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The GAA’s embarrassing Sunday

It would not really be accurate to say that Mayo played Leitrim in a Connaught Championship game yesterday afternoon. It would be more accurate to say that Mayo held a training session, while 15 Leitrim men stood on the pitch, and admired them. At half time, the score was Mayo 3-11, Leitrim four points.

Sport is, by its nature, like a pendulum. Teams have good years, and bad. Great teams rise, and fall, and have long periods in the wilderness. The fact that Dublin are pursuing a seventh consecutive All-Ireland football title this year is historic, but then, that county spent much of the 1990’s struggling to compete for a Leinster Title, let alone an all-Ireland. It should not be taken as a given that the present domination of Dublin, Mayo, and Kerry will endure forever.

It should be clear, though, that for the larger counties, football is no longer really an amateur game. It is amateur only in the very limited sense that the players are not paid. But the training, scouting, youth investment, medical care, investment in analytics and tactics and professional coaching? None of those are amateur. Smaller counties, simply, cannot compete. The days of Armagh or Derry or Cavan or even Meath winning all-Ireland finals seem very far in the distant past.

Yesterday’s spectacle could not be called entertaining, unless you are a sadist. This is not England’s FA cup, where minnows of soccer taking on Manchester United or Liverpool is part of the “magic”. Leitrim versus Mayo does not feature two teams from different universes on paper – they are supposed to be equals, and this a regular encounter. In practice, however, it was more akin to watching the Lions versus the Christians in a Roman arena. One excellent save from the Leitrim goalkeeper, early in the second half, was about as much as the Leitrim supporters could cheer.

The game had no benefit to either county. Mayo can not claim to have played a real game, and been tested. Their weaknesses were not probed. Their forwards were not tested. Leitrim cannot claim to have learned and improved from the defeat. Losing by five or six points after a competitive match might teach you a lesson. But nobody would put a senior team against the under 13s, watch the under 13s lose by 30 points, and claim that it was good for the kids to learn.

Now, there are arguments for doing nothing. After all, all things being equal, bigger more populated counties will defeat smaller counties most of the time. The GAA may be naturally evolving into an Irish version of the Scottish Premier league, where the only competition is between Glasgow Rangers, and Glasgow Celtic. The problem is that the Scottish Premier League does not exactly have a huge audience, these days.

The county structure is too invaluable to the GAA to simply abandon it, and nobody with any respect for the game would advocate that. But this state of affairs cannot continue. It is time for GAA headquarters to sit down and have a very long think.

Image from Mayo GAA

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