ARCHIVE PIECES: So long, Jim Gavin

Jim Gavin has stepped down as Dublin football manager, after seven years of unparalleled success. Here are two pieces on the Dubs, the first (from the Herald in March of 2018) about why Dublin’s dominance doesn’t bother me unduly, the second (from the Herald this September) addressing the issue of funding imbalances – and why the strength of GAA in the capital is more important, ultimately, than a competitive intercounty scene:

 

#1: On Dublin dominance

Summer’s here and the Jacks are back, with Dublin kicking off their football championship this weekend against Wicklow. Although let’s be honest: Dublin’s championship doesn’t really begin until the Super 8s in July.

It’s been like that for years, the Dubs capturing 12 of the last 13 Leinster titles. And strolling through each campaign, victory achieved in third gear by huge margins.

Never mind the massive odds on Wicklow overcoming their neighbours in Portlaoise on Sunday – Dublin loom over the entire province like a footballing Big Brother, impassive of face and brutal of execution, giant stone fist ever-poised to bring the pain.

To paraphrase Orwell’s 1984, if you want a picture of the future, imagine a Dublin boot kicking over yet another point against long-beaten Leinster opposition, forever.

This provincial reign of terror is one reason many football fans are uneasy with the Dubs’ current streak of glory. Another is that they’ve also captured five of the last six leagues, five Sam Maguires in seven years, and now are going for an historic All-Ireland four-in-a-row.

Where will it end? people wonder. Is this ruining the game? Do we need to break Dublin up into 12 different teams, or initiate large-scale forced migration from the capital to Leitrim, Longford and Limerick? (My answers are: I don’t know, no and maybe.)

Funnily enough, though, I don’t mind the present period of Dublin dominance. Certainly, the Leinster championship has become somewhat pointless and dispiriting for others; a new champion there would be no harm.

But with regards to the All-Ireland four-in-a-row tilt, I don’t feel it’s a bad thing. For starters, we may be watching history in the making – something genuinely special.

Football has only seen this happen three times in 130 years. Two of those were concluded in 1918 (Wexford) and 1932 (Kerry): an era so distant, it feels practically Jurassic. More recently Kerry did the same with probably the most celebrated GAA team of all, but even that’s coming on for four decades ago.

In hurling, we had four on the spin for Cork in the 1940s, and Kilkenny from 2006-09. The Cats’, then, is the only such achievement in recent history, and it assuredly did feel like an epochal moment.

Four-in-a-row is not easily done in GAA. Should Dublin pull it off in 2018, people will still remember their deeds in 2118. There’s the added intrigue of Stephen Cluxton’s captaincy: already the only man to lead his county to four All-Irelands, another on September 2 will make the goalkeeper immortal.

There are other reasons for my lack of Dublinophobia, besides “history in the making”. For one thing, as a Tipp fan, I’m relatively neutral; we have no rivalry with Dublin in football.

I can appreciate how their post-millennial empire sticks in the craw of Kerry people. If I were from Mayo, I’d be wondering if someone had literally put a hex on us. If I were from Meath, I’d be in despair.

But for me, there’s no past baggage. Dublin success doesn’t grind my gears in the same way that – I admit it – Kilkenny’s does.

Also, Dublin play the game in the right way. No blanket defence horrors, no needlessly complicated tactics, and little enough of all that “shot selection/man off the shoulder/circle of trust” corporate-speak nonsense beloved of modern-day managers.

In defence they employ a loose sweeper system and hit hard (and sometimes below the belt). Then when they get the ball, they roar forward in attack: daring, aggressive, fast and exhilarating. Watching Dublin is an exciting reminder of how good football can be when played with a spirit of adventure.

And it’s good for the GAA overall that the game is strong in the capital. Thousands and thousands more kids taking up Irish pastimes, loving them, protecting them for the next generation? That’s worth the price of a few uncompetitive intercounty championships.

Lastly – and maybe most importantly – I’ve always had a soft spot for the Dubs, going right back to 1983 and that memorable, off-the-wall campaign. It began with two draws and extra-time against Meath, through a shock victory over All-Ireland champs Offaly, on to Barney Rock’s famous equalising goal against Cork and the even-more-famous trip to Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the replay, replete with Joe McNally’s soccer-style coup de grace at the end, and finally the decider against Galway, when the Dirty Dozen triumphed after Barney (again) lobbed the goalie from near halfway.

Ever since, I’ve shouted for Dublin. I even had a poster of the Boys in Blue on my wall as a kid. (Oh, don’t judge me too harshly; Tipp hurlers were woeful at the time.)

There were a lot of fallow years since – a few near misses (1991! 1994! 2007!) and some embarrassments (2009!). Now, a lot of great GAA people in Dublin are getting their just reward, and I don’t begrudge them one bit of it. Although I have, at least, got rid of that poster.

 

#2: On Dublin funding

Even for those who couldn’t watch the entire game, you had to make time to catch the final five minutes. This was history being made: the first five-in-a-row in GAA history.

Of course, within minutes of the final whistle sounding on Dublin’s win over Kerry in a fantastic match, the naysaying commenced. In some places they call it Tall Poppy Syndrome; here we know it as begrudgery.

The main gripes about Dublin’s football dominance are twofold: they hold an unfair advantage in population size and, especially, they’re funded to a disproportionate degree.

On the first, I would agree to an extent; that said, this is the intrinsic nature of the intercounty system. Twice as many people live in Tipp, for instance, as in Laois; it will probably always be thus. So does the Premier have an unfair advantage over their Midlands neighbours?

Yes – that’s just how it is. To change would mean dismantling the county system, which would render the whole thing meaningless: over a century of history disregarded and binned.

Besides, Kilkenny is relatively small, and it doesn’t seem to hinder them too much. And it’s a laugh to hear people from huge population centres like Cork, Galway and Limerick moaning about the size of Dublin. Half a million people live in Cork! That’s a lot of potential footballers.

Furthermore, huge tracts of Dublin are GAA dead zones. It’s not as if every one of the c. two million inhabitants are Gaelic games devotees. It brings to mind the old adage about “lies, damned lies and statistics”.

The same with funding, for a few reasons. Yes, Dublin receives much more money than everyone else, both through central GAA funds and lucrative sponsorship details. However, the devil, as always, lies in the detail.

For one thing, money does not make someone a good footballer. Talk all you like about how the Dublin players are top athletes, with the right nutrition, strength and conditioning, rest periods and all the rest.

But football remains a ball sport, requiring a certain level of technical adroitness. And Dublin, even their harshest critics will concede, are lovely footballers. They don’t win by overpowering opponents: they win by being more skilled. Game management, match-ups, shot selection and the many other buzzwords of modern punditry: it all (or mostly) comes down to technique.

And that can be coached, by anyone, anywhere. One example: Con O’Callaghan scored a point against Roscommon where he soared to make a superb high catch, landed properly so as not to hurt himself, stood up, spun away to make space and gently lofted the ball over the bar.

Money doesn’t make that happen – it’s skill. O’Callaghan was obviously coached in the arts of high-fielding and kicking by someone, and practiced over and over, and now is very good at them. A county board bank balance has no relevance on anyone else being taught, and working to improve, that or any other skill.

So I’m not convinced that the money argument holds water. But even if it did – and here comes my most important point – I don’t care.

The whole point of funding GAA in Dublin is to get as many boys and girls playing, and their parents involved, as possible. (That’s where most of the money goes, incidentally: into games development officers for schools and clubs. It’s not as if Cluxton and Mannion are swanning around in fur coats and Maseratis.)

The senior football team will likely be a beneficiary of this investment, but it’s not the main reason for doing it. That would be getting hundreds of thousands of kids interested in Irish sport and culture, and as far as I’m concerned, this is all that matters.

The GAA is as much a social organisation as a sporting one, and keeping our culture alive is more important than guaranteeing a competitive intercounty championship. If I had to choose between them, I would choose the former. Intercounty is just the icing on a massive cake; encouraging kids to play, and their parents to develop an interest: that is the cake.

I mean, what do we want here: a return to the grim days of 40 years ago, when most Dubs sneered at Gaelic games and Irish culture was withering on the vine throughout our capital city? Personally I love the fact that, whenever I visit family in Inchicore, I see scores of smallies with hurleys and footballs.

If Dublin dominance is the price to be paid for Gaelic games tapping into this enormous human resource, it’s worth paying. I say all this, by the way, as a neutral – but a GAA person first and foremost.

By all means, split Dublin into two, or four, if it’s felt necessary. Sure, give more GDOs to rival counties. But don’t cut off funding to this sprawling metropolis which still remains GAA-free in many areas.

We won the battle against the death of Gaelic culture; let’s not now lose the war.

 

 


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