Appeal of Cork club games at all levels show how much the GAA means

Appeal of Cork club games at all levels show how much the GAA means

Matthew Nason and Ciaran Doolan, St Finbarr's, close in as Daniel Murphy, Glen Rovers, kicks the sliotar away. The Rebel Óg P1 Minor Hurling semi-final was streamed online this week. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

IN the history of the provincial and All-Ireland club championships, one of the great anomalies has been the disappointing return from Tyrone teams in the Ulster club football championship.

Only one club, Errigal Ciarán, has won the title - albeit on two occasions - but Tyrone clubs have never really been a factor in the hunt for the Seamus McFerran Cup; in the 52-year history of the competition, Tyrone clubs have contested just seven finals. 

As a comparison, Antrim clubs have appeared in 10 finals, winning four titles.

It’s a trend that Tyrone have never been able to crack. One of the reasons routinely put forward is the manic competitiveness of the Tyrone club scene. 

In his autobiography ‘Out of Control’, Cathal McCarron expanded on that theory.

“The Tyrone senior championship is probably the most physically draining in Ireland,” wrote McCarron. “The county champions are often hardly able to walk by the time the provincial championship comes around.” 

For the first time ever, the wider GAA public have got to witness the competitiveness of the Tyrone championship first hand. 

Over the last two weekends, TG4 and RTÉ have shown live Tyrone club games, one of which was decided by penalties, the other which was a dramatic late converted ’45 away from going to penalties again.

The drama and entertainment has been everything everyone had heard about, but which few had seen before - because club games in Tyrone were never shown live on TV.

During April and September over the last two years, despite many of the live TV club games offering prime-time couch-viewing for the fanatics, they were still low-key matches with minimal interest for the wider GAA public, never mind the wider sporting public.

Christy Ring Jnr watches Glen and Na Piarsaigh from the trees. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Christy Ring Jnr watches Glen and Na Piarsaigh from the trees. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

TG4 provides a superb service but, with the leagues having been condensed over the past two seasons, and the inter-county season wrapping up in early September, those games were still regarded as B-list club matches in the minds of the viewers.

It was a harder sell again because even the local public never fully embraced the early club championship rounds. 

Showing meaningful live club games on TV was one of the GAA’s intended means of filling the vacant April and September calendar, but that didn’t work. 

The quality of live club games shown during those months in recent years was almost an irrelevance to the wider audience. Because nobody was really watching on a packed TV calendar.

The Premiership juggernaut has usually picked up speed for the casual GAA viewer by September while the more fervent GAA audience still haven’t made that mental adjustment from the hype and intensity of the inter-county game to the more mundane club stuff. 

Even county finals didn’t occupy that space in the minds of the general TV viewer, never mind opening rounds in April.

Redrawing the calendar gave more space and respect to club players, but managing that change was still always a delicate overall balance for the GAA between presence and relevance in such a saturated sporting market.

Club games didn’t appear relevant enough in that environment, especially when the box office appeal for TV viewers has always been the elite inter-county game.

Placing so much of an emphasis on such a tiny proportion of the Association’s players may have seemed at odds with the GAA’s core principles when that focus often came at the expense of 98% of the playing population.

The constant fixtures battles, and the frustration felt by clubs, led to an increasing disconnect between Croke Park and the grassroots. 

However, expanding the commercial potential of the inter-county game was still viewed as the best business model for developing and growing the games everywhere.

That still didn’t dilute the increasing tension, or alter the theory that the growing commercialisation associated with the inter-county game, was skewing the Association in the wrong direction.

The reality is that the GAA has always been able to handle money without losing the run of itself. 

Money has long been considered the enemy of volunteerism and amateurism, but the bottom line is that local clubs depend on money as much as any other sector of the organisation.

Every club in the country now has to think like a small business to survive and prosper. 

Kilshannig's Darragh O'Sullivan celebrates his goal against Kildorrery. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Kilshannig's Darragh O'Sullivan celebrates his goal against Kildorrery. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Those sources of income range from sponsors to club lottos to fundraisers. 

Some clubs with huge memberships need to think like big businesses, but the costs of running clubs everywhere is much more demanding than it used to be.

The last six months have forced a review of that environment, but clubs will still want to match and increase the heightened standards everywhere, especially on the playing fields. 

Resources may not be as plentiful but some club teams now act, think and prepare like inter-county panels.

Having all their players available to prepare properly has increased the standard of club championships across the country. 

As a result, the mindset has also changed towards watching club championships. 

That has been dictated by extraordinary circumstances and the absence of inter-county games. 

But the quality of fare on show has proven the level of quality, drama and entertainment the club game is capable of producing.

This season has already shown that, even with the return of elite sports events in all codes, hurling and football games have still managed to retain a strong presence in the minds of the wider TV audience.

And it’s almost fitting that the club game, which was undervalued by TV audiences for so long, has led that charge.

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