Malachy Clerkin: TV emphasises mediocrity of early-round club games

Moving the All-Ireland finals out of September isn’t automatically helpful for clubs

Castleknock’s Graham Hannigan and Paul Mannion of Kilmacud Crokes during their recent quarter-final clash. Photograph:  Inpho/Bryan Keane

Castleknock’s Graham Hannigan and Paul Mannion of Kilmacud Crokes during their recent quarter-final clash. Photograph: Inpho/Bryan Keane

 

By now, anyone with a vaguely GAA – or even just sport-orientated – social media feed will have come across Colm Cooper’s quick-free goal for Dr Crokes against West Kerry last weekend. Crokes are already seven points and a man up soon after half-time when Cooper is handed a 20-metre free and some mouthing causes the referee to tell him to bring it into the centre of the goal.

If you’ve watched basically any football in the past 15 years, you can tell by the way Gooch immediately springs up onto his toes to skip into the middle that he is not just taking his point here. Yet, of the three West Kerry defenders between him and the goal, only one makes any attempt to get in his way. Even then, it is a half-hearted effort and he gives up the ghost after a few steps. Cooper ends up having time to settle himself, pick his spot and finds the top corner with consummate ease.

Aesthetically, the goal was pure Cooper. If and when they ever get around to making a statue of him, this would be the perfect pose. Right foot planted, the body leaning back slightly, the ball curling off the inside of his left foot in a rainbow arc just inside the angle of post and crossbar. Peak Gooch.

And yet, the more you look at it, the more you wonder why you’re looking at it. The West Kerry defenders and goalkeeper are so unaware of the danger coming their way, it doesn’t feel like football at all really. They’re not so much asleep as comatose, no more a deterrent to Cooper filling his boots than shop window mannequins would be.

This is the first season of Eir showing club matches, building on the 18 years of TG4 broadcasting mainly county finals and provincial games. Eir have gone with trying to find out if there’s a gap in the market – or, as the man says, a market in the gap – in showing games from earlier in the competitions. Hence, the Dublin quarters and semi-finals, the Kerry semi-finals and more.

The coverage is great, the commentary routinely top class, the co-opting of local names like Conal Keaney and Kieran Donaghy a masterstroke. But in all honesty, most of it is lipstick-on-a-pig stuff. The quality of the fare is, as you would expect, thoroughly mediocre.

Put it this way – Cooper scored 33 goals in league and championship for Kerry during his career. Some of them were easier than others, but he still never got to trot a free-kick into the middle of the goal and stroke it into the top corner unthreatened by so much as a dirty look. A Division Four team wouldn’t have dreamed of letting him do it.

Club is club

Club games are club games are club games. The odd team in each county is exceptional and when they come up against the exceptional team from another county, then there’s something to look at. Iin general, even in Kerry and even in Dublin, it’s about getting the ball to the countymen and letting them do their stuff. Anyone who saw Paul Mannion and Cian O’Sullivan lord it in Kilmacud Crokes’s win over Castleknock a couple of weeks back would have been stunned by the distance between them and the honest toilers from last year’s county finalists.

And that’s all fine and dandy. It was ever thus and ever thus will it be. The difference now is that from next year on, this is going to be the sole presence for Gaelic games on television from early September onwards. Ordinarily, nobody but the few thousand who paid through the gates in Fitzgerald Stadium on Saturday would have seen Cooper ushered towards goal like a late-arriving wedding guest. But once the All-Ireland finals move to August, this will be the lot of the GAA fan flipping through the channels for something to watch.

At congress earlier in the year, there was a lot of earnest, genuine talk about giving time back to the clubs and, of course, moving the finals was the big-ticket item. Occasionally you would hear a delegate extol the virtues of the club game and harrumph that with the intercounty game gone dormant a month earlier, now the media would give the grassroots the coverage it deserves. Talk about being careful what you wish for.

Floating voter

Ask anyone in the GAA media what’s most difficult about covering the games and without a beat they’ll tell you it’s trying to get people interested in matches not featuring their own county. When the club championship rolls around, it gets exponentially harder. The potential audience gets sliced and diced and unless you dig out a genuine character or yarn here or there, the floating voter will just float on.

In many ways, the best thing the club game had going for it all these years was the fact that the national audience only ever got to see the best of it. It was easy to maintain the fiction there are loads of club teams out there who would be the equal of, say, a lower-end Division Two or Three team in football, or a Division 1B side in hurling. But the more you see of quarter-finals and semi-finals, the harsher the truth that is revealed.

By moving the finals out of September, the GAA have made their stand. And presumably they would maintain that their primary motivation is the lot of the club player and not the couch potato looking for something to kill an hour. Which is fair enough, too.

But you’ll only get so far with bells and whistles and telling people the club game is where it’s at. The winter is long enough already without signing up to being sold that pup.

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