is another departure whose fate will ultimately be decided by posterity. If it continues to motivate teams to pursue success, Westmeath will be seen as pioneers of a valued new tradition. If however the competition goes the same way as the All-Ireland B and the Tommy Murphy Cup, it will end up a discontinued curiosity.
Next year will be a challenge. A round-robin format for Tier 2 counties, some of whom may have endured a dispiriting championship exit in their province and may not have much player ‘buy-in,’ may well be taxing the patience of such teams regardless of the guarantee of extra matches.
The split season garnered plaudits in its first full iteration with clubs taking exclusive rights to August. Most players were happy but for intercounty footballers and hurlers, involved until the last few weeks and who picked up injuries, their county championships were affected, especially if they were in a county that got through its schedules quickly.
If 2022 served up a bit more in the way of historical achievement on the playing fields than was immediately apparent, it’s also true that other considerations are in an unprecedented state of flux.
Hardly any of the major issues facing the GAA 12 months ago have been resolved. There may have been some progress but a clear picture of how the future will operate has not emerged.
The intercounty football season is still evolving with the next step coming in 2023 with the round-robin format. Will there be sufficient time to accommodate comfortably the additional matches.
Then, there is discipline. In any given year, there’s a chance that misbehaviour on the pitch and in the vicinity of club fixtures will erupt into the public arena when focus switches from the intercounty season.
This autumn was particularly bad and GAA president Larry McCarthy was quick to make the connection between abuse – both verbal and physical – of referees and the difficulty in recruiting and retaining match officials.
In the aftermath of the University of Ulster survey of the effect on referees of appalling behaviour, the Gaelic games community obligingly served up plenty of practical case studies to back up the academic work.
By the end of the year, the collective dander was sufficiently up for a range of – in some cases drastically – increased penalties to be approved by congress. Welcome as this is because accountability and punishment challenge culture, is the will going to be there to deploy these suspensions?
In cases of referee abuse, hearings will be taken away from local committees and sent to Croke Park. Assuming the proposals go through Annual Congress, it will be interesting to see how quickly the new rules make an impact.
Aside from the club outrages directed against match officials and children, the year wasn’t particularly edifying at intercounty level either. The lawyered-up excesses of scrutiny focused on referee’s reports and regulatory loopholes freed a number of miscreants to play.
The new proposal to double minimum suspensions if a challenge is deemed to be vexatiously based on technicality may become a legal battleground but assuming it can be reconciled with administrative law, it would almost certainly discourage reflex applications for a hearing.
One administrator referred to the frustration of talking before a hearing to officials who cheerfully acknowledged they were only there trying to keep a player happy or on the off chance some unexpected deliverance might pop up.
Those apprehensive about the ability of the association to crack the whip on these matters will be looking at next February’s Annual Congress to see what quibbles arise. Will there be any indications of a thawing in the icy resolve to get tough on crime.
The desire to rationalise age grades has actually regressed with the proposals of the Talent Academy report arguably farther from acceptance now. The issue has every appearance of a released genie, which is now proving impossible to return to the bottle in any of its potential formats.
Maybe such flux indicates a dynamic organisation, trying different potential solutions but it all feels a bit unsettled.