The deepening ennui around Gaelic football presents many side effects. Most obviously, there has been a cessation in the broadcast of football matches on television, where any presentable alternative is available.
The data is also telling us that people are trying to move away from paying into stadiums to watch matches, where the ennui tends to be deepest. Instead, they are probably at home devising ‘formats’.
It has always been with us, this search for a Holy Grail format that will fix Gaelic football — because there has always been a certain amount of ennui around football.
But the current existential crisis has seen the rise of Gaelic football’s self-help gurus, busily devising multi-tier, round-robin structures that will deliver competitiveness and fulfilment and wellness to every footballer in the country. While not forsaking the tradition of the provincial championships.
Another, less predictable, side-effect of the gloom has been a desperation for any sort of good news. The mythologising of the Roscommon pitch invasion last weekend suggests it is now a matter of great fascination to discover people enjoying themselves at the finish of a Gaelic football match.
But rather more sinister, the pall of despair that hangs over the sport has begun to threaten something we have always held dear. It looks like the Gah has ruined the moral victory. This will leave a big hole.
The moral victory is celebrated the world over. There are plucky underdogs everywhere, emerging with credit from gallant defeats, holding their heads up high and grunting for Adrian. But not many people celebrate it as much as ourselves.
“We had so many moral victories, we became connoisseurs of the things,” Declan Lynch writes in Days of Heaven, the definitive story of Italia ’90, “noting their unique characteristics and subtleties the way a master sommelier would analyse a mouthful of Chateau Lafite.”
On the international football stage, our moral victories have usually taken the form of what other nations know as a draw. Though there have been many other times when we claimed the moral spoils in what might, technically, be described as defeat, usually when our gallant efforts were thwarted by a flag mysteriously going up or staying down somewhere ‘on the continent’.
In more recent times, Joe Schmidt has often been credited with eradicating this country’s attachment to the moral victory, even if Joe is typically dealing with lads who mightn’t be considered underdogs, in a more holistic sense.
And yet, when Joe comes home from a World Cup, after defeat in the first meaningful match, to Late Late Show standing ovations and tributes for bravery and the upholding of rugby values, we can see that the moral victory is still with us.
And at least it brings learnings and work-ons. There has always been a place in the Gah for a moral victory. For putting it up to them. For giving them their fill of it for an hour. For at least not being bet out the gate.
“Sure lookit, they said coming up here today we couldn’t do it... and we didn’t.”
Twelve years ago, one newspaper headline assured us that ‘Meath can bask in moral victory’ after a four-point defeat by Dublin in a Leinster quarter-final replay.
Four-point defeats of Cork are what dreams are made of in Kerry. It is to this dream scenario that most of their energies are devoted. All of their scheming and plámásing and bluffing is more or less designed to inspire or goad Cork into holding Kerry to a four-point win.
And if such a thing should ever materialise again, they would be happy to hold Cork’s hand aloft at the finish and take the moral defeat on the chin. But they are to be disappointed. Because Cork aren’t having it. In fact, as the four great traditional rivals of the Gah reconvene this weekend, there is one consistent message being hammered home.
“There are no moral victories here, you either win it or you don’t win it and that’s it,” said Cork manager Ronan McCarthy. Former Meath star Bernard Flynn, ahead of his county’s meeting with old rivals Dublin, is of similar mind, dismissing the value of a “sad moral victory”.
While Cork captain Ian Maguire was prepared to go a little further:
Perhaps we can put this kind of talk down to stubborn reluctance to promise Kerry and Dublin what they want most — their fill of it for an hour.
And of course we must always consider the legacy of Roy Keane, in these situations. Ever since that master sommelier tasted one moral victory too many, and demanded isotonic drinks instead, distaste for the moral victory is part of every coming team’s mantra.
“We didn’t want another sad story or another moral victory,” said Roscommon’s Diarmuid Murtagh, for instance, after their explosion of happiness last Sunday. But there seems to be more to it than that.
Such is the joylessness of football these days, such are The Sacrifices and The Demands, such is the devotion to systems and gameplans, and such is the disillusionment of supporters with the predictability of the season; perhaps there can be no more ‘taking the positives’ unless a victory is secured via official channels, on the scoreboard.
If so, it is a worryingly untimely development, which hopefully isn’t contagious. Because back on the international football stage, we will soon hand over the reins to a man who is determined to educate our palates.
And while Ireland finally learn to deal with the football under Stephen Kenny, most likely there will be many exotic new flavours of moral victory to spit into a bucket.