Hurray for the return of the GAA national leagues, which mark the proper start of the inter-county season. Along with the Six Nations, they usher in the sporting year: a time of renewal and reawakening and of getting out of the house.
In this way, the leagues are one of those things in life that are better for what they promise than what they actually are, like stag weekends and parliamentary democracy. For GAA fans, there is an acceptance that what they are watching is only a read-through for the summer’s full sequins-and-dancing-girls extravaganza, but that it’ll do for the moment and, really, don’t underestimate the getting out of the house part.
It’s often been pointed out how the leagues have this weird reverse-trajectory when compared to most other sporting concerns. While other competitions start slowly and build to a dramatic climax involving laps of honour and grown men crying, the leagues are the opposite. They begin with an energetic bustle (mustn’t get relegated!) then dwindle to an apologetic stroll. The latter stages are a bit like Mass — nobody wants to be there, the kids are getting restless, and there’s a ceremony involving silverware at the end.
This is the inherent problem in being a competition that no team really wants to win. Now, it’s not that they are actively trying not to win it, it’s just they are not that pushed either way. Yes, for some winning would be quite nice. But you are not allowed to actually come out and admit you want to win it. If you do (and you are not just saying nice things about the league because the sponsor is paying you), then everyone will point and laugh like you’re the kid whose mother kissed them at the school gates.
You might think of the heyday of Brian Cody’s Kilkenny and Jim Gavin’s Dublin and how they hoovered up leagues as evidence that spring form translates to summer success. But those teams were just merciless killing machines who could no more stop winning because the clocks hadn’t yet gone forward than a great white shark can decide to give up tuna for Lent.
As usual, much of the next few months will be taken up with soothsaying and speculation. GAA fans and commentators will become like ancient druids scanning the stars for signs of a good harvest, or that Donegal postman who can predict the weather by how grumpy the sparrows are. The league is a massive dataset, but you might end up putting it all in the shredder. Nothing that happens means anything, yet anything that happens could mean something.
If you think all this makes the league sound like a very long pre-season competition, then you have a point. In fact, there was a time before the inter-county season was squeezed when, if you added the January competitions to the league, the inter-county pre-season was longer than its actual season. This would be like English football playing the Community Shield over five months, rather than on a Sunday afternoon in August.
Of course, this is a very reductive interpretation. It fails to grasp the complicated and unique cultural position of the GAA in which, if something walks like a duck and talks like duck, then it might well be a badger.
For one thing, there’s the fact that the leagues (and indeed the derided January competitions that precede them) are incredibly popular in relative terms. Average attendances at hurling league matches are around 8,000 while football, depending on how many home matches the Dubs have, can draw in average crowds well into five figures for the cold and frosty fare.
These numbers might not seem vast when compared to the big summer days but there are plenty professional sports leagues in similar markets around the world that would kill for such crowds.
TV interest is strong as well. RTÉ got an average audience of over 340,000 when they showed Kerry against Dublin last February, numbers that would compare well with most Champions League broadcasts on Irish terrestrial TV. I don’t know how many viewers Eir Sport get, but they can afford Joe Brolly, so *rubs fingers together*.
This is simply the economic laws of supply and demand. People like watching the best inter-county GAA teams play each other. They don’t get to see that very often. Therefore people like watching the league. Can I be in the Pendulum Summit?
For football, in particular, this year’s league has a bit more relevance than normal. There’s Dessie and the Dubs, Captain Clifford and the Kingdom Kids and how all that might shake out. As usual, you are looking at the chasing pack to see who might be hitting the right note of looking good without trying too hard.
But more than that, the fact that Gaelic football is in an ongoing and occasionally fractious mediation process with itself makes things really interesting. The introduction of the Tier Two Championship means that for teams in Division 2 and 3, everything that happens actually does mean something, given that the abyss of Not Being On The Sunday Game could await.
And then you have the advanced mark, the latest cure for Gaelic football’s ills that the GAA have come up with.
For some, this represents the ongoing Goop-ification of the sport, with players, in particular, feeling the new laws will have the same genuine health benefits as the infamous jade eggs Gwyneth Paltrow told ladies to put up their front bottoms.
But ultimately it really doesn’t matter what it all means, because, remember, the most important thing is that you are getting out of the house.