The GAA Championship summer, warts and all

Malachy Clerkin asks are you ready for the Championship 2016 off, stuttering as it may be?

A county, a people: Mayo fans during the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final replay at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

A county, a people: Mayo fans during the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final replay at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho


1: the first of 70 minutes

This is not an A to Z of the championship. It’s a 1 to 70. As in, the 70 minutes of a championship game. There’ll be a small bit thrown on the end as a nod to stoppage time. You may or may not have left to beat the traffic before then.

2: mystery of time

It is not, either, a numerical guide. The minutes of a championship game bear no particular correlation to the wider world, after all. The full forward didn’t, for instance, score the goal in the 25th minute to mark your silver wedding anniversary. So there’s little point going looking for the number that will match up to, say, the amount of games Marc Ó Sé needs this summer to equal his brother Tomás’s all-time appearance record.

3: the magic number

It’s three, by the by. (This is the only time that will happen.)

4: unmistakable Fennelly

A few weeks back, I interviewed Michael Fennelly in Kilkenny for The Irish Times Championship 2016 our championship magazine. Eamonn Sweeney had a great line one time about meeting the Waterford footballer Gary Hurney, who he described as being immediately identifiable as an intercounty midfielder even if you had happened upon him loping towards you across the Gobi desert. Ditto Fennelly, as he walked through the lobby of the hotel.

5: crocked body

Fennelly arrived in flip-flops and was still a head over everyone in the place. You wouldn’t have said that the T-shirt he had on him was especially tight but he was wearing every thread of it. Up close, he is muscular without being over-muscled, square of jaw and shoulder, the outward picture of supreme health and wellbeing. Then he sat down and talked at length about how crocked he is.

6: still young

“I’ve only just turned 31 in February so I’m still young,” he said. “If I was a few more years down the line, definitely I would be questioning if the body could still take the punishment. But yeah, it will be interesting in years to come. I hope to God my body’s not going to be too bad in terms of functioning in everyday life. We’ll see at that stage whether I resent it or not.”

7: the GAA = the Amazon

It. “It” covers a multitude. Broadly, “it” is the GAA, the great Amazon that snakes its way through Irish life, slow and vast and vital and unstoppable. But more specifically for our purposes, “it” is championship.

8 : one of the greats

Fennelly has won six All-Ireland medals on the field of play and two more as a panel member. He has played in eight All-Ireland finals. He’s won three All Stars, he’s been Hurler of the Year. He has three club All-Irelands and has been man of the match in All-Ireland finals for club and county. If a bus hit him tomorrow and he never pucked another ball, that bus would be skittling down a hurling career matched by maybe only 30 people who have ever lived.

9: back troubles

The weird thing is, it would take a bus. Fennelly has no notion of retiring. Since the start of 2013, his back has curtailed his involvement to such an extent that of Kilkenny’s last 46 games in league and championship, he has started and finished just 12. Those numbers constitute the sort of hint that even the dimmest mind ought to be able to take – and he is anything but that. His day job is lecturing in strength and conditioning at Limerick IT. If anyone should know better, Mick Fennelly should.

10: hurling’s hold

Weird is the wrong word. Let’s say it’s remarkable, then. Remarkable that a 31-year-old, soon-to-be-married expert in physiology should be subjecting his body to all this hardship given what he knows it might mean for his future. Remarkable that he is hanging in there not just for one more go but for an indefinite amount of goes. A few more years, he says. Remarkable that hurling has this hold on him when there’s life to be lived.

11: fatal attraction...

Okay, maybe it isn’t. Maybe he’s the wrong example here. More likely, he’s like Debbie McGee that time Mrs Merton asked her what first attracted her to the millionaire Paul Daniels. So Michael, what is it about playing for perennial All-Ireland favourites Kilkenny that so attracts you to intercounty hurling?

12: taken for granted

Still, it feels sometimes that we’re far too quick to take this whole thing as a given. We don’t step back from it to try to reason it out. The football championship starts on Saturday in Portlaoise and on Sunday in Tullamore and Enniskillen. The hurling championship has been rumbling away for a few weeks in places such as Tralee (!) and Mullingar and next weekend it will explode in Thurles. For the next four months it will, at various times and in various places, matter more than anything else than is happening in those places at those times. We take it as inevitable that this will occur. But why? Why should it? Why will our interest in and fealty to the championship endure through a summer that will include the Euros and the Olympics and, for all we know, another general election or three? Why do players put so much into it? Why do county boards spend so much on it? Why do advertisers rain cash out of the clouds for it?

13: the why of it

So that’s what this is. A piece on the why of it all.

14: part of us

Look, it’s probably a stupid question. Probably an irritating one too, let’s be honest. Why are we interested in the championship? Because we are, ya bollocks. The championship is just . . . there. It’s always been there. It’s part of us and always will be, as impervious to Irish Times pseudo-psycho what’s-it-all-aboutery now as it ever was.

15: a constant...

It is constantly surprising, though, the range of people who care that it remains just . . . there. Because we can say for sure that the championship matters not just to the Michael Fennellys. Not just to All-Ireland winners. Not just to players, even. Nor just to their coaches, their medical teams, their stats crews, their bus drivers. Mattering isn’t, either, confined to supporters or officials or referees or stewards or turnstile operators. Or publicans or gardaí or journalists or that pair of chancers outside the ground with the squeezbox and the banjo and the rebel songs.

16: a summer in numbers

Last summer, the championship visited 29 Irish towns and cities in 28 counties for at least a day. Dublin had 19 games, Thurles had 12, Tullamore and Mullingar had six apiece. Portlaoise and Cavan got four days of it; Ennis, Armagh, Enniskillen and Carlow all saw three. Six more had two games, 13 had one. Derry was the only county to bring it to more than one venue – Celtic Park and Owenbeg. Since you ask, the four counties where it did not land in 2015 were Kildare, Down, Wicklow and Mayo.

17: off the beaten track

To be in those places on those days is to know, however obliquely, that there is something happening. And most of them are places where, in general, there is a lifetime’s nothing happening. Towns such as Clones and Navan and Roscommon and Ballybofey and Drogheda aren’t on any tourist trail. Nobody overnights in Omagh or hits up Tullamore for a short break. No best man ever sends a stag party to Longford town. Or if he does, he gets a hosing on the WhatsApp group for it.

18: rural cleansing

It feels like we hear a lot about the plight of rural Ireland. We don’t, of course. If you grew up there, you know that we don’t hear half enough about it. What we hear about are things such as bad broadband and closed post offices and rows over milk quotas. And obviously none of that is unimportant. But hardly anyone ever talks about the fact that the towns we grew up in are places that have been routinely cleansed of youth.

19: lost generations

Sit and have a coffee in a shopping centre in a medium-sized Irish town some day. Sit and people-watch for a while. You will see any amount of schoolkids, all hair and acne and hubbub. Plenty of grown-ups too, from starter-home couples with a site out the road to grandparents pushing buggies until six o’clock comes around. But it won’t be long before you realise that there’s next to nobody in their 20s.

20: sucked of energy

That’s what deadens a rural town. It’s the school-leavers who go to college and end up staying on in Dublin or Galway or Cork or Belfast when they’re done. It’s the backpackers who strike out for all points of the compass and disappear on tangents that never occurred to their teenaged selves. It’s the jobbing ex-pats who know they’ll come back to Ireland at some stage but can’t rightly see themselves going home. Drib by drab, a town leaks energy and ideas and bouldness and agitation.

21: flag days

But a county team going on a run – now that shakes a place up. A couple of years back, I was in Cavan for their Ulster championship opener. They were in the preliminary round of Ulster that year and Armagh were due in Breffni Park. Down the town beforehand, I was standing in the carvery queue someplace and overheard two little old ladies in conversation. “Well, what about the match?” asked one. “Aw, I haven’t even put out the flag this year,” replied the other.

22: moment in the sun

And why would she? At the time, Cavan hadn’t won an Ulster championship match since 2009 and hadn’t beaten anyone other than Fermanagh or Antrim in it since 2004. But that was the day that Martin Dunne scored eight points from play against a comically helpful Armagh defence and, from there, Cavan started to pick up momentum. They played seven games that summer and made it all the way to August before falling to Kerry in Croke Park. Half the county was in the stands that day and when it was over, the team walked off to a standing ovation.

23: standing in hope

That standing tells you a bit, I think, about what we want out of the championship. When it came down to it, Cavan didn’t do a whole lot more than they should have that summer. Their five wins came against Armagh, Fermanagh (twice), Derry and London. They were done out of a draw against Monaghan by a poxy refereeing decision and they left it way too late to make any sort of shape against Kerry. It goes without saying that they never threatened to actually win silverware.

24: the run is everything

But it was the run. The run was everything. From Breffni Park to Clones to Enniskillen to Derry to Croke Park. They played four weekends in a row from mid-July to early August that included a hammering of Fermanagh in Brewster Park, an extra-time win on the road in Celtic Park and a first win in Croke Park in 61 years. It didn’t matter that it was against London and that they weren’t that all impressive, what mattered was the run. They barely ruffled Kerry’s hair but the people standing to clap them off were saying thanks for the summer.

Second Captains

25: hope is jet fuel

Thanks for the hope, too. Don’t forget the hope. As much as we spend our GAA lives fetishising the past, hope for the future is the jet fuel of any sport. Without it, you’re glued to the tarmac, stuck with the grim certainty that there’s no prospect for take-off. Cavan got a bit along the way that summer and bound up in the standing ovation was the presumption that they’d get a bit further the next year.

26: the comedown

They didn’t, of course. In the two championships since then, they’ve been gone after three games both times. Hey, that’s part of it too.

27: the belonging

“I think it’s probably a sense of belonging,” says John Gunnigan, owner and curator of the MayoGAABlog website. “It’s the journey. I mean, I don’t buy into this thing of our journey being a purer journey because we don’t ever get there. All this aren’t-we-great-for-keeping-at-it stuff, I don’t go with that at all. I’d swap it all for one win and I think we all would. But at the same time, there’s a sort of renewal to it every year. Every year you crash and burn and every year you pick yourself up and you try again.”

28: childhood heroes

Gunnigan is a soft-spoken, mid-50s, tech professional who hasn’t lived in Mayo since the very early 1980s. Usual story – went to Dublin, went to London, came back, settled in Dublin. Lives in Drumcondra, kids play for St Vincent’s. The kids are Dubs but they have heroes on both coasts. They think life will always be this good.

29: points of view

He started the blog in 2007; it has grown indecently since – the hit-counter long ago passed 2.5 million visits. It’s a site for Mayo supporters to come and mingle and in an effort to prevent it becoming just another internet cesspool, Gunnigan (through his online alter-ego Willie Joe) moderates with a tight rein. Personal abuse of players and managers and other posters isn’t tolerated and playing bouncer takes time and effort that he could very easily be giving to something else. Well he knows it, too.

30: life’s work

“My background training is in economics so I know all about opportunity cost. But you don’t think about that. It’s been enormous fun. It’s been an enormous millstone.”

31: Mayo’s wait

We meet for coffee in Nelly’s at the top of Clonliffe Road. Out the window, the back of the Hogan Stand juts out over the little red Lego houses of Fitzroy Avenue and Russell Avenue. He grew up not knowing the place because Mayo were useless then. People talk about Mayo waiting 65 years for an All-Ireland but really, they’ve only been seriously waiting on one for the past 20 or so.

32: final agony

“The last 10 minutes of the ’96 final, I was catatonic. I couldn’t move in my seat. People wonder why Mayo people don’t shout at matches. It’s because we’re trying to breathe.”

33: a county, a people

Mayo people. A phrase that reminds us the GAA is one of the last places in polite society where you can generalise about a group of citizens and nobody minds. It’s encouraged, frankly.

34: a glorious splash

Mayo people are not long-suffering, by the by. Gunnigan won’t hear of it. “The last years have just been incredible for Mayo. I just cannot take people giving out that we should be doing better. Because this is not our natural habitat. A glorious splash every now and then before going into the doldrums again is more our thing.”

35: big beasts rule

It’s more everyone’s thing, really. Take out the big beasts in hurling and football and the doldrums are a familiar and crowded locale. Between them, Kilkenny, Dublin and Kerry have won 20 of the 32 All-Irelands since the turn of the century. They’ve been runners-up in another eight. Of the past 25 seasons, only two – 1996 and 2001 – have ended without at least one of them contesting a final in September.

36: keep on keeping on

So whatever it is that keeps us interested, variety ain’t high on the list.

37: we know the flaws

It’s hardly as if we’re blind to the flaws of the thing either. You can list them off in your sleep. Amateur sports that are fundamentally weighted towards the counties who can raise the most money. A football championship that is deeply unfair in what it asks different teams to achieve in order to reach the same point of the competition. A hurling championship that we pass off as our national game even though the vast majority of the country has only ever seen it on TV.

38: and there’s more

More, plenty more. A sporting culture where the abuse of referees is so blithely accepted that GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail actually thinks making the teams shake hands before a game will make a difference in combating it. Verbal abuse of a referee is a black card offence in football – when did you last see it happen? Did you ever?

39: innocents abroad

And the sanctimony. Dear God, the sanctimony. As if no other sporting organisation on earth had volunteers or fundraisers or community involvement or supporters who blacken the roads following their team around. As if the fact that the players don’t get paid entitles them to some sort of leeway when it comes to dope-testing. As if hurlers and footballers don’t cheat and dive and sledge the same as every other group of motivated sportspeople in the world.

40: a word on the Euros

The Euros are coming up. Dunno about you but I can’t wait for the Euros. Feel free not to Tweet about the differences between hurling and soccer during it. People who do that are a pain in the hole.

41: luck of the draw?

Imagine, as a quick aside, a Euros where Ireland had to beat four teams – including three of the top six in the tournament – to reach the quarter-finals, while Germany only had to win two to get there, and only one of them against sticky opposition. The tournament would be a laughing stock.

42: some joke?

Well, replace Ireland with Fermanagh who start tomorrow against Antrim and will have to beat Donegal, Monaghan and Tyrone to reach August and change Germany for Kerry who don’t start for another month and have to get past either Clare or Limerick and then Cork to do the same. Some joke, eh?

43: football’s broken ways

The football championship is broken, everyone agrees this. And yet there is no appetite to fix it. The reason we know this for sure is that serious people went away and spent a year trying to come up with a way to fix it and returned with the only solution that has been shown to fail in the past.

44: don’t mention Congress

That happened at Congress, by the way, on which we will not get started.

45: players forgotten

Except to wonder – again – at exactly why it is we stick with this thing. The 2016 Congress was by common consent one of the most elitist and conservative in years. Again, everyone agrees that club players are being screwed by the length of the intercounty season and still they couldn’t get the All-Ireland finals played two weeks earlier. Nor could they get replays abolished to make a bit of room.

46: Cash is king...

Those were two small changes that could have made a big difference. But Congress chose to go with the money. Scrap replays and you’re scrapping replay cash. Bring the All-Ireland forward and you’re handing September to the rugby crowd. Money, money, money.

47: ...and money talks...

Same with the Dubs and Croke Park. For years, it’s the other 11 Leinster counties that have kept them playing there. Now that they’re being moved for just one game, it’s to a neutral venue in Nowlan Park rather than ceding home advantage. Money, money, money.

48: ...Shhhhhhhhh!

Money is the great unspoken, always. On RTÉ Radio during the league quarter-finals in Thurles, John Mullane started talking about the financial backing of one of the teams, only for Brian Carthy beside him to chuckle nervously and go, “Don’t talk about money in an amateur game, John!”

49: don’t mention the €22m

Look, it’s live radio and the air won’t fill itself so it doesn’t do to be too harsh about these things. But isn’t that a bizarre thing to say? To think, even? Never in the history of the GAA has the effect of money invested in county teams been clearer to the naked eye. It took €22 million to run them last year. And we’re not supposed to talk about it?

50: under-the- table wedge

That €22 million doesn’t cover whatever under-the-table wedge the various county managers got, obviously. We can take it though that nothing has changed since the days when former president Peter Quinn opined that not only could his investigative committee into managerial payments not find the money, they “couldn’t even find the tables under which the payments were being made”.

51: club chagrin

All of this feeds into a low-level hum of disillusionment. Clubs that are already going thin and wan with players moving to the cities resent losing the best of those who stay behind to the county set-up. Small counties shake their fist at big counties for taking in Brink trucks of sponsorship money and not throwing a cut their way. Supporters spit the names of them bastards up in Croke Park who they believe to be making out like bandits.

52: intercounty

The intercounty game grows more and more remote from its people every year. One team closes off its training sessions, others follow suit. One team shuts down engagement with the press, the rest aren’t far behind.

53: media blackout

Media access to county teams now is the worst its ever been. Which wouldn’t matter in the slightest except it means that public access to county teams is the worst its ever been. Outside of product launches and free-for-all press nights, you’re generally at nothing trying to talk to players. On the whole, managers just don’t want them doing it.

54 : sponsorship grip

Mind you, players know their worth too. A colleague from another paper tells a story about ringing up a player for an interview. He’d got to know him reasonably well on All Stars trips so he thought there might be a chance. “Yeah, no problem,” came the reply. “Now, is this the Adidas one or the Allianz one?” “Oh. Eh, it’s neither,” said the reporter. “It’s just me.” And the player laughed and said thanks but Jesus he couldn’t be doing that.

55: packing it in

In the past two years, five of the GAA reporters from various newspapers have upped and decided it wasn’t for them anymore. That’s five out of a pool of maybe 20-ish who moved on and did something else.

56: outside the bubble

Everyone had different reasons and by no means was it all to do with access. But each of them would tell you that it has become far more of a grind in recent years. The paranoia, the sanitisation, the mind-numbing futility of chasing team news. All because county teams hold that bubble sacrosanct.

57: why can’t we quit?

So why do it? Players pay with their bodies, supporters pay with their wallets, the media pays with its self-respect. So why will we all pile in for the next four months and, come September, proclaim it another fine year? Why can’t we quit the championship?

58: because we can’t

Mostly, we don’t want to. It never really occurs to us. What would we talk about at home?

59: a different Kildare

Cian O’Neill manages Kildare now. Over the past decade or so, he’s been to All-Ireland finals with the Mayo and Kerry footballers and the Tipperary hurlers. He has seen the elite side of the championship in both codes and is about to experience what it means at a different level. This feels different already. Not better, not more real, nothing like that. Just different.

60: links within links

“Identity is such a huge thing. People feel a part of it because of the structure of it, with the clubs feeding into counties. It’s ‘I know him, I went to school with him, he went out with my sister’ – that kind of thing. Subconsciously or not, it’s ‘they’re succeeding so therefore the county is succeeding, therefore I am succeeding’. People want that connection.”

61: pure escape

A few weeks back, Kildare played a challenge match against Laois to open a new clubhouse in Monasterevin. O’Neill got off the bus and the first face he saw was a guy he had played with at minor and under-21 who was on stewarding duty. He got inside and the committee was lashing up sandwiches in the kitchen. There was a fete on for the kids. The two teams got a run-out and the players signed everything in sight afterwards. For a couple of hours, nobody talked about Irish Water or homelessness or government formation.

62: connections

The identity thing matters. Connections matter. O’Neill was with Tipp for four years but he finished up in September 2011. He still gets wedding invites from that panel. His wife still has friends from there and from Mayo and from Kerry.

63: home is home

But Kildare is home. It’s his first managerial job so it would have its own pressure anyway. But home is home. The week after Kerry won the 2014 All-Ireland, he was back on the line with his club Moorefield as they won the county championship. Sure where else would he be?

64: the passion

“It’s a bit silly, the whole thing,” said O’Neill that day in Rathfarnham. “The time you put into it is definitely a bit silly. When you’re married, you should probably be doing other things as a married man. And the time that players put into it and supporters put into it, it is a bit silly. But that’s what you do. It comes from the passion we all have for it.”

65: the challenge

“What else would you be doing, I suppose?” said Michael Fennelly that day in Kilkenny. “What would you be doing? Playing club, tipping away. But this, setting a goal, playing for Kilkenny, trying to get on the team, trying to win things, that’s your goal in life. If you weren’t playing this, you’d be playing club but you still want something to challenge yourself.”

66:the alive-ness

“Look it, we’re alive,” said John Gunnigan that day in Drumcondra. “It’s something to do while we’re alive. There’ll be many a long year when we won’t be.”

67: the belonging

That’s the long and short of it, really. We do it because we do it. Because it’s there. Because it feeds into the part of us that wants to belong to something, even if that something doesn’t always mean that much to us throughout the other months of the year. Without the championship, it’s entirely possible we might very well regard our native counties as no more dear to us than English folk do theirs.

68: the exception

Cork people excepted, obviously.

69: the never-ending

The championship endures and it will outlive us all. What are the threats to it, after all? Disinterest? Four of the top 20 most-watched TV events of 2015 were GAA matches. Just over 1.3 million people went to games, broadly the same as the previous two years, both of which were bumped out by replays in All-Ireland finals. Not bad going when only three teams can feasibly win the football and one crowd are untouchable in the hurling.

70: the here and the now

No, it’ll be there as long as it likes. In all its maddening, elitist, unequal, weirdly structured, professionally amateur, amateurishly professional, hypocritical, respect-handshake-me-arse glory. Because today or tomorrow or next week or next month, you’ll be standing in a stadium somewhere and the anthem will be rising and none of that stuff will enter your head. You’ll let a roar and rub your hands together and know, if only for that moment, you wouldn’t be anywhere else.

70+: the last word

We’ll leave the last word to the fearr láidir from Kerry whose column will return presently . . . “What else are we going to do? Go home? Go to Mass? Sure we tried that!” – Darragh Ó Sé, The Irish Times.

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