Category Archives: GAA

Mo money mo problems

There are four certainties in life: death, taxes, overuse of the ‘certainties in life’ gag, and people complaining about the format of the National Hurling League. Davy Fitz and Ciarán Carey both had a pop from their respective ends of Division 1B, the former seeing an expanded top division as a ‘no-brainer’ while the latter was fuming that a team on zero points (Laois) were not automatically relegated.

It’s possible to have sympathy with their respective positions and still think they are both wrong. As I have long argued – okay, argued for just over a year – the system ensures that every game is a battle. An eight-team top division would have multiple dead rubbers while two six-team divisions of equal strength like we had through the turn of the millennium would lead to newly-promoted and upcoming teams like, I don’t know, Kerry getting blown away and end the year newly-relegated and downcoming.

It’s a pain for Limerick that they are stuck in the lower divisions for another year, especially when they ‘won’ Division 1B in 2013 only to lose a playoff against Dublin, and it must have been galling for Kerry to have taken such a scalp only to find out how little it meant in the wider scheme of things thanks to Laois stumbling against Wexford, a stumble that means they get to play Kerry rather than Wexford in the relegation playoff. But there isn’t any format that is going to address all objections. A two-up two-down format, which I would advocate, would help Limerick but would make Kerry worse off as they would be relegated without even a playoff. The inequities in the National League are a symptom of the inequities in the GAA, not the cause.

Those inequities were brought to mind by a stat I saw yesterday from Walsh Park – a crowd of 5,029. Added to the 6,362 at the Dublin game and the 7,000-odd at the Kilkenny game and, quite apart from ticket sales, you have a lot of people buying programmes and junk at the shop (a work colleague who was roped in to helping out at the Dublin game can testify to this being a lot of junk). Compare this to the 1,558 who saw us play Antrim and 1,200 against Laois in 2015 and you can see the value of being in with the heavyweights, The Waterford County Board did get a top-up game against Galway that saw 3,550 extra punters pass through the Walsh Park turnstiles, but they couldn’t have anticipated that game when they approached sponsors, a problem noted by the Limerick secretary three years ago. His numbers seem a bit over-the-top – the host county doesn’t get all of the €10 spent in SuperValu and filling the gap with revenue in the ground to bring it up to a round €150,000 would be a lot of junk – and they have the added problem of a white elephant ground, something that needs to be rammed home the next time anyone feels a sense of inadequacy over our puny venues. The overall point remains though. Waterford have gone from budgeting for around 3,000 bums on seats one year to around 18,000 the next. You can’t plan adequately for any enterprise, even a non-profit one, with variables like that,

The madness of the economics of the modern GAA was archly summarised by the secretary of the Connacht Council when he noted that “county team administration costs in Connacht [are] almost five times the gate receipts for the championship (€747,554)”. Like the poor, moaning about the League format will always be with us. More radical solutions to the GAA’s funding gaps are needed if the impoverished county is not going to become the norm.

We shall never see his like again

Tony Browne departs...

We’ve all had a good laugh over the years at the expense of Ger Canning, and his suggestion during the 2004 Munster final that Tony Browne was “coming to the end of a wonderful career” certainly ranks up there alongside his assorted spoonerisms and malapropisms. Still, you really should view it with mirth rather than irritation because 1) he said nice things about the great man, and 2) was it really that unreasonable an observation at the time?

Saying that Waterford went 29 years without winning the Munster title in 2002 – now that was off the wall.

Speaking for myself, I was on a hair-trigger for a number of years with the retirement tribute. The photo above was taken conscious of the idea that it might be the last time that we saw him in a Waterford jersey. But that was nearly two years ago and when the moment came on Thursday, I wasn’t ready at all. Here was a man of such stature that I managed to feel a twinge of disappointment that my son was born on July 2nd, a day after the birthday of the great man. Had the passage of time and being up to my elbows in nappies meant that I couldn’t get inspiration to say something on his retirement? For shame!

Thankfully Twitter came to the rescue, erupting with so many tributes that #TonyBrowne started trending. It got me to thinking seriously about what made him great. It’s important to do this because the lull right at the end of his career might give the impression that his reputation was built around his longevity, which would do him a terrible disservice.

Tony Browne Waterford Comhraile na nOg

(photo taken from a hoarding in Cathedral Square)

He was, of course, a great hurler, a combination of style – witness his delightful flick of the wrists which finally pushed us past the point of no surrender in the 2002 Munster final – and teak-tough bravery – sticking his face in the way of the last shot in the 2010 final replay. Then there was his presence. From the first moment I encountered him up close, addressing the crowd after the Under-21 victory in 1992 with a panache that belied his tender years, he oozed confidence without ever being arrogant. In a sport dominated by culchie understatement, he had a townie swagger that separated him from his peers and made him stand out on the national stage. You only have to look at the various points of the four green fields from where the tweets hailed to see how he touched so many lives beyond his native county.

What made him so special in Waterford though was how he, more than any other player, restored our sense of well-being after the horrors of the 1980’s. The other legends of the 1992 team, Fergal Hartley and Paul Flynn, were great hurlers too. But Hartley didn’t have that swagger and Flynn was too mercurial, and when Waterford burst back onto the national stage in 1998 it was Browne who was the poster child for the county. It was he who was at the heart of the turmoil with Clare, it was he who pulled us up by the bootstraps in the quarter-final against Galway, it was he who kept us in that tension-soaked semi-final against Kilkenny, and it was he who finally gave us something tangible to show for it all – only our fourth-ever All Star and Hurler of the Year. My brother told of how Tony came to Tramore to award some medals and an old man approached him, tears in his eyes, and thanked Tony for giving us back our dignity. He set the bar very high that year, and he never let it drop over the seasons that followed.

The final word I leave to Enda McEvoy:

Don’t be evil

If you meet an asshole in the morning, you met an asshole. If you meet assholes all day, you’re the asshole.

Raylan Givens, Justified

Pat Bennett is a hero of mine, assuming that the Pat Bennett coaching Ballysaggart is the Pat Bennett of Ballysaggart who struck a late goal in the 1987 National League quarter-final against Cork in Walsh Park to level matters and set the stage for Anthony Cooney’s point that secured a stunning victory that had me lepping around the Town End grass bank terrace like a mad thing. A hiding at Galway’s hands in the semi-final and a heartbreaking loss to Limerick in the Championship, where Pat’s first-half goal raised hopes of a shock win, did nothing to diminish the delight of the first time I saw Waterford win a knockout match against one of the game’s heavyweights. The first time is always a little bit special.

Hold that thought and contemplate something far less pleasant – the archetypal Tipperary jackass. We’ve all met several, even in real life, and while they are far more virulent on the internet (I firmly believe it was their antics that undid UpTheDeise.com) the ones in the flesh are worse because you can’t dismiss them as trolls. They fancy themselves as having struck every ball in every All-Ireland victory for the Premier County – did you know they’re the only county to have won an All-Ireland in every decade, a boast that gets aired at least every five minutes and is good until 2029? – and openly sneer at the shambolic efforts of a county like Waterford. You tell yourself that this character isn’t typical of Tipperary people in general, but you can’t help yourself. You burn with righteous indignation and rejoice every time they fall on their arses. Boy, does it feel good when that happens.

Which brings us back to Pat Bennett. His embittered rant after Ballysaggart’s loss to Creggan could be dismissed as being emotional after missing out on a once-in-lifetime opportunity that you have spent the best part of a working towards, but the comment about the referee John Keenan was bang out of order:

I don’t be critical of referees, I never do, but when you’re putting in a Wicklow referee that doesn’t know what hurling is about then that is what you get.

It must have been 25 years ago that my brother was on the Waterford team that won the Sonny Walsh Cup, the B equivalent of the Tony Forristal, by beating Wicklow in the final. Apart from the obvious feelings of delight at a Waterford win and pride in my brother’s part in that win, I remember admiring the Wicklow lads who had come all the way to Waterford to take on teams from the big guns and hoping that while they wouldn’t be good enough to beat Waterford that they’d be good enough to be a force in the future. Here we are in the future, and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that John Keenan was on that Wicklow team. It may not be right to label Pat Bennett an asshole or think less of everyone associated with Waterford hurling because of his comments but you couldn’t blame someone from Wicklow who did, especially given there is form for this kind of outburst in the person of Paddy Joe Ryan who was more temperate, but equally ill-judged, when criticising Pat Aherne (wasn’t very well-judged myself) after the drawn 2003 Munster semi-final against Limerick. If someone slagged off Waterford in these terms from the county of, apropos of nothing, Tipperary, we’d be mightily irked, and rightly so. Let’s hope the good folk of Wicklow are more understanding of the anger of a coach and father than we have reason to expect.

Just to put the tin hat on it, the injudicious nature of Bennett’s outburst mean that it’s going to be very hard for Ballysaggart to avoid the accusation of sour grapes over their objection to a couple of Creggan’s team – there’s even a thread effectively accusing them of it on the GAA Discussion Board – even though they have a very strong case. The relevant rule is:

Age Grades – R6.16 T.O

To be eligible for the Grades listed hereunder, a player shall meet the respective stated age criteria:
Adult: Be over 16 years.
Under-21: Be Under 21 years and Over 16 years.
Minor (Under 18): Be Under 18 years and Over 14 years.
Under 16: Be Under 16 years and Over 12 years.
Under 14: Be Under 14 years and Over 10 years.
Under 12: Be Under 12 years and Over 9 years.

To be “Under” an age shall mean that the player shall celebrate the Upper Limit birthday (e.g. 21st. for Under21 Grade) on or after the 1st. January of the Championship Year

To be “Over” an age shall mean that the player shall have celebrated the Lower Limit birthday (e.g. 16th. To participate in Senior/Under 21 Grades) prior to the 1st. January of the Championship Year. Girls may participate only up to and including the Under 12 Grade.

It’s is a little ambiguous, what with Senior and Adult being used interchangeably, but the spirit of it is crystal clear – if you are too young/old for the competition on 1st January of the year of the competition, you are not eligible to enter. If you are to assume that a new year means new eligibility rules apply, this would mean that any Minor/Under-21 players who was competing in such a competition during the final year of his/her eligibility would no longer be able to compete should the competition, for whatever reason, spill over into another calendar year. As for assuming that the All-Ireland series is a new competition, there were suggestions that Waterford would try that tack to render John Mullane eligible for the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny after he was sent off in the 2004 Munster final. We were told in no uncertain terms by the chattering classes that this would be a bad idea, and yet it is Ballysaggart who are getting stick for daring to question it when one of their opponents drives a coach and four through the spirit of the rules.

Alas, the difference is down to Pat Bennett. No club likes to win titles off the field, but it’s equally true that no club likes to lose to a club playing to a different set of rules. It’s important to establish the narrative so that should Ballysaggart ‘win’ in such a manner that it’s clear to all and sundry that they haven’t gotten the result overturned because they objected to a 16-year-old playing, but because Creggan at best played hard and fast with the rules and at worst were cheating. The chance to establish this narrative looks to have been lost – you only have to look at the GAA board thread to see that.

In the long run, I think it’s best if Ballysaggart lose their appeal. That’s not to say that Ballysaggart are wrong to pursue it. I dread to think of how many man/teenager hours have gone into their tilt at All-Ireland glory, and the chances of them ever getting another shot at it again in the near future are slim. They’d have slip back from Intermediate level in the county for starters, and I wouldn’t have thought they’d be planning to do that. The prize is so great that I can understand them not caring about the optics. Looking at the bigger picture though, we don’t want to acquire a collective reputation as a shower of whingers and it’s going to be impossible for that to be avoided after Pat Bennett’s incendiary whinge.

And never the twain shall meet

This week saw another abortive effort on the part of the County Board to stick their snouts into the Munster championship trough. About the best that can be said is that there is no direct sense of humiliation from the negative response, something that couldn’t be said the last time they tried it. Decision made, move on.

Ah, but where would be the fun in moving on? The situation contains much that is worth pondering, and a useful hook from which to start the pondering is this tweet from Brian Flannery:

In itself, it sounds right. The folly of splitting money for development of the two venues was surely demonstrated during the summer when poor light meant the Minor match against Tipperary came perilously close to being abandoned, and certainly would have been had it gone into extra-time. Meanwhile there was a venue twenty-something miles down the road with floodlights. The penny (pinching) had dropped when the venue for the match against Clare had been chosen, and presumably it’ll be quietly factored in for future evening throw-ins in Waterford, but the kind of farce we can do without after the Rhythm Fest debacle was avoided more by chance than design, and all because the Waterford County Board can’t decide on a primary venue for the county.

In fairness, there’s not much they can do about the attitude of the Munster Council. I can’t find any specific reason why the request to stage the Cork game in Walsh Park was turned down, although the RTÉ report above hints at capacity issues. Given our opening games in the Championship for the last two years against Clare have drawn crowds barely over 12,000 they are obviously putting a lot of faith in the idea that the Cork game next May will be what Hoganstand.com hilariously calls a “glamour tie“. There’s no way either of our venues will be brought up to the capacity that the Munster Council seems to think is typical of a Munster Championship match. Until that notional anticipated attendance changes, one that is currently more a reflection of their belief in the grandeur of the competition rather than the objective trend in these backdoor days, we can forget about having Munster games in Waterford. Unless Kerry return to the hustings. something that’ll only happen if they think they have a chance of beating us so we could probably cope without that.

However, that doesn’t mean that there’s no need for Brian Flannery’s 20,000 capacity venue in the county. Even a 10,000 capacity ground would be a worthwhile goal if it had one covered stand capable of keeping the rain off 3,000 people (without them having to huddle in the aisles) and three banks of stepped terraces around the other sides. The improvements to Walsh Park don’t come anywhere close to this level, so it’s still an open question as to which of the two venues would be best. A convincing case can be made for either ground. Walsh Park is closest to the largest section of the population while Fraher Field is at the geographical heart. Walsh Park is currently closer to an acceptable standard while Fraher Field has more scope for improvement – I can see issues with building a fully covered stand backing on the road in Walsh Park while there is space in Fraher for demolishing and starting again. What is required here is leadership. Someone to take a decision based on the merits of one or the other and give us something that we can all row in behind.

And this is where it gets depressing. Following comments around the web, it seems clear that there is an East v West divide on this issue. Any decision will be seen as a conspiracy from those lot on the other side of the county to drag us all the way to Waterford/Dungarvan. This is insane. No one is suggesting driving salt into ground at the venue that is not selected to be the primary one in the county, just that the lion’s share of any budget go to one venue while the other is maintained to its current standard. If it’s really impossible to choose because the factors governing which ground suits our collective best is so finely balanced, then toss a bloody coin! Just make a decision and stick with it rather than have this continuing malaise. But I fear that making the decision based on something as objective as that would not disguise the underlying problem – that there really is an East v West divide that doesn’t just affect the Walsh Park v Fraher Field debate but affects everything and, as a consequence, inhibits everything as decisions are made to ensure neither nose is put out of joint rather than what is better for the collective county. All these years I thought I was following Waterford. Turns out I was following Belgium all along.

Ostia wasn’t built in a day*

The internet is making it easier for me to get closer to that most nebulous of concepts – the real GAA man. Last Sunday I found myself checking Twitter to see not only how Ballinacourty were getting on in their quest to get crucified in the Munster final by Dr Crokes, but also to see how Tramore’s conquerors in the Junior county final, Ballysaggart, were getting on in the Munster club championship.

The notions of a rising force in Waterford hurling contained in my previous post may be a bit premature. It’s great that the Under-21’s can beat Portlaw, and any concerns that this might have been a shadow Portlaw outfit should be dispelled by assurances I’ve received that DJ Foran was on their team (be sure to vote for DJ for Goal of the Year on TG4’s website). On the flipside, Tramore’s Under-21 journey went the same way as the Juniors – a decisive defeat at the hands of the Western Board’s finest, in this case Brickey Rangers. Then there was the rude awakening I received when discussing Ballysaggart’s win over Tramore with my father. He spoke of a radio interview he heard with a Ballysaggart mentor where said mentor mentioned the population of his parish – 225! It’s an achievement to field an adult team, let alone beat a club whose catchment area contains (at the last census) a population of 9,508. A lot done, more to do.

Still, a lot has been done in Tramore. There’s still evidence of the excitement that was created by reaching the county final around the town with the banners exhorting people to attend the match and the flags fluttering all over – and they weren’t all put up for the county team. I don’t recall this kind of hoopla attaching itself to previous ventures, and given they were Intermediate as recently as 2010 (my Google-fu is lamentably not turning up anything more specific) they must have been in Junior finals in the recent past.

Things have changed, and for me the most important ‘thing’ is the manifestation of the increased muscularity of hurling in the county. Lots of people would have been caught up in the Minors run to All-Ireland glory and the club sensibly tried to tap into that crowd by advertising to them that there is a hurling world beyond Croke Park in September. Only a few of those people might maintain an interest beyond losing to Ballysaggart, but a few would justify the effort.

As a glorious year for hurling draws to a close, I’m allowing myself be a little giddy about our future prospects. Throughout the Noughties I would have been of the opinion that Clare’s glory era in the late 90’s had come to nought. Yet they now have three Under-21 All-Irelands under their belt in the last four years, not to mention some other gong won in September. A decade of boys and girls picking up hurleys to emulate their heroes reached boiling point in 2013, and the only place they didn’t win was at Minor level, thanks to an almighty hiding at the hands of Waterford. We even had a Tramore man playing for Waterford that day. And my new favourite club notched only our third win ever in the Munster Junior hurling championship thanks in no small part to some young Turk:

Our time is coming.

*Cryptic headline explanation. Tramore is a seaside town, and the seaside retreat for the city of  Rome is . . . ? I’ll get my coat.

The GAA according to Elliot Reed

The last time I used the National League tag for a post, I had this to say about the prospect of the League being changed to accommodate the freshly-relegated Rebels:

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Headquarters will be pleased to see that no one is safe. Maybe they’ll respect the integrity of the process. I’m happy to be proven wrong, and it’s why I’m hoping Clare beat Cork. If this happens and Cork are banished to the quicksands of Division 1B, I’ll be delighted to hold my hands up and say I misjudged those who run the association and their motivations. Should Cork lose though and the League is rejigged to keep them in the standards to which they are accustomed, I may find myself donning a tinfoil hat with all the other kooks claiming that those making the Championship draws don’t rattle those balls/hurleys in the pot with sufficient vigour.

While I was very confident about them at the time – no less an authority than SBB on Seó Spóirt said (as Gaeilge) that Limerick must be hoping for a Clare victory so the League would be changed – all through the summer I was conscious that I might have to eat those words. What would be an appropriate point at which to issue a mea culpa?

(And yes, I have used this gag before.)

I had a great big wedge of text about why this is wrong, but the Wexford County Board chairman Diarmuid Devereux says it far better. Now excuse me while I don my tinfoil hat.

If you break it, you own it

The current standoff in the United States is a source of angst to anyone who doesn’t want to see the world’s wealthiest country implode, not least among them being the President and his supporters. However, the law of perverse consequences means that there is some good news for the Democrats. With the fallout from the clash dominating the headlines, teething problems for the health care reforms known as Obamacare are not getting the attention from the enemies of the reforms (i.e. the people causing the shutdown) that they might otherwise have done. The shutdown is effectively providing a smokescreen under which the law that the shutdown is being staged to prevent can be implemented successfully. The irony is delicious.

Here in Waterford, we should be grateful for the ongoing back-slapping operation created by the thunderous finish in the All-Ireland final replay to what was already the most thrilling season of hurling that I, or anyone else of my acquaintance, can remember. You know something special has happened when even Fleet Street newspapers like the Guardian are piling on the love. Hopefully by the time the fuss has died down, we’ll have papered over the cracks exposed by the need to search for a new manager.

For what an embarrassment it has been. Four names emerged from the process, none of them likely to inspire either the supporters or the players who took such exception to Michael Ryan. We can say this much with certainty about the attitude of the players towards one of those names because he was Michael Ryan. While my sympathies lay with him throughout this, it’s a relief that he has withdrawn his name. No manager can hope to function when the whole world knows the players have no confidence in him, so while you can understand his stubbornness in carrying on it was never a starter.

Then we had DJ Carey. A truly great hurler, enough to get a fawning article about him printed in the Observer back in the day (and speaking of embarrassment, the less said about the writer of the article, the better). But what has DJ done as a manager to deserve being fast-tracked to inter-county management? Little enough that even he wasn’t interested. So names were being bandied about of people who didn’t even want the job in the first place. As I said at the top, thank God this wasn’t all happening during the hurling silly season.

As of today, this leaves Peter Queally and Derek McGrath. They’re both solid choices with lots of coaching miles on the clock and, all other things being equal, being from Waterford is an advantage. But both are coming off the back of frustrating defeats – Queally for the Under-21’s, a defeat that felt like a missed opportunity even before Clare romped to Munster and All-Ireland glory, and McGrath seeing his De La Salle team fall to Ballygunner when everyone was already marking them down as county champions. Neither of these defeats fatally undermines the case for them. It means that neither makes a decisive case for their appointment either.  Passage winning the county title might tip the scales in Queally’s favour, but that’s a huge ask. The County Board have insisted they are not limiting themselves to those two candidates. We should hope this is the case, if only so it doesn’t look like McGrath/Queally won the role thanks to the toss of a coin.

One of the lessons that must be learned from the current pickle is that the business of ‘consulting’ squads on the status of the manager is a fudge. The players effectively have a veto over who the manager is. Spare us any flannel about how they never said they were unwilling to play under Michael Ryan. You can’t seriously ask a group of people for their opinion then behave as if that expressed opinion is enough in itself. Maybe it is a good thing to consult the players. There’s something to be said for getting any grievances out in the open rather than letting them fester. The problem is that the players don’t have to deal with the consequences of their actions. You can see people already lining up to lambast the County Board over the new manager even though they weren’t the ones who brought us to this situation.

It’s not something I like, but if we are going to insist on this consultation then we should formalise the players veto. At the end of a manager’s term, whether that be two or three years, the players get the chance to express no confidence in the incumbent. This way, they have their fingerprints all over the decision rather than being able to vote no confidence while at the same time claiming that they weren’t really dissing the current manager. It might soften the players cough if they realised that they are owning their decision in the eyes of the public. And who knows? They might be really good at making these calls and we’re all better off as a result. At least we’d be able to assess this with a proper sample size rather than lurching from one crisis to the next, never heeding the warnings from history. Isn’t that right, Mr Obama?

The magical mystery tour

If cleaboy boy over on boards.ie is correct, and the lack of any RTÉ/TV3 logo among the match details on the GAA’s website suggests he is, the revolution against Offaly will not be televised. In what I am assuming is an email from someone in Montrose, they spell it out:

we will NOT be covering the game live.

The GAA decided before the last contract to reduce the number of LIVE games we are permitted to show.

One of the ten games we are now not PERMITTED is Preliminary Hurling Qualifier.
Live coverage on radio and extended highlights on Sunday night.

Thanks

I once got an email from no less a person than Ryle Nugent when I accused him of focusing on a brawl at a GAA match while ignoring a similar spat at an Ulster rugby match. His response was far more polite than I deserved, so credit to RTÉ for being responsive on this level, and it’s important to emphasis that RTÉ have nothing to do with the match not being televised. The GAA have decided live coverage is likely to reduce attendances, so unless something spectacular happens in the next week, I’ll be following the game on the radio.

Ugh. I hate following games on the radio.

Is this a good idea? I think we can all agree that bigger crowds at matches would be a good thing. But will taking away live television lead to a boost in numbers at the game? The problem is that there are so many variables. Crowds are down for all manner of reasons:

  • the back door reducing too many games to a phony war
  • Kilkenny’s dominance is sucking away people’s interest
  • prices are too high during a recession
  • poor venue choices are making it harder than it need be to get to games

If we wanted to find out what the main problem is, we’d change one of these variables and hold the others steady. Like we’d ever be that rational about change in the GAA. Even if we could do it in each case – making Henry Shefflin play with skates rather than boots, perhaps? – the temptation to tinker with everything is immense, and I don’t exclude myself from the ranks of the, uh, tinkers.

With respect to this latest attempt to meddle with what we’re not sure whether it’s working or not, the GAA have gotten it arse-over-tit, as Julia Gillard’s opponents might put it. Offaly are a good example of the folly of the current dispensation. Their supporters could anticipate seeing them get walloped by the Cats in stunning HD, and even if they had pulled off the shock to beat all shocks their satisfaction at having seen it or being able to luxuriate in watching it back would have been tempered by the knowledge that they hadn’t finished the job. Now we have a match where they have a real prospect of success, one that would allow them to puff their chest out (I like to think we’re a bit of a scalp) and look forward to a long summer, and it’s not on the telly. It gets worse in football, where some novel and exciting clashes in the qualifiers will be ignored while turkey shoots in the provincial championships like the recent game between Kerry and Tipperary are churned out year after year. You can retain the provincial championships without pretending that they’re still the jewel in the crown.

So I think the GAA have got their priorities wrong. Still, you have to marvel at the assumption that live coverage of every match is the divine right of every Gael. I can remember a time when we had two hurling matches a year on the telly. But we were happy! Actually no, we weren’t, it was mental that the only team we could ever be sure of seeing was Galway. But the sky didn’t fall in and the game did not wither on the vine for the lack of exposure. We like to tell ourselves that the worst hurling match is better than the best match from any other sport, and to the committed that is mostly true. But there have been plenty of matches shown over the years that were a dreadful advert for the game and one of the best of recent times, the Waterford-Limerick match in 2003, had its status enhanced by not being endlessly pored over by the Loughnanes of this world. Walter Bagehot wrote of the British monarchy that “we must not let in daylight upon magic”. Establishing a principle that the default way to watch hurling is by being at the game rather than on your couch might be a good place from which to start restoring some of the mystique.

The Big Three – in a League of their own

[table id =263/]

Miracles never cease. For once, the National Hurling League finds itself not having to defend itself against charges of unfairness/irrelevance/pointlessness/boredom/all of the above as the fate of nearly every team went down, quite literally, to the last puck of the final round of matches. Had Waterford or Cork conjured up late goals in their respective games then the table would have spun like a top. As it was, there is some slight irritation to see the All-Ireland, Munster and Leinster champions in the top three places, giving an unfair impression of as-you-were. But overall it has been a rollercoaster contest, and given the usual denunciations of the League format for being all of the above, the authorities have much to be pleased about.

Sadly for them, and happily for those of us who like to be disagreeable for the sake of it, it’s never that simple. Each team’s performance will only be properly assessed in September. No doubt there was some pundit somewhere who wrote a preview of last year’s All-Ireland final and opined that Galway’s playoff torment last year when they only got past Dublin after a replay was really a blessing in disguise as it toughened them up for what was to come. Clare and Cork will be hard pressed to see those advantages from their current perspective. Then there’s Waterford, the only team without a game between now and the Championship. Will we be better off for coming into the Clare game fresh, or worse off for not having another game in which to iron out the kinks? No sod knows, but that won’t stop experts rushing in to fill the vacuum of knowledge with their considered opinions.

While I may scoff at the meanderings of pundits, all the while hopefully giving off a sense of awareness of the irony of a blogger scoffing at the meandering of pundits, there is ultimately no damage done by their retrospective know-it-all attitude to the League. More serious is what happens next. Not at the top of the League where Tipperary, Kilkenny and Galway will trip over themselves to downplay its significance, all the while skirting around the challenge provided by whoever emerges from the Limerick-Dublin promotion playoff, a team that will be as high as a kite from the relief of escaping the abyss that is Division 1B. No, the serious business is the result of the Clare-Cork relegation playoff.

I’m not one for conspiracy theories. It’s always amusing how people rub their chins in a told-you-so fashion about how they predicted the draw for the Championship, particularly the qualifiers, before it happened. Note that these predictions are never revealed until after the draw was made. It’s not as if you would need to put your prediction in a sealed envelope with a postmark on it or take a photo with the newspaper from the day the prediction was made for it to be a verifiable vision of the future. All that’s needed is to put it on a message board and viola! the corruption of those in positions of power is laid bare. Maybe those making these self-evidently foolish accusations of corruption are plants designed to distract from the true seers and their plaintive cries, lost in the wilderness of obfuscation. It’s genius, I tell you, evil genius!

Okay, that paragraph went off on a tangent too far. The concern from the Clare-Cork game is simple. If Cork get relegated and they change the format of the League then all suggestions that the GAA is hard-wired to bow to the needs of the Big Three will have found a solid example from which even the loopiest of conspiracies can claim validity. Despite the thrilling 2013 season, the current League format is not without problems. Tom Dempsey got a lot of stick from Waterford supporters for blithely talking around us on RTÉ’s Sunday Sport programme as if we don’t exist, but anyone who listened to him a lot through the spring will have heard his repeated objections to the one-up-one-down format of Divisions 1A/B, and he’s right. It’s simply not fair that Limerick should have to enter a playoff against Dublin to see who gets promoted, just as it was unfair last year that Galway had to playoff against Dublin last year despite winning two games to Dublin’s none, and finishing ahead of Waterford on points difference but losing on the head-to-head – they might feel some small sense of satisfaction that it was us who lost out to them on the head-to-head this year.

It’s unfair, but no one in authority cares as long as it’s only the grunts who count their All-Ireland successes in single figures that fall into its clutches. So you can well imagine the hysterics that will erupt in Croke Park should Cork find themselves in Division 1B next year. When Cork failed to fulfil fixtures in the 2008 NHL, their only penalty was to have the games awarded to the opposition, one of which happened to be against Waterford. There was understandable fury in Wexford as Waterford were effectively gifted two points while Wexford played and lost to a full-strength Cork. Had it been the other way around, and Waterford ended up losing to Cork in a playoff to see who got into the knockout stages, it would have been Waterford who ended up in Division 2 for 2009. Every action that was taken was designed to accommodate Cork – God forbid that they might be penalised for distorting the competition in the manner they did – and we were the lucky beneficiaries of those actions. With all that in mind, can you see the GAA accepting the status quo should Clare beat Cork and the Rebels find themselves slumming it with Antrim and Laois/Westmeath next year? Yerra, the League will seem ripe for another restructuring and the success of Division 1A in providing so many thrills and spills in 2013 be damned.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Headquarters will be pleased to see that no one is safe. Maybe they’ll respect the integrity of the process. I’m happy to be proven wrong, and it’s why I’m hoping Clare beat Cork. If this happens and Cork are banished to the quicksands of Division 1B, I’ll be delighted to hold my hands up and say I misjudged those who run the association and their motivations. Should Cork lose though and the League is rejigged to keep them in the standards to which they are accustomed, I may find myself donning a tinfoil hat with all the other kooks claiming that those making the Championship draws don’t rattle those balls/hurleys in the pot with sufficient vigour.

They hate us, they really hate us!

62-waterford-v-kilkenny-1-march-2009-fight1

(Updated below)

(Update 24/5/13: follow-up post here)

I heard a story in the aftermath of the weekend which saw Waterford exit the All-Ireland last summer where Ned Quinn, chairman of the Kilkenny County Board, was supposed to have said that any weekend where Waterford lose and Kilkenny win is a good one. I have also heard a story of a resident of Carrigeen who insists on putting “Carrigeen, Co Kilkenny” as their postal address even though it takes a day longer to reach them due to An Post’s delivery system than if they were to use “Carrigeen, Waterford“. This resident in question, according to my source, is Ned Quinn’s daughter.

Please note that each of these stories is purely apocryphal and shouldn’t be taken as being holy scripture of the Quinn family. It could be just as easily about Seosamh and Seosaimhin Gallúnach from Muileann an Bhata, even if it would lack a certain immediacy. The stories would still pass the smell test for attitudes towards Waterford in Kilkenny. It’s also kinda gratifying to see that Kilkenny people care so much about how we get on despite our respective places in the hurling firmament. I’m sure supporters of Tranmere Rovers would be delighted if Liverpool and Everton were ever to exhibit similar attitudes towards them. In the context of today’s game it’s all good knockabout fun, and should we overcome a woeful record at Nowlan Park in today’s game – four wins in 26 league matches – it’ll only make effectively dumping them into the relegation playoff all the sweeter. And that would be sweeter than a Wham bar.

The GAA doesn’t exist in a vacuum though, and these attitudes have consequences in the real world. Watching the Waterford St Patrick’s Day parade on the telly on Sunday, it struck me how the reviewing stand contained the members of the City Council in all their finery. You can argue about how impressive they are as individuals, but they stand for something very impressive indeed, representatives of one of Europe’s oldest cities. And in order to satisfy the parish-pump politics of south Kilkenny, they’re not going to be there much longer as Phil Hogan’s chicanery will lead to the end of the City Council.

This is not hyperbole. The electoral red meat in Phil Hogan’s proposal’s to reform local government in Ireland is there for anyone bothering to scratch the surface. On the one hand county boundaries are sacrosanct, so there is no danger of Carlow and Kilkenny being merged even though that would be a logical consequence of reducing duplication of the provision of services by merging small councils. Given its long history as a single Dáil constituency – with the movement between Waterford and Tipperary South over the years, it could even be said on this metric to be more of a unit than Waterford City and County – and sharing other services like a local radio licence, Carlow and Kilkenny would seem ripe for merging. But on the other hand, by playing to the GAA gallery we have a situation where the new council will have responsibility for boreens in Kinsalebeg and rubbish collection in Ferrybank but can only watch in consternation as a white elephant of a shopping centre that is a magnet for every vandal between the Suir and the Barrow is 100 metres beyond their boundary but might as well be on the Moon for all the influence they’ll have on it.

The shopping centre in Ferrybank is the poster child for the cut-off-your-nose mentality that typifies relations between Waterford and south Kilkenny. It was an epic folly, designed to be a bulwark against any hopes on the part of Waterford City Council for an expansion into what is, if you are in any way serious about effective local government, part of the city’s hinterland. It was never a very good exemplar of good public policy in the first place, designed as it was to suck business out of the city. Now it can’t even claim to be a worthwhile commercial proposition in its own right. But is there a revolt among the people of south Kilkenny at those who have inflicted this monstrous carbuncle on their landscape? There is not, for it has fulfilled its primary purpose admirably, i.e. driving a wedge between the city and the aforementioned hinterland. Several years ago there was a piece on RTÉ’s Pobal programme where the people of Glenmore were lamenting the loss of their regular bus service to Waterford. Why the authorities should care about giving people access to a place that was the lair of the Antichrist in other circumstances was never raised on the programme, but such a lack of joined-up thinking doesn’t seem to concern people north of the river.

This is a local issue, but one with national repercussions. Almost everyone agreed on the need to slim down local government in Ireland – there are few laments for the loss of the town councils – but we have a Minister for the Environment whose fundamental guiding principle was that Waterford City could never, ever, be in a position to encroach in south Kilkenny. So even though local government in Waterford will be slimmed down, Leitrim County Council will increase in line with a minimum councillor requirement. It’s depressing in general that public policy is being shaped by the need of an individual to satisfy the prejudices of his people. It’s depressing in particular to see it having such a detrimental impact on Waterford and its ancient standing.

The match today, which I will not be attending for reasons which have nothing to do with boycotts or hostility towards the Cats, will still be a good thing in itself. The nasty conditions in Fraher Field last week, where two teams duked it out for nothing more than the honour of their respective counties, gave me a heightened appreciation for the principles upon which all sports were founded and which the GAA seems increasingly to be the last refuge, principles that will (barring some timber merchantry from either side) still be on display today. But the on-field rivalry is making waves off the field. It makes me sad, and there’s no guarantee that such sadness won’t metastasise into anger.

Update 21/3/13: when it comes to the abolition of the City Council, I tend to follow the Hugh Gaitskell school of thought (“the end of a thousand years of history!“), safe in the knowledge that Mary Roche has my back with a more rational defense of the unconquered city. She noted in a post back in January a ‘glaring’ difference between the terms of reference for the mergers of Waterford and Limerick:

The wording of the Implementation Committees terms of reference for Limerick & Waterford are almost identical except for two glaring differences. Section 14 of the Limerick terms of reference state that the new Limerick authority will “establish appropriate joint arrangements with Clare County Council under local Government law to ensure the most effective discharge of functions in the areas which the Local Government Committee recommended for transfer to the new Limerick Authority”. Interestingly there is no mention at all of this in the Waterford document in relation to South Kilkenny. This can hardly have been an oversight as otherwise the document is almost word for word, identical. Also interestingly the Limerick amalgamation committee actually looked at this issue whereas the Waterford amalgamation committee decided (or were directed!) very early on that they could not look at the Kilkenny issue….

You see, I was barking up the right tree all along! It’s true, a stopped clock is right twice a day.