Two recent pieces of news that on first sight may have little impact on domestic Irish football have made press ripples in recent weeks, the first item was the GAA’s staging of the senior football championship, round one meeting between Carlow and Laois on a Friday night in June.
The second was the announcement that the GAA have teamed up with the Celtic FC Foundation as part of the “Let’s Go initiative” which a GAA press release describes as a programme that includes “on field activities led by top coaches from both codes will be complemented by an innovative off-field programme that is intended to enhance the life skills of the participants in a number of targeted areas”. On the face of it nothing too earth shattering, however both mark a shift by the GAA into the small domain occupied by the League of Ireland in the Irish sporting landscape.
First of all for any non-Irish readers a little bit of background context. The GAA are the Gaelic Athletic Association, founded in 1884, they are the sporting representative body for Ireland’s national sports including Hurling, Gaelic football and handball, importantly all of these sports are played by amateurs. The senior football championship mentioned above is a Gaelic football knock-out style competition that enjoys a great deal of popularity and media coverage in Ireland and runs from June to September, culminating in the All-Ireland final which is contested in Croke Park in front of over 80,000 passionate supporters. For many years Sunday afternoons were the preserve of Gaelic football and Hurling before eventually moving some fixtures to Saturday afternoons, however their recent departure into Friday evenings is a new frontier for the association.
Friday evenings have been the realm of the League of Ireland for some years now, Friday evening being viewed as a good opportunity to get supporters into grounds after work and bring in a vibrant “weekend starts here” attitude making the post work match followed by a few pints an attractive option. In 2003 the League also moved to a Summer season format to improve competitiveness in European competition and attempting to make the league more attractive to supporters because of theoretical better weather conditions, it also shifted fixtures into the key period for GAA competition. Friday night fixtures and Summer football also has the benefit of not forcing the far less glamorous League of Ireland to compete against pay TV coverage of the Barclays premier league or the whole host of other sporting fixtures that take over the airwaves throughout Saturday afternoons and evenings. This fixture scheduling has its drawbacks, away games, if not in the immediate vicinity are difficult to get to and often entail fans taking time off work to travel, it’s especially tough on more geographically isolated teams like Finn Harps or Derry City. However despite this most fans of the League are happy with the arrangement and enjoy having Friday evenings within their own sporting bailiwick.
Despite its status as an amateur sports organisation the GAA has never been slow to examine commercial opportunities. Whereas the League of Ireland is often accused of having a poor track record of organisation and self-promotion, and lacks integration with the wider football structure, from schoolboy football through to the national team, the GAA operates in every parish throughout the island of Ireland and has a strong central administration and organisational pyramid. They have managed to change their attitudes and outlooks considerably in recent years and more than most have attempted to understand their potential audience and meet their needs. On the field Gaelic football is undergoing something of a transition, the type of game being played becoming more dominated by physical size and aggressive prowess, with a greater focus on defensive minded tactics.
This tactical approach, generally viewed as having emerged from the Ulster counties is less visually appealing for most spectators; prioritising size and force over skill. Recently Kerry’s star forward Colm Cooper, a former All-Star player, questioned whether a similar player to himself would make the grade if coming through today. He suggested that players today all had to be 6ft tall and “built like a tank” and as a result the sport was at risk of losing skilful players. A conversation not dissimilar to the one had a few years ago about the decline of the playmaker in soccer in favour of players with greater stamina and physicality, with Xavi then echoing the comments being made by Cooper today.
It is against this background that the GAA has rolled out a number of aggressive marketing tactics, recognising changes in playing style, and the dominance of certain counties (for example Kilkenny have won 6 of the last 7 Hurling championships) the GAA has acknowledged the importance of the casual fan, the floating punter, the event junkie. For so many years senior championship matches were the preserve of Sunday afternoons, in 2007 the GAA held its first games under floodlights, an astonishing 79,000 people turned up in Croke Park for a match between Dublin and Tyrone on a Thursday evening in February in the less glamorous national League competition. In contrast to soccer competitions the world over, in GAA the league format is viewed as the lesser format with primacy being given to the knock-out style Championship played during the summer.
The Dublin v Tyrone game was the first in a series of initiatives by the GAA to boost attendances at League and Championship fixtures, family friendly ticket pricing schemes were introduced, competitive season ticket offers were announced, while Croke Park patrons in 2011 had the dubious pleasure of seeing Jedward as their half-time on pitch entertainment in front of a bumper league crowd of over 35,000 making the game more of a family friendly “event”, a day out rather than just a match. Again these are startling numbers for the GAA League format, so often viewed as the sports poor relation competition. To put these attendances into context the biggest game of the domestic soccer season (and I apologise for using the phrase soccer, it’s purely to stop confusing people with the two sporting codes) the 2012 FAI Cup final, played in the 50,000 capacity Aviva stadium attracted just over 16,000 fans to see Derry City defeat St. Patrick’s Athletic.
It’s in this context that the GAA’s decision to pursue the glamour of the “Friday Night Lights” should worry the FAI and the League of Ireland clubs. On its own Carlow v Laois is a fairly uninspiring game. Neither county are GAA powerhouses, neither county even has a soccer team competing in the League of Ireland. However if the initial success of the Friday night experiment, (the recent fixture attracted a gate of approximately 4,600 more than 2,000 higher than a similar game the previous year), is continued and rolled out to locations where there is direct competition with the League or Ireland it is impossible to see the GAA not emerge as the victors. The GAA’s ultra-modern Croke Park stadium (capacity 82,300, it really is an impressive stadium) lies within a few minutes walk of the grounds of Dublin’s two oldest football teams, Bohemians and Shelbourne.
A Dublin Championship game played under lights on Friday evening will always attract more than a League of Ireland game, and more importantly it gives the GAA the upper hand in the battle for the hearts and minds of younger supporters. At present a young fan could go with their parent to a Bohemians game in Dalymount on a Friday and a Dublin game on a Sunday, but in a battle between Croke Park and decaying majesty of Dalymount Park there is only going to be one winner. It is a sad statement about the state of “professional football” in Ireland that should soccer go toe to toe with the GAA it would be a first round knockout for the far more savvy and organised amateur association.
Key to the GAA’s approach as mentioned above, has been a change of attitude, a modernising of approach to how sports supporters are viewed. For the majority of its existence the GAA was an inward looking organisation, openly hostile to other sports and contemptuous of the “garrison games” like Rugby, Football and Cricket. The GAA had in place until 1971 a ban on members of the association from playing “foreign games” and infamously removed the then President of Ireland Douglas Hyde as patron of the association after he attended a football match between Ireland and Poland in Dalymount Park in 1938. This caused the GAA some bad press and embarrassment at the time but the ban remained in place. In 1971 future Arsenal and Juventus legend Liam Brady would be expelled from St. Aidan’s Christian Brothers school such was their hostility to one of its pupils playing soccer for the Republic of Ireland under 15s in preference to Gaelic football. Happily the GAA has modified its views since these incidents, famously in 2005 they agreed to remove Rule 42 which prohibited sports like soccer and rugby from being played in Croke Park, which for a number of years became home to the Irish rugby team and the Republic of Ireland soccer team during Lansdowne Road’s redevelopment. It is worth noting that this arrangement was of significant financial benefit to the GAA.
Things have progressed even further since then and it seems that the GAA have realised that the new reality is that Irish sports fans are just that, sports fans and have interests in a variety of sports and can simultaneously be a Manchester United fan, a Munster Rugby fan and a fan of the Cork Football and hurling teams. As part of this realisation we have seen a link between the Celtic FC Foundation and the GAA established, key to this link have been Celtic manager Neil Lennon who played Gaelic Football at minor (under 18) level for Armagh and Donegal Gaelic football manager Jim McGuinness who is also employed in a professional capacity as a consultant by Celtic. One of the most prominent GAA managers working professionally for a British soccer team is certainly a long way from Douglas Hyde being expelled from the GAA for watching an international game against Poland.
What the GAA can see in Celtic is also a sporting body that has a local focus but also has an international appeal intrinsically based on their “Irishness”. For the GAA who have a presence in every parish in Ireland the next challenge is beyond the boundaries of Ireland tapping into the ex-pat communities and the Irish diaspora, who better to partner with than Celtic, a club founded as a fundraising vehicle for impoverished Irish emigrants to Glasgow and now looking to the international descendants of similar Irish emigrant communities around the world to strengthen their place in the financially crucial “international markets”.
The GAA/Celtic Foundation partnership along with the Friday night scheduling also show where they see their opportunities for partnership and threats for competition, not from the domestic soccer scene but from cross-channel football, whether that is Celtic, Liverpool or Manchester United. To the GAA the League of Ireland does not register as competition for punters nor does a League of Ireland club represent a suitable intersport charity partner. That the League of Ireland does not even show up on the GAA radar should be a cause of greater concern.