Championship: Ireland’s Sporting Summer

by | May 9, 2018

In Irish sport, ‘Championship’ means the All-Ireland Gaelic Football and Hurling championships, traditionally played from May-to-September. And this weekend, ‘Championship’ 2018 began, in two of the most Irish places imaginable, London and New York. However, this year’s championship will be a ‘whole new ball game.’ And if you are having flashbacks at that slogan, you will already know that Sky Sports money is involved.

From the championships’ beginning in 1887, the sports’ governing body, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) organised them on ‘provincial’ lines. In football, the champions of Ireland’s four provinces (Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster) met in ‘All-Ireland’ semi-finals, with the Final held in mid-to-late September. Hurling was played seriously in only Leinster, Munster and county Galway, the provincial champions, or Galway, contesting the All-Ireland final on the first Sunday in September.

This set-up lasted for 111 years. However, to adapt an old Irish phrase, if you wanted to structure a proper championship, you wouldn’t start from here. In Ireland the ‘National Leagues’ are secondary, winter, competitions, metaphorical and literal championship warm-ups. ‘Championship’ was pure knock-out. Thus All-Ireland champions could lose their title on an off-day, with half the counties playing just one match.

And while a 32-county Ireland mathematically suits knock-out championships. none of the provinces have mathematically-suitable eight counties. Connacht has five, Munster six, Ulster nine and Leinster twelve, thereby institutionalising competitive imbalance.

Hurling in 1998 and football in 2001 introduced the ‘qualifiers’ (the ‘back door’), rolling knock-out competitions which gave defeated teams in provincial championships a second chance. And this set-up lasted, with occasional tweaks…until now. Football’s quarter-finals have been replaced by ‘Super Eights,’ (on a three-year trial) with the ‘super’ eight determined as now, with current competitive imbalances intact. Hurling’s provincial championships will be leagues. And both competitions will end in August.

These formats place extra demands on participants, to which the GAA has given little thought. But, hey…money! Extra games, extra TV revenues. Most Premier League TV billions go to players. Stop moaning. Except GAA players are amateurs. Inter-county players train and prepare as professionals, even when they are in employment and/or further education (Ireland’s universities, with professional sports facilities, produce many top-level players). And this has already caused high drop-out rates from a sporting organisation designed as participatory, while sidelining the GAA’s supposed “lifeblood,” its extensive, parish-based club system. But, hey…money!

All-Ireland semi-finals/finals apart, championship matches have only been broadcast live since 1995. But, in 2014, Sky Sports changed the broadcast landscape, as they do. And, as it does, money trumped quality. Sky’s coverage, simultaneously available in the UK, is execrable.

Sky shows early-season Saturday-night matches (Sunday afternoon remains the GAA’s focal point), their ratings crushed by TV schedules and being largely unavailable in rural Ireland. And pundits/presenters appear contractually obliged to leave three-parts of their charisma at home. Main presenter Rachel Wyse, a talented broadcast journalist, especially drains the coverage of enthusiasm.

Yet, Sky retains exclusive UK rights to All-Ireland semi-finals and finals plus (handily) rights to some ‘Super Eights’ matches. And we’re stuck with them until 2021, by which time ‘Super Eights’ trials will be over and, as no-one WHATSOEVER doubts, they’ll be permanently established, regardless of the trial’s ‘success.’

Sky’s latest broadcast deal offers €3m to “grassroots initiatives,” like their “Super” (inevitably) “Games Centres.” These duplicate the work of the clubs, without offsetting the damage done to those clubs by the simultaneous extension and reduced free-to-air coverage of the inter-county programme. But…hey, money!

Mercifully, state broadcaster RTE still dominates Championship coverage with its 39-year-old ‘Sunday Game’ live and highlights show. Long-time presenter Michael Lyster retires this autumn. His replacement is the experienced, talented Joanne Cantwell. But he’ll be missed, as he was/is from the Desmond Lynam school-of-cool presenting, without the schmaltzy self-parody of Lynam’s later years.

RTE has top-class pundits too, no Robbie Savages here (or on Sky, in fairness). The best is Joe Brolly, a barrister by trade, whose public life outside football has led to talk of him as a potential president of Ireland (definitely no Robbie Savage). He is a controversialist opinion-divider, among fellow-pundits and viewers alike. But he combines the best of Graeme Souness and Gary Neville. And he leads a good bunch, the above-mentioned further education background of many top players manifesting itself in RTE’s studio.

RTE’s championship coverage is available in the UK on the “GAAGO” website…well-worth seventy of your euros if you have any interest in/fondness for ball games, of which hurling is simply the world’s best. The football wasn’t far behind this weekend, however.

Connacht counties take turns to travel to London’s McGovern Park in Ruislip (near the Polish War Memorial, for those who know north-west London and/or their A40 junctions) for a Connacht championship quarter-final. And London occasionally win, beating Sligo and Leitrim on a run to 2013’s Connacht final.

On Sunday, London were only slight underdogs but were well-beaten by a Sligo team including plenty of 2013 veterans, determined to avoid a repeat. Stagefright left London ten points behind after 25 minutes, a gap they reduced to four twice, before odd refereeing and wilting fitness in 80-degree heat extended the final gap to ten points again.

Connacht counties also take turns to travel to the Bronx’s Gaelic Park for a nominal Connacht championship quarter-final. But the GAA have never made any serious provision for New York not losing, despite New York increasingly-threatening shocks in recent years.

This year, Leitrim, Connacht’s weakest county, played a New York side with some experienced Irish inter-county players, including Armagh forward Jamie Clarke, one of Ireland’s best players only last year. Indeed, New York were many educated observers’ favourites, especially when they led by six points after only ten minutes.

Leitrim recovered to lead by a point at half-time, recovered again from being two points down with five minutes left to force extra-time…and recovered AGAIN from being THREE points down with five minutes of extra-time left, scoring TWO points in extra-time stoppage-time to win by ONE point just before I ran out of capital letters.

And if that didn’t sound dramatic enough, there was also Roscommon-man Willie Hegarty’s Shannonside FM match-commentary, which has gone as ‘viral’ as midlands Ireland local radio commentaries can go.

Hegarty resembles Capital Gold-era Jonathan Pearce’s over-excitability, although he’s a far better commentator than that. His commentary on the emotional closing stages of a famous Roscommon victory in 2006 was subsequently matched to a YouTube video of events, which revealed how inch-perfectly Hegarty captured those events.

Shannonside’s coverage supposedly lost their line to the Bronx twice on Sunday but many suspect Hegarty’s voice became so high-pitched that only dogs could hear it. And the match turned him into a rambling wreck, which made his commentary all-the-more magnificent.

Hegarty’s phraseology is magical, e.g. his stunning, if nonsensical, image of a speedy Roscommon forward moving “like a greyhound on a motorbike.” On Sunday, Collins was “the Louis Copeland of New York.” While “two dogs” were “having their own game up behind me…I’m not sure they know the score.” A Jamie Clarke wonder-score was topically likened to “a long red into the corner.” And a New York forward broke a tackle “like a sheep through a hedge into a neighbour’s field.” This would sound weapons-grade ridiculous from ANY commentator…except our Willie.

I’d intended to have Shannonside’s commentary on in the background while watching El Clasico. But Hegarty doesn’t do ‘background’ and he rendered Messi, Ronaldo et al irrelevant. Leitrim’s 26th May semi-final has been moved from 7pm to 5.30pm, to avoid a Champions League final clash. But I’d listen to Hegarty over Darren Fletcher any day.

A New York victory would have exposed the GAA’s pre-planning limitations. A potential replay in Leitrim this Saturday was announced in Gaelic Park. But Sunday Game pundits immediately saw problems (the game finished as the programme aired), not least how New York GAA could fund such a trip at such short notice?

Pundit Sean Cavanagh suggested American “immigration officials” would be “rubbing their hands,” presenter Des Cahill clarifying that if some New York players, Irish lads temporarily in America, “came home, they mightn’t get back in.”

Fellow-pundit Ciaran Whelan noted that a New York win would have upset the qualifiers’ mathematical equilibrium and further congested the fixture-congested summer: “You have 17 teams (and) a preliminary qualifier to get into the first round of the qualifiers.” And he concluded, correctly, that the GAA had “dodged a bullet,” thanks to Leitrim’s win…which doesn’t explain, oh no, the two “stonewall frees” (Hegarty) New York weren’t given late-on in normal time.

Championship gets into full swing this Sunday. GAAGO has live coverage of Dublin/Kilkenny (hurling, 2pm) and Mayo/Galway (football, 4pm). The latter pairing ensures that one top team will, to use the technical terms, take ‘the scenic route’ of the ‘qualifiers’ to reach the ‘Super Eights’ via the ‘back door.’ While the winners will face inevitable crushing defeat to the mighty Roscommon in the Connacht final, if Roscommon beat lucky Leitrim in their semi-final. Biased? Me?? (Yes).

A thrilling summer awaits.