Possibility of success needs to be part of the intercounty contract
Division four teams make up a quarter of all intercounty sides yet continually have to fight against the sense they are irrelevant
Cuala celebrating last March after winning the All-Ireland club senior hurling championship in O’Moore Park, Laois, against Na Piarsaigh. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The winning tradition matters in Gaelic games, but it can only take you so far. This year marked the 21st anniversary of Cavan’s last Ulster senior football success. The county has won just two Anglo-Celt cups since 1969, but even so it towers over all the other Ulster counties. Donegal, the reigning Ulster champions and the most recent county from the province to win an All-Ireland, would have to win every provincial championship for the next 28 years just to match Cavan’s historic haul of 37.
Cavan’s luminous tradition is both a gift and a curse. It means the roots of the game are firmly entrenched across the county. It also means that subsequent generations of players have existed in the shadow of their celebrated forefathers.
If Cavan manage to win an Ulster championship next year it would symbolise everything that the summer All-Ireland championship is supposed to encapsulate. The odds are against them, but at least the squad has a right to believe that with the right training and tactical approach they have a realistic chance of making it. That gives them a clear purpose and goal that other teams simply do not have.
One of the many fascinating findings in the recent ESRI publication, Playing Senior Inter County Gaelic Games: Experiences, Realities and Consequences, details the reasons why players ceased to play intercounty in 2016. While the biggest consideration was based on a wish to focus on career, 22 per cent of participants stepped away because they felt they had no chance of success.
When that percentage is broken down, players in the 22 to 25 age bracket were most likely to offer the lack of success as their reason for leaving the intercounty scene. It was as if they had overcome the requisite hurdles to reach the intercounty standard, were good enough to have experienced a few seasons, and came to the conclusion that their particular county team didn’t have the resources to make progress.
“It is a downside, yeah. Players wanting to focus on their professional career stands out as being the big factor,” says Elish Kelly, economic analysis senior research officer and one of the authors of the publication.
“They get to a stage in their lives when they realise that their ability to hold their professional and intercounty career in tandem is no longer feasible. And they are making a rational decision based on that.
“We actually included ‘no-chance-of-success’ as an option in the table for the main downsides of playing the game. And it ranks way down. But if you look at it by the level players find themselves, then you see it becomes a much greater factor. What you can see is that it is more prominent in the lower divisions.”
The disparity is staggering. The research found that footballers through all the divisions identify with having less time for family/partner/friends as a predominant downside of their involvement with their county squad. But in the division one table, the percentage of players who felt that the “county no chance of winning” factor was a consideration is filled with an asterix – so few players were of that mindset, it simply didn’t register as a percentage. Sweep through and the rise becomes stark: 9 per cent in division two, 39 per cent in division three and 66 per cent in division four.
It’s a bleak forecast. One of the enduring notions of the All-Ireland football championship is that it is a 32-county competition. A cursory glance at the winning teams shows that very few counties are competing for the ultimate prize.
The provincial trophies are more realistic but this year’s inaugural Super 8s series instantly shifted the perspective on those competitions; much of the commentary suggested the provincial contests were a mere prelude to the “real business” of the Super 8s.
There have been calls to abandon the provincial championships entirely, running the All-Ireland along a Champions League format. The consequence of this would be to reduce the silverware – and the attendant sense of accomplishment, joy and celebrations – from five available trophies to just one.
Cavan’s squad may approach next season in the full belief they can win Ulster. But convincing them that an All-Ireland title is in their future might be a more difficult task for any manager. And Cavan is one of the stronger counties, back in division one next year.
So much of the attention and focus of intercounty football is devoted to the top flight teams. Division four teams make up a quarter of all intercounty sides and yet continually have to fight against the sense that they are irrelevant. Occasionally teams like Roscommon can respond to a slide into division four by going on a march back up through the divisions. But many other counties are locked outside divisions one and two for years, and also fail to make much of an impression in the championship. Little wonder that some participants conclude that their efforts are in vain.
Trying to fight through a lack of tradition is part of the problem for these counties. One of the most conspicuous recent GAA success stories has been the emergence of Cuala, a south Dublin club, as a reliable contender in hurling, football, women’s football and camogie at all grades. The club was founded comparatively recently, in 1974. It still doesn’t have its own playing pitch. Gaelic games did not have a strong tradition in the locality.
“Originally we were a small club and had a couple of families – the O’Callaghans, the Holdens, the Schuttes, and they are all cousins,” says Damien McKeown, the club chairman. “And as the younger lads came into our academy, we ended up with a couple of coaches who knew their way around. They became a group. And they weren’t successful, believe you me, at minor level. But they remained as a group and if you can keep lads and girls together as a team and friends past 18, it does make a difference.”
McKeown acknowledges that “there are probably 150 clubs doing the exact same thing as we are without the success”. The big advantage Cuala has is population. But trying to find pitches, particularly at this time of year when they require floodlights to facilitate training, can be a logistical nightmare. Of the 540 training sessions arranged last year, over 500 were outside the Dún Laoghaire borough.
Most clubs place a premium on having a “home”, a club ground that is permanent and theirs. Cuala’s transformation has occurred despite their nomadic status. And for all of their notable triumphs, the club has many teams that don’t win. Getting the balance between playing to win and playing for enjoyment is critical.
“Our system really focuses on that. So at every age group we try to have two teams. The B team is for kids who just want to go and play a game. They are the heart and soul of the club in the future. It is the A team players that you tend to put your focus on to try and get that success. And they are just out there training, playing matches, and trying to succeed. And we temper the two to try and keep as many as possible playing for as long as possible.”
Intercounty players emerge from that latter group of A grade players with the combination of athleticism, dedication and skill that set them apart. Making it to the senior intercounty grade, they have reached the highest level they can go within the county system.
For the best of the Cuala players that means Dublin. If you are playing for Dublin footballers then having no chance of success does not come into the equation. Those who come through the fierce competition for a place in Jim Gavin’s squad next January know that they have a highly favourable chance of experiencing the ultimate success. Very few players in any county will face into next year’s training programme with any such certainty. And as you travel out of division one, the opportunities to achieve success narrow drastically.
“And then you wonder why are these individuals doing it,” says Eilis Kelly. “And I think that is a question for further research. The data is there. Are these decisions rational? Why are they doing it?
“Even if they know there is no chance of winning, is it to do with localism or that pride in representing county? Or is this about what it allows individuals to achieve for themselves in athletic potential.”
The desire for success has shaped the evolution of Gaelic football. The reliance on zonal defences and methodical ball retention, and the increasing use of the handpass, are all products of a coaching system designed to give the weaker teams a fighting chance against the stronger teams. Increasingly the demands of the game place a premium on an athlete as much as a footballer. It was a topic that came up during the workshops for the ESRI research: conditioning versus the traditional skills.
“This has implications for the game; are you attracting a certain cohort of player over a player with natural talent left on the sidelines because he may not have the physique to play in the game as it is currently played,” says Kelly. “I often think of [Sligo’s] David Kelly – a lovely talented player who may not thrive in today’s game. I think in some ways the Gooch [Colm Cooper] got out at the right time. These are just personal observations.”
At least both of those players felt it worthwhile enough to see their intercounty careers through to a natural conclusion. The idea that players are walking away out of a sense of resignation is a worry.
In a recent conversation with this newspaper, Colm Collins, the Clare manager, said he believes the challenge Dublin represent to all counties is positive in that it will raise the overall standard. But he also believes in the necessity of a second championship. “Because I am a believer that every player should have an opportunity to win a national competition in Croke Park on a given year.”
GAA president John Horan has already made the idea his mission statement. The small, significant statistic in the ESRI report suggests that giving the lower tiered teams something worthwhile to play for would be a timely development. If intercounty players are to achieve tangible success they need competitions in which they can realistically aspire to win. Otherwise why bother?