Since 1959, the seemingly impossible task of deciding a North American senior football champion has challenged the overseers of the GAA across the US and Canada.
Down by the banks of the Delaware River this weekend, they’ll be doing that and much more. Gluttons for punishment, they’ve always been expanding. In Philadelphia, the city where the North American County Board first got its act together in the late 50s, hurlers, footballers, camogie players and lady footballers of all different levels will be competing with the best of all the divisions which make up the GAA in the US and Canada.
To peruse the schedule is overwhelming. Preliminary rounds and quarter-finals on Friday, semi-finals on Saturday and all the finals leading up to the senior football final on Sunday, they’ll need every inch of the five pitches they’ll have lined and flagged on public space in the City of Brotherly Love with about 96 full-length games in total and just over 10,000 people expected to pass through over the course of three days.
One of the many brave souls charged with corralling all this activity into one weekend and one large expanse of land is Tim Flanagan, PRO of the North American County Board.
“It’s spread out quite a bit,” pointed out Flanagan when asked about the logistics involved. “We have early starts so we’ll be going non-stop from 8am to the last throw-in at 5pm on Friday and Saturday.”
Flanagan is from the city of Buffalo in western upstate New York, his birthplace and the home of his GAA club, Buffalo Fenians.
“There will be teams from Vancouver and Toronto, San Francisco and Seattle, Dallas and San Antonio down in Texas, Chicago, Cleveland, Indianapolis… even New Jersey,” he adds.
That’s right. The much-maligned Garden State will be sending my team, Hoboken, recent beaten finalists in the New York junior hurling championship (the Bronx edged us out on Sunday afternoon). The persistence of Hoboken stalwart David Cosgrove has seen to it that the New York County Board, a separate entity to the North American County Board, haspermitted our team’s entrance to the jamboree.
“I’m really glad Hoboken are in it. It means that we now have a truly North American tournament, with every board and division represented. For us, that’s huge,” said Cosgrove.
“The number of new clubs coming is incredible. We’re starting to see hurling grow in cities that aren’t traditional hotbeds of Irish immigration, which gives us an indication of where new arrivals are moving to but it’s also a sign that people who are not Irish-American travel to Ireland, see the game, fall in love with it and contact us, looking for ways of bringing it to their home town. We’re in the process of helping out a guy in Hawaii who wants to start up a football club.”
These are exciting times for Philadelphia. As of next year, after years of planning, the birthplace of American independence will, appropriately enough, enjoy the first ever GAA-owned facility in North America. The new grounds will be located in Limerick, Pennsylvania, just over 30 miles north-west of Philly.
With hosts decided for the next 10 years, 2013 is set for Cleveland who will welcome the competition to their city for the first time.
“That’s a big achievement for them and their division — the midwest — which is technically one of the smaller divisions, even though it has a lot of members. It’s just not one of the big four.
“I would say in the last 15-20 years, the championships have kind of exploded in popularity. Traditionally it was just semi-finals and finals and it was all played out over two days.
“Now you have all these new clubs popping up. They bring different skill levels with them so you have Junior A, B, C and D. Hurling too has Junior A, B and C as well as the senior clubs. We are trying to accommodate as many clubs as possible. We could probably fill four days of competition.”
GAA President Liam O’Neill, Pat Quill, the Ladies football chief, camogie president Joan O’Flynn and Sean Walsh, chairman of the Munster Council will all attend to watch the action and present trophies to their respective codes over the three days. “They’ve been very supportive,” says Flanagan. “All of the associations have been great to us. They always send somebody out to represent their organisations. To have them send people out for our finals, it just goes to show the belief they have in the work we do over here.”
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