As we rise to our feet, Neil Ewing distills the essence of the past three hours spent in his compelling company.
“If you look at the GAA’s website, it states the association was formed because at the time ‘largely only the gentry and aristocracy were allowed to meaningfully participate in sport’.
“Well, you could tie that back to what is happening now — these days it’s largely only the gentry and aristocracy of Gaelic football that are allowed to meaningfully participate in the sport.”
In the 20-plus years I’ve worked in journalism, Ewing is that rare species: An active inter-county hurler or footballer who has actively initiated our meeting. His proactivity isn’t prompted out of any sense of self-promotion but rather, as he phrased it in his initial correspondence, out of “a mixture of anger, disdain, and hope”.
While he reckons he will watch “every minute” of the Super 8s to learn from the best and see what he can apply to his own game, for him the advent of the new format encapsulates the “dangerous place” the GAA as an organisation is in.
If you tolerate this, then a full-blown tiered Championship for your children will be next. A tiered Championship isn’t what he dreamed about as a child.
Ewing happens to play for Sligo — has done so for 11 seasons now — but to reduce his thoughts as merely that of a Sligo footballer, even one who has captained the county in Championship, would be both unfair and unwise.
He’s not so much an unknown — even Secret — Footballer as the Everyman Footballer: Physically ripped and optimistic by nature but increasingly disillusioned by experience.
As he explains, he could just as easily be talking from the experience of a player with Westmeath, Laois, Limerick, Clare, Wexford, Fermanagh, Louth, Derry, Armagh, Meath, Antrim, Offaly, Down… The silenced majority.
At some point over the past decade or the previous one, each of those counties would have played in at least one provincial final — and, almost without exception, been competitive in it.
Most of them would have played in an All-Ireland quarter-final, some a semi-final, even a final.
A good few would have made it to a Division One league semi-final or final during the noughties.
Can you picture any of them making another one any year soon?
Well, why not? What happened? What changed?
Surely that means things need to change now?
Yet all he hears is scrap those provincials, dump most of the aforementioned counties into a cellar Championship while the gentry and aristocracy continue to enjoy the perks and privileges that go with being members of the exclusive Super 8s club.
For him, that’s merely tackling — and reinforcing — the symptoms of the problem instead of addressing the root causes of the problem.
Counties have been let drift and now the GAA seem ready to cut them adrift, rather than reach out and bring them back towards shore.
Someone’s got to shout Stop. Might as well be him.
“This,” explains Neil Ewing upon reflecting on life as an inter-county footballer, “is not what I signed up for.”
This is not how the dream was packaged to him.
The first time he aspired to be a county player was back when he was eight, 21 years ago now. Sligo, coached by Mickey Moran, had won through to the Connacht final, against a Mayo side that had contested the previous year’s All-Ireland final. His parents weren’t of GAA stock so he had never been at an inter-county game before but like nearly every kid in the county, he was brought along to Hyde Park that day.
It’s still ingrained in his mind and soul: The long walk to the ground in the drizzling rain, the waft of burgers and chips, the reception from the terraces the players received upon dashing out of the tunnel.
Sligo lost by a point but the subsequent defiance and pride of the supporters resonated as strongly with him as any sense of disappointment.
“The following day I was with my mum in the post office and the guy behind the counter was talking to me about the game and how Sligo were robbed. And I remember being struck by how moved that guy was by Sligo football. How this was something which would be really good to be part of. That’s when I first had the thought — ‘I want to play for Sligo.’”
Over the years the dream became progressively bigger and more real. He was in the terraces when Sligo beat Mayo in Markievicz Park in 2000, in Croker when they played the Dubs in 2001 having shocked a Kildare side that had contested the previous year’s All-Ireland final; there again when they shocked Tyrone and rattled Armagh in 2002. By the time he was called up to the panel as a 19-year-old in 2008, Sligo were reigning Connacht champions.
There’ve been some magical days since. Turning over both Galway and Mayo in 2010. Ambushing Galway in Salthill in 2012, then giving Roscommon the same shock-and-awe treatment in 2015.
“At work in the bank you’d be walking down the street at lunchtime the following Monday and there’s people talking about football who normally wouldn’t have any interest in it. That’s what sustains a player. That’s what grows a game in a county. You don’t have to have it every year. But the way it’s going now…”
He proceeds to tell you through another Monday after a big game. This summer Sligo were hammered by 21 points by Galway. Few salutes in the workplace or on the street this time. Instead, only bemused, even derisory, headshakes.
“You’ll be at work from October to June telling a colleague, ‘I can’t do that, we’re training tonight’, or explaining why you’re eating what you’re eating because it helps with your recovery from training the night before. Then you come back in after you’ve lost by 21 points in the Championship at the weekend and they’re saying, ‘Was it worth all that training?! You’re daft in the head!’
“Over the years we’ve been lucky in Sligo in that we haven’t had a massive turnover in players but I can see now lads wondering if it’s worth it. Either they’re getting ridiculed by the small number of supporters there are in the county or they’re being ridiculed by friends and work colleagues who don’t get why they’re putting so much into it.”
The way he sees it, everyone seems to have got caught and swept away in this spiralling cycle of negativity: Media, supporters, clubs, county boards, and ultimately, even the players.
“After the Galway game, people are telling you, ‘You’ll never beat them.’ In the back of my mind I’m thinking that we beat them in 2012 and we have the players to compete at that level. But then the media will talk about tiers being the only way to go to avoid these one-sided games and fans start to buy into it. ‘Ah sure, they have to do something, they have to change the Championship.’ And you see players buying into it that then.
“There’s a clamour to implement tiers like we have in hurling but you’re not comparing like with like. Most of the country is wasteland when it comes to hurling. In hurling the tiers are a progression because you’re trying to improve the game from where it was 10-15 years ago but in football tiers would be proof of how we’ve regressed from 10-15 years ago when the Championship was much more competitive.
“People talk about small populations. Croatia has only four million people and they can reach a World Cup. Every county should have the capacity to put out 20-30 footballers that can compete.
“You need to address why the Championship has become uncompetitive before you start tinkering any more with the Championship. You should be trying to address and close the gap that has opened between the counties, not come up with a system that reflects and perpetuates that gap.”
So why has the football Championship become so less competitive and democratic than it was in the noughties when counties like Sligo were reaching Division One league semi-finals and All-Ireland quarter-finals and winning Connacht en route?
A combination of factors, he outlines. “First of all, the level of professionalism wasn’t there in some of the bigger counties.”
They subsequently got their act together. John Costello with Pat Gilroy in Dublin. Closer to where Ewing lives, Donegal, under Jim McGuiness, north of the border; Mayo, under James Horan, south of the border.
Meanwhile the mid-tier counties became more scatter-gunned and less ambitious in how they went about their business. Over the years, a veteran like Ewing has experienced all kinds of set-ups — some good, some middling, and some that have been way off.
There have been seasons where Ewing and most of his county team-mates would have played with their clubs well into October and before the end of the month would have had to right back into pre-season with the county. Gym Monday, pitch Tuesday, gym Wednesday, off Thursday, pitch Friday night when the Dublin lads would be back, gym Saturday, pitch again Sunday.
And that would be with barely a ball seen on that pitch, right through all of November, December, even January. One Friday night they had a heavy physical pitch session, then at 6.45am the following morning Ewing was at the doorstep of a team-mate to bring him to a challenge match across the country. Unsurprisingly, several players picked up injuries during that game — and Sligo failed to emerge from Division Three.
Some commentators will ascribe such insanity to the perils of “science” but Ewing is discerning enough to know science was never involved in that equation. Science is about discovering and aiding good practice. If it’s bad practice, it’s bad science. In fact, it’s not science at all. All around the country every team is training hard but not every team is training efficiently.
There are and have been set-ups that haven’t adequately known what they are at because the county board that appointed them wouldn’t know what to look for. Ask them if they’re afflicted more by ignorance or apathy and they’d probably tell you they don’t know and they don’t care.
“The constant negativity and perception that is being fed down from some pundits has become reality for a lot of county boards. They feel they have no right to compete with these teams. ‘Why should we try to compete with them?’ It’s just about getting fixtures played, we’ll get it done within budget and close it off for the year and move on – ‘This is our place in the GAA.’”
The way he sees it, counties should be doing a lot more to help themselves. That’s why he has such admiration for Carlow and the Turlough O’Brien project in recent years.
“They’ve stood up for themselves and said: ‘We’re capable of better than this.’”
But there’s another party that could help the counties help themselves — Croke Park. He looks at how the major sports in the most capitalist country in the world, America, and how they’re nearly socialist in ensuring a competitive balance through interventions like the draft system and a salary cap. The GAA approach in contrast strikes him as Darwinistic, laissez faire. They need to give more of a helping hand to counties, even if that means that hand has to occasionally wag the finger.
“If it was a financial issue rather than a football one, Croke Park would be stepping in. Sligo produce a series of accounts to Croke Park at the end of the year and Croke Park might go ‘Okay, you need help on this.’ And they have done that in the case of Sligo and other counties in the past — they’ve sent people down from HQ to help with their finances.
“I think the same should apply on the football end of it. Counties should be answerable to suitably-qualified people in Croke Park and outline: ‘This is what we’re doing to develop football within the county’ and then Croke Park need to go back to them to say: ‘Well, based on what you’ve done over the last six months, we’re not happy with where you are.’”
He’s not just talking about the senior inter-county game and Croke Park identifying people like Jim McGuinness to be involved in the interview and recruitment process of a management team. It’s how clubs and counties are developing players.
“At the moment you see in counties they’re going down the chain until they get someone who’ll say ‘yes’ to taking a development squad and then they’re told, ‘Here’s your cones and bibs and balls.’ There’s no framework set out.”
For him it’s not so much an issue of providing finance. “If you were to turn around and give every county in Ireland the same funding that’s given to Dublin, it wouldn’t spent efficiently,” he contends. It’s more an issue of offering expertise.
And yet, from what he can gather, new GAA president John Horan’s big idea is to bring in some tiered Championship in the format, the Na Fianna clubman probably having no idea of just how much damage altering the league a decade did for the Championship competitiveness of the mid-tier counties.
Back in the noughties Sligo were just one of many mid-tier counties that were playing the likes of Kerry and Dublin and Mayo in the league. Then, for some reason, the GAA did away with 16 teams in Division One and instead reduced it to eight. There was the start of the slippery road to the Super 8.
“There’s no doubt about it, Division One is a very good competition in its own right — the best teams in the country are playing week in week out against each other. But what has happened is that you’ve had five or six teams who have been constantly in Division One pushing each other onto a new level. What you have then outside of a revolving door of three or four teams is that the reverse has applied — if you’re playing week in week out in Division Four, that’s the level you adapt to. Similarly in Division Three, even Division Two.
“People talk about a top-tier Championship with 16 teams but those teams in Division Two at the moment still won’t be able to compete with the top six teams in the country.
“You’re going to have a tiered Championship where teams are still only going to get wiped off the pitch.
“If you want to get better, you have to play outside your comfort zone. And without getting too lofty or aspirational, the official guide of the GAA explicitly states at the outset that its basic aim is the preservation and promotion of the games in the 32 counties. So I would sacrifice Division One and how those top teams have made each other better and let them take a step back and pull the other teams up.
“The last two seasons Clare have been in Division Two. A decade ago that would have meant they’d have been exposed to playing Dublin. Imagine Dublin going down to Ennis next spring. It’d be a competitive game because Dublin wouldn’t yet be at Championship speed. Youngsters would get to see their own players going up against the best in the country, the sponsors of these mid-tier counties would get some recognition because maybe TG4 or League Sunday would be covering it. And it would rise the standard of that mid-tier county.
“Now, it might bring the top teams back to the pack a bit but it would definitely rise the standard of the pack. And in a couple of years you’d have a more competitive Championship, especially in the provinces.
“Last year in the Championship we played Mayo, a perennial Division One team. They got a second goal late on to win by nine in the end but we learned so much from that game by being out of our comfort zone. Even the physicality; you learned you could get away with tackling a lot more aggressively against Division One teams. After that we beat Antrim, then lost to Meath by just two points in Navan. But then we had to wait 12 months to play another game against a Division One team.”
If it was up to him, the GAA should revert to the old 1A-1B format, or better still, ensure all counties are guaranteed several league games against some top counties. Again, it might mean the strong getting that bit weaker but, as he argues: “Would that be a terrible thing if it sustained the game in the other counties for generations to come?”
Right now, with the Super 8s, he sees the stronger are only going to get stronger.
“It exacerbates the problems we have. It’s nearly like running Division One of the league again in the summer.” In the meantime, he’ll carry on carrying on.
“Why do I play? I’ve always wanted to be the best player that I could be. Some of my best friends are on the panel. I think I owe it to the younger lads on the panel to try and help them to bring their game to the next level.
“And call me mad but at the start of every season I’ve genuinely believed if we put it all together we can win the Connacht Championship. Myself and my girlfriend would have spoken over the years about maybe going away travelling but we haven’t because I can’t miss a year with Sligo as that year could be the year.”
Still protecting the dream, hoping it’ll remain one for future generations.