Boys of summer ready for championship take-off

If the bookies are to be believed, and if the Allianz League is to be as trusted as a barometer, we may as well tell Dublin not to bother handing back Sam this summer...

I must warn you from the very start.

This place, this land,

has an ugliness

That could warp the most devoted heart.

[Michael Hartnett]

We’ve been blessed with a lovely haze here in Corca Dhuibhne these past few days. Those shooting movies might feel particularly blessed but whatever monies have been spent on security around Star Wars, Disney Lucasfilm could feel short changed somewhat.

Almost as if being tethered by lasso, a heat cloud has attached itself to Ceann Sibéal and to the wonderfully named cliffs nearby (Góilín Ifrinn -Hell’s Creek and an Bhéidreach - the Bitch) so that all attempts at prying and at photography by curious onlookers are rendered futile.

The cloud hovering over the Star Wars set must feel like a godsend when you’ve got millions of Euro to spend on work that demands privacy!

God only knows.

The recent spell of fine weather also tells us that it is, indeed, summertime and that the championship is about to take off in earnest. Despite the usual howls about the lack of box- office appeal (whatever that is) and irrespective of the wailing about championship structure (different year, same old story), the season will be up and running in three of the four provinces by Sunday evening.

On these pages just before the Allianz National Football League began 15 weeks ago, I had suggested that, from the committee room to the terrace to the sideline to the pub to the social media sites, there was an appreciable absence of joy and a growing sense of unease about the direction the game was taking.

Having rather enjoyed many of the games over the course of the league, I am once again looking forward to the start of the championship.

But the ugliness that can warp the most devoted of hearts still remains.

The trick is, as Michael Hartnett suggested, to constantly look for “those people in whom joy survives.” The joy is to be found this weekend in places like Termonfeckin and Tinryland, Ballinakill and Baltinglass, Clara and Clongesh — football heartlands where the people rise and fall with their county team.

Without its people and its communities, the GAA and the championship is nothing.

As I write today, there is a wonderful feature on the GAA’s own website about Mick McDonagh and his devotion to the cause of Offaly GAA: “I’ve learned some tricks of the trade down through the years, and what I do is I put on the Offaly jersey,” he says. “And when the people see me thumbing with the Offaly jersey they’d have a fair idea that I’m going to a game and that I’m a genuine person. For example, I was going down to Newcastle West a few weeks back. Offaly were playing Limerick down there. I left my place at twenty-five past six that morning to thumb to Portlaoise to get the train at ten past nine. I got into Portlaoise at twenty to eight!”

The joy, it seems, is to be found in the detail of life, in what the Newcastle West poet, Hartnett, speaks of when he speaks of a time and place “where one cobweb threading rain can civilise a race” or in Patrick Kavanagh’s assertion in ‘The Great Hunger’ that “God is in the bits and pieces of everyday.” Football folk in Antrim and Fermanagh will recognise such sentiments as they head for Enniskillen. Buoyed by a great league campaign where nobody conceded fewer goals, Antrim should relish the trip to Brewster Park. Even if they don’t beat the team who spent the spring playing two divisions above them, Antrim will have the consolation of avoiding the big guns, Monaghan and Donegal, and will hold their own in the qualifiers.

Of course, if the bookies are to be believed and if the Allianz League is to be as trusted as a barometer of long term prospects, we may as well tell Dublin not to bother handing back Sam Maguire. The winners of the Laois v Wicklow game will have certain justification in cribbing after this evening’s result about the unfairness of them having a ‘home game’ against the Dubs on June Bank Holiday weekend in Nowlan Park. The questions they really need to be asking don’t relate to the hegemonic grip Dublin have on Leinster this past decade. What they should be asking is how they ever allowed it come to this in the first place and what they are doing to change the situation.

You can be certain that most supporters in all of the Leinster counties accept that they have no hope of toppling Dublin but that should not stop those supporters from dreaming of better days, of going to battle fully engaged and of half expecting the minor miracles that sustain them.

Each according to their own means.

Speaking of means, it must be noted that six of the eight counties taking to the field this weekend are amongst the lowest spenders in the GAA. Offaly and Laois are not amongst the lowest spenders because of the dual nature of their commitments but few would argue that they aren’t amongst those of least means.

Wicklow with expenditure of €277,000 spent the least on their county teams last season and Louth could only afford to spend six grand more. The early championship exits tells some of the tale but of all the developments in the intercounty game, the notion that Sam Maguire is the preserve of the wealthy is the one I’m least comfortable with.

Of all the digs thrown Dublin’s direction, the question of their resources and means is the one they perhaps, find most offensive.

It’s easy to see why.

What Dublin do or how much they spend is neither here nor there when the greatest advantage they have is being home to a serious group of footballers in their prime. These players were moulded by a progressive underage set-up that is the envy of most other counties.

Spending over one and a half million Euro on your county teams is easily justifiable if those teams consistently reach All Ireland finals and all the more so if you find fundraising for those ventures that bit easier when you are winning.

Leicester City’s heroics with a relatively modest budget in the English Premiership, have given all the lower tier counties in Gaelic football a sense of hope but it is unlikely that this summer’s championship or this weekend’s action will throw up a Leicester City. The division of resources in football counties means that some will always specialise in winning and others in losing. Throwing money at the issue won’t change a single thing. For example, the issues facing Offaly hurling as ventilated in recent weeks seem, from the outside, to have as much to do with mindset as they have with money. It’s a similar story with all the teams setting out on their championship journey this weekend.

The money may not be there to compete with the big boys, but surely the mindset shouldn’t reflect that. If it does, then we truly are in trouble.


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