Belfast Telegraph

Declan Bogue: An awesome decade on the pitch but brutal off it - no change then for GAA

Refreshing success: Slaughtneil celebrate their win in the AIB All-Ireland Senior Camogie Club Championship Final
Refreshing success: Slaughtneil celebrate their win in the AIB All-Ireland Senior Camogie Club Championship Final
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

As the clock ticked over to midnight on December 31, 2009, few might have predicted the changes that were to occur within the Gaelic Athletic Association over the next decade.

At the start of it, Dublin were considering their Championship exit of 2009, a crushing rout by Kerry that ended up with a 17-point margin. In anyone's wildest dreams, no-one was predicting the Dubs would become the first football county to achieve five consecutive All-Irelands by the end of the decade and confirm, beyond any sane doubt, that this was the greatest flow of footballers through a panel for a sustained period to play the game. And managed superbly, of course, by Jim Gavin.

The last time they were beaten was by Donegal in 2014, by a game plan devised and relentlessly coached by then-manager Jim McGuinness. They exploited Dublin's hubris and refusal to deploy a sweeper. Nobody saw or predicted it coming, but that defeat ironed out the one weakness and inflexibility in Dublin that completed the picture for the next five seasons.

McGuinness now is domiciled in America, having moved there to take up a soccer manager's job with Charlotte Independence and getting as far as six months into a three-year contract. If he ever makes it back to Gaelic football it will be a huge surprise, and yet, where else is there to go?

In many ways, the success enjoyed by Dublin and the resentment coming from it is a neat microcosm of Ireland at the end of the decade, politically and sporting. There are obvious advantages to living in a capital city. The intercounty game takes a lot of money, but that is no problem to Dublin, with their commercial manager Tomás Quinn and the fleet of controversy-free, clean-cut players who are almost entirely forbidden from revealing much of themselves.

Rural Ireland feels neglected and cut-off, while Dublin - too big to fail - is propped up and Dublin GAA jealously guards funding from the central funds to harness their numbers. This is a commonly held theory in the GAA but, naturally, Dublin have no shortage of those in administrative roles willing to dispute it.

There's a fair bit of doom and gloom to all of this, the type that wasn't attaching itself to Kilkenny when they were on their marvellous run of success.

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It's impossible to guess if this is ennui arising from the end of the decade. Give us a few years to figure that one out.

Despite all of this, the quality of the games, with sports science now actively embraced by the generation of modern coaches and tech-savvy players, has gone through the roof.

The changes to the Leinster and Munster hurling championships in 2018 - group stages with far more hurling played over the summer - elevated the game beyond the popular imagination, peaking in the All-Ireland semi-finals. We cannot be guilty of recency bias - there were brilliant games of football played at the start of the decade - but the 2019 All-Ireland football final drawn game felt like the game had taken another Quantum Leap. It was a candidate for the greatest game ever on so many quantifiable indicators, but the skill levels were superior to anything we had seen before.

The games themselves are in a healthy position, but still administrators cannot tear themselves away from the addiction of experimenting with the playing rules, spurred on by empty bellyaching from veteran pundits who have long ran out of road.

To make it a bit hyper local, the decade began with Down seemingly coming out of nowhere to reach an All-Ireland final. Donegal won it all in 2012 and, after that, Ulster football flatlined.

Donegal made a final in 2014 and Tyrone in 2018, but the democracy the game enjoyed the previous decade deserted us.

The fall has been sharper for Ulster hurling. In 2010, Antrim were causing Cork all sorts of bother in an All-Ireland quarter-final, but across the board the game has suffered in the northern province. Entire clubs have disappeared in counties with little moralising from county boards, while the strategic development is left to the broad shoulders of overworked enthusiasts.

At club level, success has flowed to Ulster. St Gall's of Belfast won the All-Ireland Senior Club in 2010 and Crossmaglen Rangers landed the next two.

Loughgiel Shamrocks won a memorable hurling club championship in 2012. At Intermediate level, Cookstown (twice), Lisnaskea Emmetts, Truagh Gaels and Moy captured their football All-Irelands, while O'Donovan Rossa of Belfast lifted one in hurling in 2015, a year after Kickhams Creggan won a Junior title.

Derry's Robert Emmets Slaughtneil had been a small, underachieving country club that exploded across the country in the last decade. The reasons for this are too numerous to list, but for me, the way the women within the club have driven the culture, with their camogs winning the last three All-Ireland titles, has been so refreshing.

Ultimately, this decade could be the one that taught the GAA several lessons.

There were a number of 'Brexit'-type divisive strategies pursued, such as the introduction of Sky TV, the ongoing appeasement of the Gaelic Players' Association, the cool ignoring of the Club Players' Association and various fiascos emanating from a dozy body of Congress delegates.

More worryingly, the era of the bail-out is upon us with Mayo, Sligo, Cork, Offaly and Kildare, among others, relying on Croke Park.

It has become clear that county boards need to appoint full-time officers with financial backgrounds to oversee their affairs. Simply ignoring the lessons of the decade will eventually lead to financial ruin.

A good decade on the pitch, a difficult one off it.

It could be any review of the GAA decade since its formation.

Highs and lows of last 10 years

HIGHS

DUBLIN: Their five in a row owes much to many factors, but often overlooked is how and what their players do. From Stephen Cluxton (below) who has redefined what a goalkeeper actually is and, in doing so, has become the most influential player of the last 30 years, right up to Dean Rock and his accuracy from the dead ball that goes almost taken for granted, they have just more going for them than any other team. It will be fascinating to see what a change in management  does in 2020.

HURLING: Taken at its very high end, there has never been a better time to be behind hurling. That might sound trite given how the sport can be overly showered with garlands from many quarters, but it’s indisputable. The trickle-down effect has also been huge with players at the lowest levels of hurling now executing skills that would have been beyond the imagination of the elite players a generation ago

RISE OF THE LADIES: The attendances at the Ladies’ Gaelic football All-Ireland finals have been on the rise, backed by a clever marketing campaign, to the point where a sold-out Croke Park some time in the future looks an inevitability. That’s progress across the decade.

LOWS

CASEMENT PARK: Is there a more sorry state of sporting and governmental neglect than the derelict venue on the Andersonstown Road right now? Despite the long wait for full planning to be granted, people need to be careful what they wish for, the lessons are there from the Pairc Ui Chaoimh redevelopment in Cork.

SLEDGING: Players have always said bits and pieces to try and throw off opponents, but some of the remarks reported between players in the past decade have been nothing short of stomach-churning.

FINANCES: With former Roscommon manager Kevin McStay claiming that a weekly budget just for training was €15,000, we are in deep trouble trying to finance teams.

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