End provincial GAA championships? Only if you want to end big crowds

End provincial GAA championships? Only if you want to end big crowds

ON the face of it, it should have been a ticket-selling machine.

In the primrose and blue corner, Roscommon, one of those special counties whose identity is wholly bound up with Gaelic football, the land of Jimmy Murray and Dermot Earley Sr, now fallen on hard times but with young players that give the tantalising hint that the great days might soon be recaptured.

And in the red hand corner, Tyrone, those who gave the sport a thrilling edge in the decade past, and who did so in the face of a series of the most poignant tragedies you could fear.

They might be no more than the darkest of horses for Sam Maguire now, but they remain a compelling team to watch, one who still retain some of the game’s greats and great ambitions for the years in front of us.

Seeing as it was their third championship meeting of recent times, the novelty factor might have worn off, but you could also argue that Roscommon’s competitiveness for most of those games forewarned fans that this was likely to be a decent match, particularly as it was fixed for Dr Hyde Park.

There you have it then, a big football match in a football heartland, with the do-or-die element lacking from provincial fixtures marked very much present. Surely they would be hanging from the rafters in the Hyde?

Eh, no.

We weren’t there, but one newspaper report put the attendance at about 3,500. Beyond the hard core, many of whom probably go to league games, most Roscommon and Tyrone people clearly couldn’t be bothered.

But it is not as if your average Sheepstealer has given up on the great game. A fair selection of them made the journey to Castlebar to be part of the attendance of slightly less than 20,000 for their Connacht semi-final clash with Mayo. That for a game the Rossies had much less of a chance of winning.

Somehow, the desire to get rid of the provincial championships has become the fashionable cause this summer. It gains currency as social media augments the herd mentality.

Sometimes this phenomenon results in thousands of people making themselves appear both childish and foolish — as with the hysterical, embarrassing reaction recently to the dropping of a 34-year-old from a rugby team.

Sometimes, it results in thousands of people echoing what the last guy said. You can identify these people because they all use the same phrases: ‘structures’, ‘Champions League format’ and ‘open draw’ being the giveaway symptoms in the case before us.

It is not really the argument itself that is annoying; no one could say with certainty that the way the championship is laid out is perfect. What is irritating, though, is the conviction of some of these people that the idea they thought up or parroted five minutes ago will obviously work better than the one that’s been doing a fairly commendable job for more than 120 years.

When Cavan played Monaghan for an Ulster final place, there were 20,000 people there. Had the Breffni men been playing a team of comparable standard to Monaghan (say, Laois) for the chance to emerge from a group to the last 16 of an All-Ireland that they have zero hope of winning, do you really think a fraction of that amount of people would have gone?

Almost all of the games this side of August that draw a crowd will be one of two things — a match between neighbouring counties with a grudge, or a final, or both. That’s why more than 50,000 went to a predictable game between Dublin and Kildare, why the Leinster football final will draw at least 60,000, why they were queuing outside Nowlan Park two hours before throw-in last Saturday, why the only Cork football match you’ll ever see a big crowd of Cork people at — apart from an All-Ireland final — is their annual joust with Kerry.

Rebels forward Paul Kerrigan summed up the prevailing attitude in a pre-match interview he gave to The Sunday Independent: “Cork and Kerry, it’s hard to describe. I think the whole county buys into it. Fellas saying I hope you beat them. If we were playing Kildare in an All-Ireland semi-final, there wouldn’t be half the interest. It’s one of the biggest games of the year.”

That’s Cork. In the middle of the pack, in Roscommon and Cavan, the realistic dream is to win a provincial title someday soon. History has proven that once that dream is gone, and there’s little reasonable chance of a sustained run through the qualifiers, the people stay away in their thousands.

And in the smallest counties? Well, I worked as a sports editor in Carlow for a couple of years, and the highlight for most Carlow football people comes every few years, when their team shocks a high-and-mighty Leinster team, as they have done to Offaly, Louth and Meath in the past 10 years.

We should ask players from counties such as Carlow whether they’d prefer to play in an All-Ireland junior championship, but I have my doubts about whether they’d take playing Waterford in front of two men and a dog above drawing with mighty Meath.

The Tommy Murphy Cup proved that, and if you think marketing can make the public excited about Antrim vs Clare, you are clearly someone who views the glass as half full even after scientific trials have proven it empty.

An open draw? We have one. It’s called the qualifiers. A Champions League format? I can’t think of a more boring phase of a competition that the Champions League group stages. An All-Ireland junior? We've tried it more than once — it seems to make the players involved want to go on the beer, or to America, or both.

There are many ways our championship can be improved — less of a gap between games springs to mind. And maybe we could come up with a system that preserves the annual clashes between Cork and Kerry and Cavan and Monaghan while also getting rid of the dead rubbers.

One thing I know for sure. We should take the approach that the reasonable minority took to O’Driscoll, and use our common sense to evaluate the situation before we do anything rash, and end up looking foolish.

Chat to Eamonn on Twitter: @EamonnOMolloy