BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Why it’s vital the GAA must stop clinging to the past and embrace the future

Tipperary's Padraic Maher grabs possession despite a heavy shoulder from Cork's Bill Cooper. Picture: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Not everyone in the GAA community is happy with the fact that Bruce Springsteen’s gigs at Croke Park tonight and on Sunday have caused Championship games to be shifted around the calendar, but you have to hand it to the Boss in that he rarely lets the crowds down. Three-hour sets are de rigeur and an iconic play-list is routinely swept through for effect, writes Brendan O’Brien

The same can’t be said for the hurling and football fare offered up in HQ and elsewhere so far this summer.

Hardly a new complaint, we know, but it is impossible to overstate how underwhelming last week’s championship matches were as we look ahead to - no disrespect intended to those involved - another ho-hum line-up in two days’ time.

Last Saturday in Croker, where the hurlers and footballers of Wexford tumbled out of their respective provincial championships in very different but equally painful fashion, made for the dampest of squibs so far with the crowd of just over 13,000 making a mockery of the grand surroundings.

Sunday, we thought, offered some succour.

The whole week, in GAA terms, had been shaped around the narrative of two famous rivalries: Tyrone-Derry in the football and Cork-Tipperary in the hurling.

Many were the reminisces about famous and infamous past meetings in the respective Munster and Ulster hot houses and that is what made the day all the more disappointing.

Tyrone and Derry was finished as a meaningful contest long before Peter Harte scored the visitors’ third goal shortly before half-time in Celtic Park, while Cork’s tactical machinations in Thurles fooled no-one other than themselves.

Driving back from Derry that evening, there was an unmistakeable sense of ennui among those discussing the game on the radio.

What was surprising was the general sense of surprise.

If childhood summers were all about endless sunshine and days eating ice-cream on the beach then the old GAA rivalries were never less than battles worthy of Cuchulainn himself.

The reality is more prosaic. Semple Stadium and Celtic Park last Sunday were merely the latest pieces of evidence to be dusted and sealed in a plastic bag for considered, unemotional forensic examination.

These, after all, are two of our most storied of rivalries.

Take the hurling first.

Tipperary have won six of the last seven championship meetings between the counties and, for every one of those games that packed a punch in that span, there was another won far too easily – including Cork’s only success in that time when they claimed the 2010 Munster quarter-final with ten points to spare. Clearly, some summer days bring rain, too.

And this isn’t selective thinking.

Tyrone have been similarly dominant against Derry in that time and the words of Oisin McConville in these pages last Monday, when he said there were only half-a-dozen or so “proper” football teams operating right now, ring true when we examine such one-sided recent ‘rivalries’ add Mayo-Galway, Dublin-Meath and Kilkenny and anyone else in the Leinster Hurling Championship.

I

t’s time to stop kidding ourselves.

This cherishing of the past is merely masking the problem and preventing the GAA from accepting the present and embracing the future.

We rub our hands in glee at the prospect of the traditional rivalries come summer when the fact is that the ground beneath these ding-dong battles has long been churned into quicksand.

Tales of Ring and Hell’s Kitchen continue to intoxicate, and with good reason, but the framework in which they were concocted began to pass their sell-by-date when the ‘one-defeat-and-that’s-your-lot’ championship format was done away with by the qualifiers: the back door provided a temporary fillip to the summer in general, but it deprived modern chapters of that all-or-nothing status.

Too much of the marrow was sucked from their very bones.

Is it any wonder that they can’t nourish us as they once did?

Worse is the fact that our attachment to these games is acting as a bulwark to real change. Cork-Tipp and Derry-Tyrone still have their place, of course they do

But they should not stand as listed buildings, protected by archaic planning laws that insist on their continued status at the expense of newer, more satisfying sights.

We need more than the odd Cork-Kerry or Tyrone-Donegal game to sustain us through the months of May, June and July.

What we need is a kindling of the new, modern rivalries. More of Dublin-Kerry and Mayo-Tyrone. These are counties separated by much more than the one geographical border, but they share a space on the same upper shelf and that makes their meetings far more relevant.

And, much of the time, more raw too.

This column has long beaten the drum for the championship structure suggested by former Down manager James McCartan half a decade ago: retained provincial championships, but ones played off as round robins to increase the number of games before four provincial finals which funnel an elite quartet into an All-Ireland series.

It is a neat, easily packaged solution and yet it would do nothing to address the problem that sees the best teams in football, and to a lesser extent hurling, separated at precisely the wrong time of year by nothing more than emotive and ancient boundaries until the summer is winding down.

There has to be a better way than this.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie Twitter: @Rackob

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