Our national sporting treasure
Let me set the scene for you: A Dublin pub on a Sunday, early evening. A man of indeterminate age, possibly late thirties, togged out in one of this year's Jerseys of Manchester United Plc., chanting at the TV in mock-English accent ``Keano, Keano''. The pub was populated by a mixture of people watching the Premiership soccer and those just returning from the All-Ireland Hurling Semi-Final between Cork and Offaly. I was one of the latter.
The stark contrast between the games was immediately apparent. I had just spent the last couple of hours standing in the rain, watching the young pretenders of Cork dethroning the reigning All-Ireland champions in a breathtaking display of skill, commitment, courage and honesty by both teams. Offaly, a group of players admired by hurlers throughout the country for their absolute devotion to the skills of the game, had been beaten by Jimmy Barry-Murphy's coltish rebels. The emotion was palpable throughout the ground. Cork reaching their first All-Ireland final for seven years, Offaly, possibly, reaching the end of an era.
The game on television, however, was the `Premier League', `best league in the world' they tell us on Sky Sports, `action-packed', `multi-million pound players' etc, etc. In all honesty, it wasn't a bad game of soccer (for the record, Everton drew with Man Utd. 1-1) but after watching a game of championship hurling, it was akin to watching grass grow, and if I may resurrect the oft-overused phrase: ``If they were playing in my back garden, I'd close the curtains.''
I must point out at this point that I'm not someone who views soccer as `the garrison game'. I, like most working class Dubs, was brought up on Match of the Day and Shoot Magazine. I have played soccer since I was able to walk, but the way the game has developed is now a million miles away from the game I was devoted to as a child.
Just throw a glance across the main stories of the Premier League so far this season - Hasselbaink, Anelka, Gullit, Keane. They all have a common thread running through them. `How much they earn, How much they have spent'. The financial aspects of professional soccer have now become more newsworthy than the game itself. Players may run towards the fans kissing a club crest after scoring a goal, but the reality is that he is only a hero for that club until the next offer comes along. The fans may devote themselves to a club, spend their hard-earned money on match tickets and whatever else the club marketing people can come up with, but the highly-paid professionals have less and less in common with the people by whom they are idolised.
People have recently made the point that inter-county GAA players should be paid for the huge commitment and sacrifices they make. This is a very valid point, when you see the intensity at which inter-county championship matches are played and think of the training needed to maintain that level of competition. But to do so would be to break the unique link between the players, their clubs and the communities that support them. At a time when the `Gods' of Professional Sport are displaying feet of clay, it is important that (while not out of pocket) our true sporting heroes have their feet firmly planted in the mucky fields we share with them.
Real heroes perform in front of thousands every Sunday and get up for work on Monday morning, the very same as the people who support them. Real heroes don't get paid thousands to turn up to a function, but they do turn up at their club prize-giving to present the under-nine league medals and have a pint with the children's parents. Real heroes go back to their clubs after winning All-Irelands and train, sweat and toil with the people they have grown up with.
This is a truly unique sporting situation we have in this country. We have games that appear to the outsider as professional as any other, played in front of thousands of ecstatic fans, with an intensity and emotion that can truly be believed. Yet, our games are untainted by the corruptions and deceit of professional sports. Our games are as real and honest in Croke Park on All-Ireland Final day as in any field in the country, at any age, at any level.
We should be mindful of this when we speak of Croke Park in terms of the `National Stadium' debate. Since the 26-County Government donated £20 million to the redevelopment of the stadium, every dog and divil has found a better use for the money. It is as if that particular £20 million was the panacea to all the country's ills. It could have built hospitals, schools, housing. Maybe it could, maybe it couldn't, but the clamour of self-righteous hacks who brought forward all the worthy causes once the GAA received money were notably silent when lottery funds were lavished upon golf clubs, yachting marinas, and rugby clubs.
I must admit, I too have a problem with governmental funding of the GAA. There isn't enough of it. The GAA clubs of this country contribute so much to the development of our children, to our sense of community, to our unique and rich culture, that they should be continually funded to ensure our games flourish. Not to do so would be to ignore a national treasure that is a living, breathing monument to voluntary effort and true Corinthian ideals.
I'll remind you of our friend in the Man Utd Plc. jersey. Upon seeing the match programme in my arse pocket he began to give his opinions on the GAA and its perceived fondness for replays and questioned its financial dealings. This was coming from an Irish person, wearing the corporate logo of a mult-million pound British corporation and extolling its virtues above our amateur games. I could have engaged him in conversation, questioning his sense of self-hatred and lack of confidence in his own identity and culture, but Jaysus, some gobshites just aren't worth the effort.