The GAA need to harness the increasing electricity of the club scene

The GAA need to harness the increasing electricity of the club scene
Tony Kelly skips by three Glen Rovers' men.

It’s the year 2025 and it's St Patrick’s Day. All-Ireland club finals day, of course, writes Peter McNamara.

The throw-in to the hurling decider is delayed, however, put back 15 minutes.

There’s a substantial number of enthusiastic, walk-up spectators still queuing at the turnstiles, you see. Jones’ Road is rammed, actually. People are scurrying around outside like honey-bees circling a nest while the pipe-band serenade those already in situ around the lower tiers of Croke Park.

In fact, the 15-minute delay may not be sufficient to guard against the would-be paying customers missing out on the opening sequences of action.

The All-Ireland club finals attendance in 2015 was 29,752 while marginally under 32,000 supporters located themselves at the venue last March.

However, here we are, nine years later, and, at half-time in the football final, the stadium announcer reports 50,000 people have shown up to witness the four top club sides fight for the ultimate success.

How times have changed. ‘50,000 attendees at the All-Ireland club finals? You must be kidding?’ they say.

A lot has occurred in nine years, though.

The popularity of the club game has increased enormously in tandem with enhanced playing standards and folk are more eager than ever to be part of what is now a truly box office occasion in the GAA calendar. And box office outside of the opinions of those four clubs and their personnel involved, at that.

The fact, too, that the hurling showpiece is a Kilkenny-Tipperary encounter and the football equivalent will be contested by clubs from Dublin and Kerry adds to the allure. A tinge of tradition wafts around the Drumcondra air.

Yet, the feeling inside the ground is that such a figure should not come as a shock to anybody.

After all, the official attendance tally has grown steadily year after year in the modern era.

Could this increase have been forecasted back in 2016, however? Could anybody honestly say, that in 2025 50,000 individuals would be present at headquarters on St Patrick’s Day?

Well, if we believe that the excellence of the fare on offer for punters was to continue to rise incrementally in the intervening seasons, then why not?

Mark Schutte drives forward for Cuala last Sunday.
Mark Schutte drives forward for Cuala last Sunday.

Added to that, assuming the PR and media coverage of the club game maintains its evolving and growing interest in what was essentially viewed as the poor relation to the inter-county scene, then why not some more?

Back to the present-day and obviously making hypothetical, nine-year projections is a practice laced with potential pitfalls.

Nevertheless, there is a pureness associated with the club game nowadays that could be harnessed effectively by the GAA hierarchies to ensure it thrives and thrives between now and then.

The club hurling and football championships have boundless potential which is becoming more obvious by the season. The question is: Will the chiefs at provincial and national level buy into and facilitate its expansion in popularity even more than has been the case thus far? They should. In fact, they have to.

The reduced numbers at inter-county games outside of the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals suggests people on the ground are not entirely thrilled with the cynicism in the codes at those grades.

Obviously, there is a degree of cynicism in the club game too and maybe, by 2025, that cynicism will have infested the clashes so much that attendances have not steadily increased as much as we hope will be true. Worse still, they might have decreased too.

Yet, at this remove, that scenario seems far less likely than the opposite proving to be case.

One of the greatest beauties of the club scene is its unpredictability.

Just take a look at the records of the four most recent provincial champions in hurling at senior level as an example representing the theory.

In Munster, Na Piarsaigh, Kilmallock, Na Piarsaigh again and Ballyea were the victors.

Mount Leinster Rangers, Ballyhale Shamrocks, Oulart-the-Ballagh and either Cuala or O’Loughlin Gaels have been, or will be, kings of the eastern landscape.

Bernard Burke of St Thomas' in action in the Galway SHC final against Gort.
Bernard Burke of St Thomas' in action in the Galway SHC final against Gort.

Portumna, Gort, Sarsfields and St Thomas’ have reigned in the west while Loughgiel Shamrocks, Portaferry, Ruairí Óg, Cushendall and Slaughtneil have been, or will be, the Ulster representatives in the All-Ireland series.

Notice a trend? Diversity of provincial supremacy. Only Na Piarsaigh of Limerick have managed to win more than one provincial title across the four sections in the last four renewals of each.

Therefore, 15 different clubs have managed to claim provincial honours in these last four seasons including the current one.

You can’t quite say even similar about the inter-county game.

If this trend was to be upheld in the next couple of years it should act as another fillip to those driving the merits of the club scene.

Yes, Ballyhale and Portumna were dominant, to a point, in the recent history of the All-Ireland series.

However, there is a thought-process the prevalence of those particular clubs in their respective regions may be on the wane slightly so there’s more room for more historical fables.

Such as that of Cuala’s intriguing story.

Were the Dubliners to reach the All-Ireland final next March they will be the first side from the capital to do so, an incredible statistic.

Then again, the evergreen Martin ‘Gorta’ Comerford and co will smirk cheekily at that prospect from their Newpark Upper base in Kilkenny.

Martin Comerford is congratulated by Peter Doyle and Eamon Dowling at Innovate Wexford Park.
Martin Comerford is congratulated by Peter Doyle and Eamon Dowling at Innovate Wexford Park.

Still, Cuala’s and O’Loughlin Gaels’ are the kinda tales that can emerge at club level with both clubs having one eye on a national title for what would be the first time in their respective histories. Ditto Ballyea and Slaughtneil.

It seems the club game is now akin to an elongated Cheltenham Festival in the horse racing calendar whereby even the most modest stables’ dreams can come to fruition whereas the inter-county context is similar to the Flat, the elite grow ever stronger bulldozing over their adversaries.

The GAA must do all they can to protect and develop the club game further.

After all, even though the majority of us adore the inter-county game just as much, the club version appeals to the souls of our identities.


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