Seán Moran: Stricter door policy threatens the GAA’s club culture

Fewer teams with prospects of success, as local game more influenced by county form

In the ground breaking ESRI report, Playing senior inter-county Gaelic games: experiences, realities and consequences, released in September, 88 per cent of county players either agreed or strongly agreed that their respective clubs had played 'a big role' in their development as players.

There is an argument that the influence may be reciprocal and that high-performance culture in the biggest county teams is in turn driving standards in the clubs within those counties. That reality is also reflected in the report’s finding that 60 per cent of county players feel that ‘too much is expected of them’ by club management.

There has been some rueful reflection on the AIB club championships this week after some fairly one-sided results in last weekend's provincial football fixtures and it is easy to understand the apprehensions.

At this stage the intercounty football championship is in the middle of a dominant phase with the unprecedented five-in-a-row on the table next year for only the sixth time in history and given that the two most recent attempts – Kilkenny hurlers in 2010 and Kerry footballers in 1982 – took their crack at history all the way to a fifth final, there is a sense that Dublin are certain to go at least very close.


Happier cycle

Hurling is in a happier cycle, as the last two All-Ireland winners have been counties bridging a cumulative 74-year gap back to their previous titles. That appears to have spilled over into the club game with first championships for the counties of Dublin and Limerick won two and three years ago, respectively.

Just five seasons ago Carlow reached a first hurling final when Mount Leinster Rangers completed a run all the way through Leinster and past 2012 champions Loughgiel.

Football, however, has tightened its borders and it’s difficult to dispute the emerging consensus that this season’s club All-Ireland is likely to come down to the two Crokes – Kilmacud (who have yet to play even their provincial semi-final) and Killarney – and current champions Corofin.

All three are former winners but where we step into different territory is the extent of repeated successes in a championship that was by its nature almost impossible to dominate.

Just four teams have retained the All-Ireland football title but it is the new staying power of both clubs and counties that has changed the landscape. If expectations are fulfilled and the above mentioned clubs – plus Crossmaglen in Ulster – contest next spring's semi-finals, that will mean a last four of the two most recent champions (and it's Corofin's second in four years), Crossmaglen, for whom it would be a fifth All-Ireland semi-final this decade and the Dublin champions for the seventh time in nine years.

It was once valid to argue that power ebbs and flows in the club game because the reduced population bases and reliance on families when family-size is shrinking are even less capable of sustaining success than counties. But now the evidence is that successful clubs have begun to master the process of regeneration. Whatever the reason, club football championships are becoming less competitive in the obvious sense that fewer teams are winning.

In Connacht, should Corofin retain the title, it will be the second three-in-a-row in the province this decade. Previously no club apart from the legendarily unfortunate Clann na nGael, with their six-in-a-row and no All-Irelands, had managed this.

Since Connacht re-emerged as a serious inter-county presence over the past 20 years, clubs from the province have won more All-Irelands than any other, a striking achievement given that they hadn’t won any up to that point.

That reflection of inter-county fortunes has been in evidence in several places. Perhaps the most conspicuous example is Cork, the county that leads the football roll of honour but has added just one title in the past 20 years. Since 2012, the last time the county beat Kerry in championship they have managed to get to only one All-Ireland final, earlier this year when Nemo Rangers, the most successful club in the game, were thrashed by Corofin.

Last year when Nemo won Munster they were the first Cork club to do so in seven years; prior to that, the county had never gone more than two seasons without lifting the Munster trophy. At the weekend Dr Crokes annihilated St Finbarr's by 21 points.

Welcome echo

As on the inter-county scene Dublin have been dominating Leinster. A year ago the stunning upset caused by Rathnew's defeat of St Vincent's was a welcome echo of the days when Wicklow sent out Baltinglass to win the All-Ireland and later when Carlow's Éire Óg won five Leinsters and came agonisingly close to an All-Ireland.

The trend, however, cuts little material for sentiment.

Nine of the last 13 and eight of the last 11 provincial championships have been won by clubs from the capital and in those 11 years the county has won four club All-Irelands and reached the final of another.

Last Sunday Dublin champions Kilmacud beat Dunboyne by 16 points in a provincial quarter-final. It would be fair to point out that Meath have generally under-performed in the club championships even when winning All-Irelands – much as Tyrone have just two Ulster club titles despite an era in which they won three Sam Maguires – but the county representatives would always have been competitive.

When looking back at the GAA, 1971 stands out as a year of enormous influence. The ban on foreign games was lifted, the McNamee Commission reported with a blueprint for the association’s future, much of which was followed, but two separate schemes did an awful lot to reinforce the ‘log cabin to White House’ narrative that still informs the world of Gaelic games and its emphasis on the local: the official foundation of the All Stars and the club championships. Both opened avenues of ambition for those who by dint of birth, would never win All-Irelands.

It’s troubling to think that the roll call of achievement by small rural clubs or even urban units in less successful counties may be on its way to becoming a thing of the past.