Thursday, January 26, 2017

By Kieran Murphy

AS the O’Byrne Cup moves towards the semi-final stages and with the National Football League just around the corner, it might be appropriate to go back to the classroom setting of Carlow CBS in the early 1970s. At a glance, the connection between events in school then and the current state of Gaelic football might not be that apparent.
Anway, one day a local priest visited the fifth year boys of St Mary’s Academy in what was then a big classroom downstairs next to the principal’s office. That was a time when the three great institutions of the Catholic Church, Fianna Fail and the GAA had a huge influence on the Ireland of the time. Not quite above criticism, but in a cartel of sorts they enjoyed a cosy place in front of the Irish fireside.
Anyway the priest stimulated an interesting discussion about what Mass meant to the students. One fella cut quickly to the chase. “Mass is boring,” he said. Brave words for the times that were in it.
Don’t forget this was an era where Fianna Fail would be elected to the Dail in 1977 with the biggest majority in the history of the state while two years later Pope John Paul held the packed crowds in the palms of his hands when he visited this country.
At the time, the GAA was the biggest sporting organisation in the country with soccer and rugby knowing their place in the pecking order.
All is changed now. We know what happened to Fianna Fail while the church, for a combination of reasons, has lost the trust of many men and women both young and old. People still claim to be religious and spiritual but they don’t identify with regular attendance at Sunday services.
So where stands the Gaelic Athletic Association? A recent column from the sometimes controversial Joe Brolly pointed out average attendances for the 2016 football championship was 13,416 while in 2007 it was 20,172.
He compared the “inertia” of the current GAA legislators to that of the powers that run rugby where he pointed out rules of the oval ball game are constantly evolving. In contrast, he claims the GAA powers are tampering with such minutiae as the black card and the mark while not seeing the bigger picture.
Fair enough, Joe, but rugby has its problems too. To digress for a moment, the television match official doesn’t always get it right while rugby is now a game for only the biggest and the toughest of individuals. One wonders, is this a serious accident waiting to happen?
At grass roots level it would be interesting to find out why many clubs in Leinster are struggling to field only two teams while 20 years ago the bigger clubs outside the Pale including Carlow, Mullingar, Longford and Dundalk regularly fielded five adult teams each week. Metropolitan clubs sent out at least seven adult teams on Saturdays and Sundays.
It would also be interesting to carry out a survey in the Aviva Stadium on big match day to ascertain how many spectators actually play the game. Rugby may be popular but playing numbers in clubs have dropped.
The former Derry footballer would have made a stronger point if he had compared the numbers playing football to the thousands who are actually playing soccer.
This week this paper carries seven pages of soccer-related reports and stories. That doesn’t include Padraig Amond’s column. In Carlow at underage level there are seven leagues comprising of 10 teams each. There are four adult men’s leagues, two women’s leagues and an under-18 division. Do the maths. The figures speak for themselves. Big numbers are playing soccer in county Carlow. There are similar leagues all over Ireland.
Back to Gaelic football, when Dublin won the All-Ireland in 1974 it could be argued the game started to evolve to where it is today. The handpass was an issue long before then but Dublin and Kerry brought it to a fine art where many goals were scored with a flick of the wrist and s sleight of hand as goalkeepers were left stranded in one-on-one situations.
The rule was changed so that this couldn’t happen again. But now there are blanket defences, goalkeepers kicking short, sweepers and regular back-passes to the same net-minders.
The high catch is almost extinct. Soon it will go the way of the dodo. Lord help anyone in the stands who shouts “kick it, kick it”. While the word of God is not being heard through traditional routes, possession is the Gospel of Gaelic football now. The word boring comes to mind. And where did we hear that before?
The numbers playing Gaelic games has come under attack from many outside sources as young people find ways of amusing themselves. Rugby clubs are fielding fewer teams and more GAA clubs are amalgamating because of reduced numbers.
Forty years ago who would ever have thought the influence of Fianna Fail and the Catholic Church would have diminished to the point where it is today? Now empty seats at games have an eerie resemblance to empty pews and a deep distrust of politicians matches an ever increasing suspicion that Croke Park is administering the game for the intercounty star at the expense of the ordinary club player. The rules of the game are not apparently of utmost importance. Finance rules.
Hurling has its issues too. Four teams, at best, can be considered serious senior All-Ireland contenders. But at least the game is exciting which is more than can be said for football most of the time
Two former powers, Fianna Fail and the Catholic Church, have been left reeling in response to events of recent years. One wonders what direction the Gaelic Athletic Association is taking. There is enough evidence to suggest interest in football is in decline as more and more people go looking for their entertainment elsewhere. These folks might not come back. The two other institutions of the Ireland of another era can vouch for that. Now that is worrying.

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