December 3, 2023
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MICHAEL WOLSEY: Croke Park in September is where we all belong

The GAA has been running ads on television and other platforms featuring people with big hearts who play for small clubs.

They show young lads running on beaches at the crack of dawn and girls training on pitches that look like the last event they were used for was the ploughing championships.

The show  volunteers rigging nets and keeping the minutes of meetings, knowing their only reward will be a smile or a pat on the back, certainly not an All-Ireland medal.

One ad asks: ‘Why do we keep going when we know we’ve no shot?” And answers: “Because it’s our club. It’s who we are.”

That’s the campaign’s theme: “It’s where we all belong.” For dedicated GAA folk that place is the club. And rightly so. It is the little clubs that make the GAA huge, keep it rooted in every community and provide nurseries for the county teams.

But, in truth, the GAA club is not where we all belong. The Association has a big membership but far more people are occasional followers, who only watch inter-county games and are more likely to see them on television than from the stands or terraces.

And here we have the great divide of the GAA. At one level its games have the style and glamour of professional sports. They are played in stadiums that equal those provided for rugby and far exceed those in the League of Ireland,  as, of course, do the crowds.

When big counties clash, with a trophy at stake, they generate excitement that matches anything inspired by the Bundesliga, England’s Premier League or La Liga in Spain.

Like the top clubs in these soccer leagues, the big GAA counties have a following that goes way beyond their home base. I don’t  think very many people actually support counties with which they have no connection, but they do have an active interest in the performance of big counties, the personal lives of the players and the outcomes of key games.

When Dublin play Mayo, Kerry meet Tyrone, or the hurlers of Kilkenny clash with a Munster rival,  the whole  country takes sides and the games become national events.

That is simply not true of clubs or games at club level. Occasionally, the giant-killing feats of some parish minnows will attract national attention but, in general, the only people interested in how a club does are its members, their families and the neighbours.

So, in organising its games, the GAA always has to strike a balance between the clubs, where its heart lies, and the much wider support for counties which provides the television audiences and, ultimately, the sponsorship money that makes the Association one of the world’s most successful amateur sports bodies.

The Association came down in favour of clubs when it reorganised the schedule for the football and hurling championships, starting them in April and moving the finals to July, instead of September.
The idea was to give more time to club competitions and free up county players for their clubs.

For dedicated GAA folk that may have seemed like a sound move; not so for now-and-again followers like me.  It has ripped up my mental calendar.

In April, my mind is on the conclusion of the Premier League and Champions League, not the first rounds of football and hurling championships.  In July my mind (and, with luck, the rest of me) is on the beaches of Spain or the cafés of France and it will take one hell of a football or hurling final to drag me away from them.

I suppose I can get used to the change and adapt to the early dates. But I have a feeling I won’t have to.

When the GAA reviews the new system it will go back to the old one. For really, Croke Park in September is where we all belong. Even if we only watch it on the telly!

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