Is it too late to save football?
The players and the fans of Gaelic Football are being cheated by the Championship - an empty Croke Park on Sunday testified to the fact that the fans are sick of it.
After one of the busiest weekends of the year in the All-Ireland SFC – the words of a departing division four manager, Wexford’s Paul McLoughlin, summed the whole sorry thing up.
Hammered by Derry at home in the qualifiers, the Kildare native stepped aside after two years – saying “football in the county is in a difficult position.” McLoughlin's quotes from March 2019 were rightly brought up too, where he said that “the clubs in Wexford have given up on intercounty football."
A proper indictment, but they’re not the only ones to have given up on the game.
Casting your eyes from the Hogan Stand across the field to the Cusack on Sunday, it was clear to see that many people across the province just couldn't be bothered anymore.
A brutal crowd of 36,000 turned up to HQ to watch a non-televised Leinster SFC semi-final, double-header. Counties of the size of Laois, Meath, Kildare could only bring that many? Never mind adding in Dublin to the mix, on their march to a fifth All-Ireland title in-a-row.
How could they only manage to pique the interest of 36,126 supporters between them?
It's a truly alarming number and would lead one to believe that even Dublin's (35,000-strong) core support are bored by it all and cannot be bothered turning up to see their side canter to their 13th provincial decider in 14 years.
Journalist Kieran Cunningham pointed out before the double-header that, at the time, the 75,000 who turned up for the 2009 Leinster final had been described as “slightly disappointing”.
Irish boxer Eric Donovan tweeted about how sad it was that there was a “dead atmosphere – emptiness!” in the stadium, for what should be such a brilliant event in the GAA calendar.
We know we can fix the issues around atmosphere and seats, anyone in Clones on Sunday could attest to that. Flip a coin for home advantage or pack out a neutral venue like O’Connor Park, Tullamore.
The lack of excitement is one thing, and as we know, is just a by-product of the core problem - a severe lack of competition.
It comes as no surprise that the Ulster Championship has been brilliant this year. It's always competitive, but this year, for the first time in a long time, we've seen some fantastic football. The brand of ball that Donegal, Cavan, Armagh play has been brilliant and they've blown Tyrone and Monaghan out to the back-door.
We get it, everybody loves the Ulster SFC (see the meeting of two brilliant football minds below). The contrast with Leinster this weekend though has to be the final nail in the coffin for the provincial series.
Peak Donegal pic.twitter.com/hmS7OB818y
— Oisin Langan (@oisinlangan) June 9, 2019
Overall, there have been 35 games in the All-Ireland SFC so far this summer. In 19 of those games, the difference has been six points or more, in 13 of those games, the difference has been in the double digits. That tells you all you need to know.
How do you fix the lack of competitiveness in Football?
Just look at the league. In 116 games across the 2019 Leagues this spring, just five games ended with the difference in the double digits. Now that’s competition. That’s worth watching. It's a monumental difference between the results we're seeing in the Championship.
Yesterday, the GAA revealed the names on their task force to deal with the fixtures - there are some interesting names in the mix, and they've been given a November deadline to present recommendations.
From here in, the likelihood is that the rest of the All-Ireland SFC will be superb, and we’ll just forget about how bad it’s been, until it all kicks off again next May.
Leinster aside, each of the provincial finals will be crackers. And if Meath can rattle in a few early goals, you never know, right?! The qualifiers will up a gear now too as we veer towards the Super 8s - the business end of the All-Ireland SFC rarely fails to deliver.
It’s been a right trek to get this far though. Why bother with all this shadow boxing and waste our time with those 35 games in May and June - where most of them haven’t been worth watching, haven’t been worth turning up too.
Croke Park really was a sight to behold this Sunday – a soulless cauldron. The biggest cheer of the day was preserved for the nausea-inducing three-minute tribute to Dublin’s centurion Stephen Cluxton. An amazing achievement, but was there a need to show it on the big screen minutes before throw-in?
Dublin breezed into a six-point lead. After that, they were uncharacteristically sloppy. Cluxton had to make a few great saves, Michael Dara McCauley lost the ball a few times too many down blind alleys. They kicked wides, were turned over and Peter Kelly really got stuck into Con O’Callaghan.
At half-time, there was just four points between the sides, but you couldn’t shake the feeling that this was nothing more than a challenge match – in the second-half Dublin stirred from their slumber and buried Kildare by 15 points.
Does an empty Croke Park have a psychological impact on players?
Pedestrian start to Meath-Laois here with loads of basic errors. If you spotted a pal in the Cusack Stand you could have a chat with them. Meath 0-01 0-01 Laois after 15 minutes. #GAA pic.twitter.com/naXIwWLdmT
— Tommy Rooney (@TomasORuanaidh) June 9, 2019
In the first semi-final, Meath continued their impressive year so far with a 13-point defeat of Laois – in truth though, their biggest challenge was to stop themselves from stooping to Laois’ level. It felt like the emptiness of Croke Park had an impact on the pace of the game. It must have?
Imagine trying to get to Championship pace, with 70,000 empty seats staring back at you.
Meath were a class above Laois – and in truth only needed to play for two ten-minute spells. James Conlon kicked five superb points from play, and Bryan Menton cantered through for two fine goals. They need goals to muster a challenge against Dublin in 13 days' time, but the real aim has to be to make the Super 8s and get at least three more quality games under the belt this summer.
The thing is; we crave competition, we want to be entertained. More than anything, we love leeching off the energy of a Championship battle. It's infectious - but these days it's all too rare.
Is it too late to save football?
In some counties, the clubs have given up on intercounty football. In certain provinces, the fans have turned away - Sunday proved that. The players are giving up too, for many, slogging away for years, to play three Championship games, just isn't worth the hassle. The US might beckon for the summer, or else they just step away from the game altogether.
You don't have to look much further than the glaring examples on offer in Meath, Kildare and Longford of the many players who have opted out of playing intercounty football this year.
The game is still alive in pockets, barely. You see it in the odd game that sparks to life; when a team dares to threaten Dublin's greatness. Or perhaps when an underdog makes it to their provincial final for the first time in years.
It's not enough though.
Leaving Croke Park on Sunday, you felt cheated – it's becoming a hard feeling to shake.