Once upon a time, the GAA were terrified of the supposed strides being made by rugby.
It wasn’t even that long ago.
With the IRFU going professional with their game in ’95, it took a few years for it all to settle down and for them to discover their path, and in Ireland that involved the creation of the provinces to carry their paid flag into battle. It appeared to work well. By 1999 Ulster had won a still nascent and evolving European title; a year later as the Heineken Cup grew in status and in showtime, Munster started one of the more enduring storylines from that entire era of our nation’s sport. Next, it was expected that a sleeping giant in Leinster would awaken from its slumber and take over.
Those in Croke Park were watching on closely. And nervously.
In their realm, Dublin had always been competitive, winning more than they lost. And with the Leinster Championship more exciting than ever and with crowds big it should have been enough. However for some, given what was happening outside of their control, it wasn’t. Don’t think what followed was favouritism based on who they were either, as this was about what they were. Had Cavan or Leitrim the population and potential it would’ve been them artificially elevated.
There were a few in the association that could see past the short-term and by 2002 they looked at demographics and knew the danger around Dublin’s influence via sheer weight of numbers banging on the door. In a report they even suggested action rather than later reaction by splitting the capital into four. But others in governance were impatient rather than logical. Never mind a split, come 2004 the financial doping of a united Dublin began, from the GAA in amounts that dwarfed what was given to entire provinces, and from the government in €1m per annum taxpayer cheques.
While those watching saw Kerry and Tyrone dominate on the field, a monster had been created off of it.
The GAA never said it directly but there was a sense this would stave off the rugby threat.
Instead though they’d gone and done the opposite as without competition, no one cares.
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It’s three years since the grumbling grew loud enough and the GAA felt they had to act. With football dying a painful death in the east, their remedy wasn’t to do unto others as they’d done unto Dublin though.
Instead they tried to cure cancer with homoeopathy.
In the Leinster quarter-final against Laois in 2015, they decided to make a change and make Dublin play away from home. Although not actually away. O’Moore Park may have just had a revamp but the hosts were told its capacity wasn’t big enough to host the golden goose and their wallets. In the end 16,764 showed in Kilkenny. Turns out Portlaoise would’ve been fine.
By 2017, as a stadium it suddenly was sufficient. Carlow were the home team on this occasion but despite the work they’d put into Dr Cullen Park, that wasn’t enough. So it was moved to Portlaoise. In the end 13,238 showed up. Turns out that Carlow town would have been fine. And so it went on. Last year it was Wicklow that were told Aughrim couldn’t potentially cater for the masses from the city so their home game was again in Portlaoise. In the end 11,786 showed. Indeed last Saturday was the worst yet with 14,380 showing up for a double-header.
Consider what that would mean in the context of others and their support. Being kind and chalking 10,000 down to the champions, that would have been the equivalent of both Roscommon and Mayo bringing 1,448 to MacHale Park that same night, rather than the 20,471 that did go; it would have been the same as Monaghan and Cavan attracting 1,023 when a week earlier there was 13,496. In essence, it’s the places treated worst that are keeping this show going.
That was never, ever the deal signed with Dublin.
They’ve broken their end of the bargain.
In the end, they’ll be made to pay a hefty price.
On the Sunday Game, when it came to Dublin’s 26 point demolition of Louth, they started their coverage with an epic countdown to the drive for five, and then went with a scene-set that involved shacking up with the few on the train to the game. It amounted to almost as much time as given to the match itself although we cannot blame the producers for that.
As for the fans that didn’t show, frankly, we cannot blame them either.
If those from Meath and Carlow didn’t come en masse to take part in a provincial championship that at best ends with a disappointing defeat and at worst ends with winning enough to face Dublin and being hammered, why bother? If those from Louth didn’t travel and pay to have, like so many others before them, their identity humiliated, it makes sense. But Dublin get an out too for honestly unless you enjoy sadomasochism, there are better ways to whittle away a Saturday.
Sport has to be about some semblance of competition and chance rather than inevitability.
Since 2005 they’ve now won 54 titles and if money has destroyed Leinster, the nation is next. And still, while their funding goes up despite all the harm it has done – and despite them being the one franchise capable of paying their own way to a near professional level – the GAA play the deflection game. President John Horan is on the B Championship bandwagon and while that may, if done properly, solve the problems of the bottom half, it does utterly nothing for the top half.
Last year Dublin walked through the Super 8s, the All Ireland semi-final and the final with the same similar ease we’ve grown used to in early summer. Those were A championship counties. It’s why there was a paltry 53,501 for their home double-header in the Super 8s with a side of Donegal’s status, 33,240 for their home game with Roscommon which wasn’t even representative given a large crowd from Kildare and Mayo for the same day’s under-20 final, and why there were 30,000 empty spaces for the semi-final with Galway. Their fans might talk about this being cyclical and not buying success and about begrudgers and jealousy, but actions speak louder than words. They stayed away.
When all that money started making its way into their accounts, the idea was to create a following and tap into the most populous and valuable market. Feed the system and it’s supposed to feed you, but where’s the return on the GAA’s investment? It didn’t happen as offering a carrot without a stick will just see a stand-still horse with its mouth full of food.
By now those screaming about how Dublin can never be split are doing so while sitting at home. That’s damning and it’s also why the GAA will soon take action. Next weekend against Kildare they’ll get another reminder of how they’ve been duped by Dublin as step-by-step the capital moves towards the abyss and the sport towards the inevitable.
After all, four teams bringing 2,500 each to a game would match Dublin’s total from their opener thus there would be no loss in revenue. Plus it would recreate the interest elsewhere, driving profits back up.
That’s what this was about 15 years ago. It’s what it will have to be about again.
And while not about fairness, on this occasion the ends will justify the means.