KEVIN EGAN discusses the deal between the GAA and Sky Sports, and examines Offaly hurling’s recent woes at underage level.
By now, every reader of this paper is fully aware of the deal between the GAA and Sky TV, an agreement that will see 14 games – including Offaly’s Leinster hurling championship quarter-final with Kilkenny – broadcast on the Sky TV platform on a pay per view basis.
Since the announcement, Irish airwaves have been filled to the brim with disgust at the decision, though it’s notable that most of the outrage is on behalf of other people. Perhaps the most comical was a woman on the Liveline radio programme who claimed that this would devastate her elderly mother, but when asked if her mother couldn’t just visit relatives on the day of games, the daughter pointed out how the lady who would supposedly be discommoded to such a huge degree was usually out attending matches herself on a Sunday anyway.
Without doubt, there are armchair supporters in the country who will be aggrieved and some Offaly fans in particular would probably have preferred if the game was on TV3 so that they wouldn’t have to travel to see the game. However with 31 games still lined up to be broadcast free-to-air, it’s hard to see how the casual armchair supporter is so hard done by. There are still plenty of viewing options, while many of the games that are being broadcast by Sky are qualifier fixtures, ties that wouldn’t even have existed at the start of the last decade.
The supporter who goes to games rarely has time to take in upwards of 30 live matches, while the volunteer or player who is involved with their club or county certainly doesn’t. Any idea that the lifeblood of the association is being short changed here simply doesn’t wash. When set alongside the potential benefits in terms of exposure and promotion to foreign units, the revenue which will be fed down along the channels of the association and the strong likelihood that Sky will raise the bar in terms of their standards of coverage, most GAA supporters should see this as a positive step. Increased awareness and exposure for Gaelic games is of course a good thing, but in terms of those who should be prioritised, armchair fans who spend their weekends watching games on TV but not attending or playing them are fairly low down the list.
Misplaced outrage over Antrim defeat
A similar theme could be applied to the dismay and outrage that has surrounded Offaly’s most recent hurling outing, a defeat to Antrim that could result in Offaly playing their hurling in Division 2A in 2015. The first thing that needs to be said here is that a four-point loss to Antrim at Ballycastle is obviously not a good result, but neither is it a sign of the end of days for Offaly hurling.
Laois beat Offaly by two points in the first round of the league and went on to perform creditably against every opponent they faced, not least last Sunday when they gave All-Ireland champions Clare a really tough test.
Away defeats to Cork and Wexford weren’t encouraging, but they were hardly shock results, while the home draw with Limerick led many to believe that a corner had been turned. It was not a good league, but neither was it as catastrophic in terms of results as some would suggest. Of course if the play-off against either Carlow or Kerry is lost, then the story changes considerably.
However, not for the first time, it’s possible that the fortunes of the senior hurlers are distracting people within Offaly from the real crisis in the sport here at home, one which is manifesting itself in so many ways and is far more troubling than any one bad outing at a tough away venue.
By now, it has become almost customary to expect dismal results at minor level, to the point that Offaly’s results in this year’s Leinster minor league have barely elicited any comment. For those who are unaware, in this competition Offaly beat Meath comfortably and narrowly overcame Down, while they lost to Westmeath comprehensively and then exited the competition at the hands of Carlow. When Carlow first beat Offaly in 2006, it was considered a huge shock. If they repeat that result on in the Leinster MHC on Saturday week, it’ll be nothing more than they expect in that part of the world.
To lay any of the blame for this defeat on the doorstep of manager Joe Errity would be equally misguided. The former Offaly stalwart has done what he can but all that’s happening now is the product of the results that we’ve seen for years at academy, development and schools levels. A consistent track record of underachievement at those grades is finally feeding through to the more recognised levels, while a look at some of the schools’ juvenile and junior results would suggest that the worst is yet to come.
In 2012 Laois beat Offaly in a minor hurling championship match for the first time in two generations. Last year Offaly were on the receiving end of a hiding at O’Moore Park and if results at U-14, U-15 and U-16 are to be given any credence, it’ll be a long time before Offaly get anywhere close to any Laois team for some time. Westmeath and Carlow have better form at these grades as well, leaving Offaly marginally ahead of Wicklow, Meath and Kildare in the overall pecking order.
While the conversation in Offaly centres on trivial issues such as the alignment of the Offaly senior team, or the even more irrelevant sideshow of where games are played, this rot has set in to the point that there is no light visible at the end of the tunnel.
The county U-21 manager position remains unfilled, in no small part because so many candidates can see what’s coming down the line and they’ve no wish to be part of it. Some would argue that people like Brian Whelahan and Joe Errity should have taken a similar view, but perhaps they were just too selfless to take that view. Either way, this needs to be looked at as the number one crisis facing the sport in the county.
At the moment the good form of Offaly’s club representatives and the presence of a few key men that could hold their own in any company has papered over the cracks somewhat. But any notion that history or tradition will be enough to bring about an end to this slump is nonsense. This is a collective problem, and one which will not be addressed by anything other than a comprehensive overhaul of everything that is done in the county and a thorough examination of what has happened in counties like Laois, Waterford and Clare, where there has been a similarly dramatic turnaround – except for the better.