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GAA must invest in ‘weaker’ counties

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne Marie Flynn

It came a surprise to precisely no-one with even a passing interest in GAA that the lid has lifted on the Great Dublin Debate, and the head of steam that has been slowly simmering for the last decade has exploded into the media at long last.
While you’d have to roll your eyes at Dublin manager Dessie Farrell wondering last week ‘Where the debate has all come from?’, you know it’s a real talking point when it is overshadowing an All-Ireland final featuring Mayo – the one team that has consistently tested Dublin over the years.
When turning up to collect the half dozen is perceived as merely a formality for Dublin, it ensures that Mayo essentially go into this game on Saturday with no expectation of them, and no external pressure, which in itself will be interesting. But the wider debate so far has been sadly lacking across the mainstream media, and there is much to be challenged and talked about.
Let’s get a few things out there from the outset. Firstly; however happy they may have been in their complicity, Dublin didn’t create this problem. They got money, lots of money, and used it remarkably wisely. The players still worked hard, and their success, sadly, will always be tinged with the accusation of financial doping. The administration within pretty much every other county could learn from Dublin’s approach if they were willing to admit it. The GAA itself must bear most responsibility for this situation, but socio-economic factors and the changing media landscape are also factors.
Secondly, the investment did not generate a ‘Golden Generation’, as Bernard Brogan claims. Three players remain as starters from the Dublin team that started the 2011 All-Ireland. It’s a conveyor belt of talented generations.
Thirdly, the Dublin hurlers absolutely have progressed in recent years; they ascended to the top tier and stayed there after years in the wilderness, they won the National League in 2011, and reclaimed the Leinster championship in 2013 after 52 years, and are performing consistently at underage level. Let’s also not forget that hurling is a vastly different game to football, and perhaps Dublin hurling too, like Mayo, has suffered from the loss of some of their best players to football – Con O’Callaghan, Cormac Costello, Ciaran Kilkenny, even Diarmuid Connolly being notable examples.
RTÉ facilitated a ‘debate’ on The Sunday Game a few days ago, and I’d need ten pages to pour the appropriate level of scorn upon it. The very notion that Cavan and Monaghan would be open to the idea of merging is as insulting as it is laughable, and I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Tyrone and Armagh or indeed Galway and Mayo to join forces any time soon. But it did touch on a couple of things that haven’t really been included in the debate, and really should be.
From the outset, it’s remarkable that the entire debate centres around one county’s recent dominance, while the ongoing plight of most other counties remains blithely ignored. Take Leitrim, for example. In the 136 years of the GAA’s existence, they have only had five opportunities ever to play in Croke Park and have never won a game there. There is no such thing as a championship for many intercounty teams. Population will always be a factor, but while this debate is taking place, and there is talk of equalisation, surely now is the obvious time to be asking, not how we can drag Dublin down, but how we can raise other counties up?
Investing in underage is one thing; and it is vital, but that alone does not always result in senior success. Professionalism – and resourcing – at a senior level results in progress, and things like TV coverage and games promotion result in more engagement at all levels. Success breeds success. Games in which two evenly matched teams are competing are what make for compelling spectacles, and that is why the GAA has overseen a sequence of events that has led to its premier competition being greatly overshadowed by its secondary one.
If we’re looking at levelling the playing field, the GAA now has a golden opportunity to look at both sides of the pitch and start investing in so-called ‘weaker counties’ as well.