Ciarán Murphy: GAA supporters could be real winners in 2018
Like Mayo this year, more games will allow teams forge a greater bond with their fans
Mayo supporters stuck with their team, and travelled with them through 10 games this year. Other counties could experience something similar next year. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The proposal to split the last eight teams left in the All-Ireland senior football championship into two groups of four teams instead of playing four quarter-finals for the next three years was agonised over, debated and critiqued from every possible angle before it was adopted, with many reservations, at Congress in February of this year.
The process to change the Munster and Leinster hurling championships from knock-out competitions in their own right, to two groups of five teams playing each other, passed last Saturday with barely a discordant note struck in comparison; certainly not in the court of public opinion, whatever about the reservations expressed at the Special Congress.
What exactly this tells us about the GAA’s decision-making process is unclear. There is a case to be made that the GAA have quite simply lost their minds, after 130 years of an approach which owes much to Garth from Wayne’s World – “change? We fear change”.
If this is true, then the hurling restructuring is just the latest iteration of a kind of mid-life crisis, the next inevitable step of which will be Páraic Duffy buying himself a red convertible and ostentatiously parking it outside Clones on match-days.
There is a slightly more compelling case to be made that what the GAA has learned over the last few months is that, such is the appetite for change around the country, experimentation really is possible now, in a way that it just wasn’t 15 years ago.
Whether the changes were brought in because the GAA felt we just don’t see enough of our best teams playing each other, or simply because they felt something had to be done in light of the ‘Super 8s’, is in some ways beside the point.
It is, as Liam Griffin said last Sunday, part of the law of unintended consequences. Once change had come to the football, hurling’s hand was in some ways forced. By hook or by crook, we’re left with almost a third more games – 29, compared to 22 scheduled fixtures in 2017.
We are used to the rhythms of a GAA summer. Walking out of Croke Park at the end of the All-Ireland ladies football final, with the autumn sun low in the sky, is the grace note on the season. From now on, for many people, the GAA is something to be watched on TG4.
You might venture out the door for your county final as a neutral, but that aside, you’re settling in by the fire all winter and hoping that someone puts on a show like Tony Kelly did for Ballyea last season to keep us entertained.
Spring will creep up on us, and all of a sudden your county team’s bow in the provincial championship will hove back into view. For the biggest teams that used to mean two or three more big days out, and then maybe an All-Ireland final to look forward to, before the process begins again.
Next year will thoroughly shake us out of that rhythm. In 2011 Kilkenny played four games to win the All-Ireland hurling championship. Lose the Leinster final next year, and Kilkenny will have to play eight games to win the same tournament. Finish third in the Leinster round-robin, and they’ll have to play nine. Two of those games will be at home in Nowlan Park.
If Kerry win the All-Ireland football final next year, they’ll have to play at least seven games, one of which will be the Munster final, and five of which will be in the All-Ireland series. They’ll have a game at home against top-class national opposition in Fitzgerald Stadium in late July.
So what does it mean exactly to be a Kerry or Kilkenny supporter, and how will that relationship change in 2018? We saw what happened when the Mayo support stuck with their team, and travelled with them through 10 games this year. That odyssey was pretty much the story of the summer, notwithstanding Galway and Dublin’s eventual All-Ireland wins.
By the time the All-Ireland final came around, even the most mildly interested neutral felt like they knew not just the first XV, but Stephen Coen and Conor Loftus and Paddy Durcan and the rest. They were invested in the players because they’d been watching them digging out results all summer.
In 2018, that sort of journey will become the norm in both the hurling and football championships, rather than the exception.
With home games guaranteed in both of the re-drawn parts of the championships, that gives 14 or 16 teams (across both codes) the chance to forge that kind of bond with their supporters. If the likes of Limerick or Wexford get on a roll in the hurling championship, you can imagine what sort of colour and excitement that would bring.
We don’t really think of supporters as a constituency in and of themselves – because supporters are by their nature also club players or club administrators with their own concerns. But we’re often so eager to say how good it is for our elite players to get more games, that we overlook what it means for us as fans. And in 2018, it looks like we could be the real winners.