In any senior-level football Championship campaign there are always popular talking points. Standard topics are the Mayo curse, the quality of play and re-structuring the Championship format, but the reigning discussion this year has undoubtedly been the so-called “Dublin dominance issue.” Dublin, through a combination of talent and unfair advantages, are the apex predator of the sport and I can only imagine how utterly disheartening it must be to be any other team in the Leinster championship each year. The following is a look at some of the steps the GAA need to take in order to level the playing field and ultimately save Gaelic football.
The venue, be it for training, a friendly, a league match, or a Championship game, always plays a vital role in the result of a game. There is a reason that playing in your own stadium is referred to as having the home advantage, as you learn to operate efficiently in every inch of that space, in every conceivable weather condition. Parnell Park is the official stadium of the Dublin senior football team, not Croke Park, yet the team are given free rein to utilise the superior, elite amenities of the stadium. A distinctly poignant example of the blatant disregard for the rules of equality and fair play. The institution that is Croke Park was built to promote Ireland’s Gaelic games. It is a venue in which the nation’s best, battle to bring home honours and sporting titles and does not belong to a single county, Dublin included. But rather than play in Parnell Park, the team frequently practice in Croke park and in their tenure have mastered playing on a field that was supposed to be neutral ground for everyone. This idea that the Dubs should practice elsewhere isn’t news to anyone, it has been an issue for years, but this year, more than any other, presented an opportunity to remedy the situation. The main argument for why The Boys in Blue should be permitted to treat Croke Park as their unofficial home has always been that only Croker can accommodate the expected amount of spectators. But with the nightmare that is Covid, there came a golden opportunity to test the waters and force Dublin to play in more neutral spots. The real shock was that Cavan, though displeased, relented in their opposition and allowed the game to remain in Croke Park. A pitch all of the Dublin team know better than their own back-gardens and on which many of the young, inexperienced Cavan men had never even set foot on. As cynical as it may sound, Cavan didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, but by acquiescing to Dublin and the GAA they virtually bet against themselves. It will take more than changing the venue of Dublin’s games to level the playing field, but it would be a pro-active step in the right direction.
I wasn’t initially going to talk about the division of Dublin County into North and South, as I don’t regard it as a plausible solution to the problem. However, due to the poor coverage of the topic by former Dublin manager Pat Gilroy and his odd comments on the Sunday Game, it is worth discussing what a divided Dublin could look like on the scoreboard. The main reason I don’t believe it is a valid option comes down to loyalty. Your county is your county and that is who you want to see play and represent you. Most GAA fans don’t see themselves as North or South, just Dublin. Also, no one and I mean absolutely no one, is interested in watching Dublin play Dublin. Having one over-funded, over-exposed, arguably boring team dominate the league and Championship year-in and year-out is most certainly enough. Pat Gilroy’s borderline stupid comments regarding the amalgamation of other counties was testament to how dividing or merging teams is not the answer, given that his basis for all of this was that in Monaghan and Cavan “they all know each other from DCU.” Gilroy’s opinions, though moronic, are insightful, as they expertly show the disinterest many Dubliners have in the rest of Ireland. The idea of separation has been discussed ad-nauseum and yet I still have not heard a single argument to justify it.
The issue of funding has been dragged through the mill at this point and it is likely there is nothing new that anyone can add, but it is impossible to write about the threat Dublin pose to the legitimacy of Gaelic football, without mentioning money. For example, on the 19th of December Mayo and Dublin will battle for Sam in Croke Park, for the fourth time. Now Mayo is no stranger to fair fortune and has also benefited from lucrative funding and sponsorship, but the key difference is always in the numbers. Funding is divvied out on a per-person basis, i.e. you receive the same amount for each individual player, not for the percentage of people in your county. As of nightmare year 2020, Dublin received €270.70 per player. Comparatively Mayo was allocated €22.30 per player, a stark difference of €248.40. And many counties, typically in the lower divisions and therefore in need of extra help, received significantly less than that again. But the most worrisome statistic and one that threatens the competitive nature of the sport, is Dublin’s self-sustainability. The men’s senior football team is both privileged and unique in that it can fully support the financial demands of the game from sponsorship deals alone. Yet they still annually claim the lion’s share of GAA funds. Even Pat Gilroy would be stuck to put the silver lining on that, but you best believe he would try. “Sure why shouldn’t they? They all know each other from Coppers.” He never said that, but I can hear him saying it in my head.
Former Westmeath player John Connellan wrote a beautifully crafted, informative and honest review of Leinster football and in it he mentioned how in the early 2000’s Dublin received an injection of support and funding to save it. Well now the rest of Leinster is in that dying phase and honestly has been flat-lining for far too long. Can the Leinster competitive scene be pulled back from the brink? Can the playing field be levelled or will the cards always be stacked in Dublin’s favour? Would restructuring the way in which the GAA allocated funds give other counties a fair shot? Honestly, who knows? It is entirely possible that the Dublin dominance issue has gone far beyond the reach of the GAA, but reformation is the path of least resistance and remarkably the one thing that has not been tried and tested. Whether it fails or succeeds remains to be seen but we have everything to win and an even greater prize to lose. Up until now the Sam Maguire Cup was the affirmation a county needed to prove they were beyond compare, but we have seen what an unequalled team can look like. Now it seems saving the integrity of the GAA may be the true reward.