John Coleman: Cairde Chorcaí must make friends with grassroots

If the Cairde Chorcaí project succeeds in engaging the masses, as well as the classes, then Cork could finally be the force they should be, says John Coleman.

First off, let’s eliminate the pretence. Cork are the biggest underachievers in the GAA. On the field and off the field, they should be doing better. Of course, no matter what, things can always be done better, but it is especially true of Cork.

To be fair, in some ways, things do seem to be improving — new stadium, potential for a decent hurling team, improved underage set up — but other elements are just trundling along as they always did... which is badly. Nowhere consistent to train, lack of All-Irelands at any level, calling Liam Griffin’s request for voting transparency at Congress ‘sinister’. And football.

Some, if not all of these issues, can be improved by more funding, but funding is far from easy.

Indeed, finance is as big a challenge as it has ever been in the GAA from the ground up.

The astronomical effort that goes into keeping clubs afloat continues to be barely enough to keep things ticking over, while development squads, diet, S&C and training camps keep on testing the limits of all county boards.

However, progress costs money. Raising standards implies raising airgead, and not everyone can attract an AIG to help ease the burden. Many counties have addressed the financial challenge by forming supporters’ clubs. Even in the ’80s, Babs knew that people who might be suspicious of giving money to a county board are more willing to go into their pockets when they know the money is going directly towards the team.

These early supporters’ clubs have, like everything, gone up a level over the past 10 years. Club Tyrone, the Kerry crusade, and the appointment of commercial managers are a long way from a few supporters’ buses to matches, but the idea behind them all are the same.

However, Cork are Cork and have been, as ever, behind the curve in these matters. In the aftermath of the first strike, there was an outline of an agreement on the establishment of some kind of group, but it got lost and forgotten, firstly in the glow of four All-Ireland finals in a row and then in the mire of further disputes and festering resentment.

Why are they always this fearful and conservative? It probably boils down to control. The county is so big, the history is such a burden and the establishment has just been in place for so long.

Which makes Cairde Chorcaí all the more interesting. The juncture has been reached when needs simply must. During the construction of the stadium, the — understandable — party line was thrown out that it wasn’t having an adverse effect on the preparation of the teams.

This may have been true of the senior teams, but it had to have had an impact on those below. Why else would a minor football team need to have their training tops emblazoned with the name of a foreign-based Irish pub two years ago?

In theory, almost everything is in place for Cork to be a consistent force in both codes. There’s the population, the number of clubs and most importantly, as seen last year, the interest. What the county also has is industry and wealth that would seem to be reasonably untapped. Then, like all counties, there’s a significant diaspora spread worldwide.

Last year’s trip to the west coast of America by the forerunner to Cairde Chorcaí seems to have gone well. It was refreshing to read Stephen O’Brien’s thoughts on the trip in these pages last week. He spoke about making meaningful, deep links with those communities, as opposed to the usual Irish attitude of simply tapping them for what you can make out of them.

It shows that this is being thought through properly. This has the potential to liberate Cork from years of stagnation and flattering to deceive, but to make it a real liberation, those behind Cairde Chorcaí need to look at The Liberator, Daniel O’Connell. In his quest for Catholic emancipation, he was one of the first to understand the power of identity and ownership. Particularly ownership. The struggle for emancipation, like inter-county teams, needed plenty of funding and, despite the Penal Laws, there were many wealthy Catholics and sympathisers who were willing to fund it.

However, the genius of the emancipation was the Catholic Rent. For a penny a month, anybody could be a member. The effect of this was phenomenal. Even the most downtrodden could feel important, energised and relevant. It gave ownership to the masses. So, while the trips across the Atlantic may be lucrative and the businesses of Cork may be willing, Cairde Chorcaí will be missing a trick if they don’t engage the grassroots. They feel alienated, forgotten about, even apathetic. For true success and progress, they need to feel a part of it all. A supporters’ club may not be as financially rewarding as the corporate buck, but the value of it could be transformative.

If the Cairde Chorcaí project succeeds in engaging the masses, as well as the classes, then Cork could finally be the force they should be.


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