The Juggernaut Dominating Ireland’s Most Popular Sport

The Juggernaut Dominating Ireland’s Most Popular Sport

Be it music, dancing or the craic – Irish culture prevails around the globe. Both expat communities and those with no link to the Emerald Isle embrace all things Irish. Musicians have dominated the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, and Riverdance (a production based on traditional Irish dancing.) is one of the most profitable shows ever hosted in both London’s West End and New York’s Broadway.

Irish sport too is famed around the world. Be it the Rugby Union team currently ranked second in the world, or the recent run to the final of the Women’s Hockey World Cup, Ireland has a rich sporting history. And the crown jewel of Irish sport is the GAA, the body responsible for overseeing Gaelic Football and Hurling.

The GAA

The GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) were founded in Thurles, Co. Tipperary 134 years ago in 1884. The organisations central purpose was to administer and promote traditional Gaelic games. The main two Gaelic sports are Gaelic Football (played with a similar size ball to a football and involving the use of hands and feet) and hurling (where players use a stick to strike a sloither/ball that is similar ro a baseball.)

Gaelic football and hurling are played by clubs in all corners of Ireland. Indeed, many clubs have been established internationally, with over 90 clubs on mainland Britain, several hundred in North America and even two clubs in Vietnam!

Generations of Irish man and women who have emigrated have continued to keep their identity and culture alive by establishing or joining GAA clubs. Many second and third generation Irish people also take up football in particular and help the sport thrive.

The All Ireland Championship

All but one of Ireland’s 32 counties (plus New York and London) enter the All Ireland Championship each year. County squads are made up the pick of players – similar to the way international football teams are selected.

Senior inter county matches regularly attract crowds in the tens of thousands and Ireland’s most watched TV channel, RTE One broadcast live Championship matches from May through to the All-Ireland Final in September.

For The Love Of The Game

The concluding rounds of the Senior Football Championship sees matches played at GAA HQ – Croke Park in Dublin. Holding in excess of 83,000 people, it is the third largest stadium in all of Europe, with only Wembley and Barcelona’s Nou Camp larger.

photograph of croke park in dublin taken from the air on a sunny day

What makes all Gaelic sports different from others such as soccer and rugby is its amateur ethos. While all sports are played by enthusiastic amateurs and administered by volunteers at local level (Sunday League Soccer for example), those playing at the elite level in many sports are professional.

Gaelic sports differ in this regard as not only do club players receive no payment for playing. But elite players representing their counties at the highest level, with over 80,000 spectators in attendance and worldwide television audiences of tens of millions, are not paid either.

Gaelic footballers are men who hold down full-time jobs, while training in many instances every single day. The dedication and commitment of senior players, who as athletes can match their professional contemporaries physically, make them some of Irish sports most respected people.

the dublin gaelic football team captain stephen cluxton lifting the sam maguire trophy in croke park in dublin

Stephen Cluxton is the captain of the Dublin senior football team and has a haul of 6 All Ireland winners medals and 14 Provincial Championship successes. Yet Cluxton earns his keep as a Secondary School teacher of biology in a Dublin school. Imagine England striker Harry Kane teaching maths 5 days a week and receiving no pay for his exploits on the pitch!

Elite Gaelic footballers are doing this year in, year out. Forgoing summer holidays, spending weekends and evenings training and playing instead of indulging in the lifestyle of excess so popular amongst young men in their 20’s. Stop and think about it and the sacrifice made is truly inspiring.

Winning ‘Sam’

Sam is the affectionate term used by Gaels for the Sam Maguire Cup. This is the trophy presented to the county who win the All Ireland Senior Football Championship each September. Winning players receive a medal known as a Celtic Cross.

Nineteen of Ireland’s 32 counties have won ‘Sam’ since the All Ireland was first contested in 1888. Of the 130 contests, the title has been won by the superpowers of Kerry and Dublin a combined 64 times. (Kerry 37 wins, Dublin 27.) While other counties have experienced multiple successes (notably Galway, Cork and Meath), none have consistently produced teams throughout different decades like the Kingdom and Sky Blues.

Dublin’s Decade Of Dominance

After a drought of 16 years, Dublin rewarded their fans patience in 2011 with a last gasp win over a decorated Kerry team. A semi-final defeat to Mayo in 2012 was avenged when the Sky Blues beat the same opponents in the final 12 months later. ‘Sam’ was back in the Capital in new manager, Jim Gavin’s first year at the helm.

Dublin were renowned for their swashbuckling style, boasting attacking riches the envy of their rivals and leading journalists to describe them as ‘unbeatable.’ Their 2014 semi final against Donegal, who had claimed their second All Ireland in 2012, was predicted to be a comfortable procession.

Yet the northerners arrived at Croke Park without fear and unleashed a tactical masterclass. Inflicting the first Championship defeat of Gavin’s reign saw the Dublin supremo return to the drawing board. With mostly the same panel of players in 2015, their assault on the crown was characterised with a more conservative and meagre defensive structure, while sacrificing little of their attacking quality.

The title was reclaimed during that season, and the preceding two years saw ‘The Boys In Blue’ successfully defend their crown. Claiming a third consecutive Championship invited comparisons were the great teams of history. Each Championship match except the final itself saw opponents in excess of 10 points in arrears by half time. Fans and rival alike universally christened them the greatest Dublin team ever.

The Four In A Row Campaign

The 2018 campaign provided Gavin (with the 2014 defeat to Donegal his sole managerial defeat) and his team with the chance to claim the ‘Four In A Row’. This is a feat achieved only 3 times in GAA history, by Wexford in the 1910’s and Kerry in both the 1930’s and 1980’s.

Three comfortable victories ensured Dublin’s 13th Leinster Championship success in 14 attempts. It also qualified them for the new look quarter final stage – with 4 one off knockout matches replaced by a round robin series featuring 2 groups of 4.

Dublin cruised through their group unbeaten, securing qualification for the Semis inside 2 matches. They then crushed semi final opponents Galway to leave themselves 70 minutes from history. Standing in their way were a Tyrone team seeking atonement for the 12-point drubbing Dublin inflicted on them in the 2017 semi-final.

The Final Itself

A slow start saw the rank outsiders’ race into a 4-point lead and the usually reliable forward line misfired. One of the few criticisms levelled at this Dublin team, in spite of their success, was they had never comfortably dispatched an opponent in the Final.

Dublin’s tendency to underperform in finals and Tyrone’s rip-roaring start suggested the shock was on. But the 4-point deficit was soon a 7-point lead. The much-vaunted forward line hit their stride and the momentum swung as Sky Blue shirts took control all over the pitch.

live shot showing a dublin player evading a tackle from a tyrone defender during the 2018 all ireland football final at croke park

A late penalty gave the Ulster side hope of a comeback but, showing all their class and experience, the Dubs ran out 6-point winners. With the four in a row achieved, few can question their place as the greatest team ever assembled.

The Drive For Five

With a strength in depth that includes players who would easily walk onto any other side, not to mention a conveyor belt of talent coming through – Dublin are already odds on favourites to lift ‘Sam’ again next September.

With no-one having done so (Kerry were denied a 5th in the final in the 1980’s), the comparisons with historical greats will end. Every leading county have suffered a reverse in Dublin’s four-year reign at least once. And given the gulf only the prevailing theory is only complacency, or the weight of history will deny them.

Yet several county’s will head into 2019 with genuine belief they can dethrone the Champions. The question is, who are they, and are they likely to succeed?

gaelic footballers from galway dublin and kerry pose with the sam maguire trophy with the atlantic ocean in the background

Tyrone

Beaten finalists in 2018, the Red Hands will look back with regret at missed opportunities. Crushed by 12 points in 2017, the gap was reduced to 6 that day. Having tasted the Big Day, it’s safe to assume they’ll be driven for a second shot and will believe minor tweaks and a little luck will deliver their fourth success.

Kerry

If any team has the motivation to deny Dublin a fifth title, it’s Kerry. With a phenomenal record at youth level, they boast a wealth of talent. A new manager will be steering the ship in 2019 and will have arguably the most talented squad outside the capital.

Galway

A 9-point defeat to Dublin ended their 2018 challenge, however that should not detract from a hugely successful year for the Tribesmen. After years of promise they delivered some fine performances and unearthed real gems. The experience should stand them and help boost their next assault.

Mayo

Devastating defeats in the 2016 & 2017 finals still hurt out west. 2018 saw them fall before the last 8. A managerial change will likely shake up both the squad and tactics of one of the most experienced groups around. Their talent and courage are beyond question, but the burden of history remains a significant challenge.

Monaghan

After finally reaching an All-Ireland semi-final following years of Quarter Final heartbreak, Monaghan fell by a point to Tyrone. Yet they retain a hugely talented squad, including the best goalkeeper and marksmen in the country. Yet, their lack of depth makes them unlikely to overcome the big boys.

Roll On Next May

When one team dominates a sport many spectators label it boring, feeling results are a forgone conclusion. Recent years have seen this accusation levelled at Gaelic football. Indeed, several former Dublin players alluded to the ‘lack of a buzz’ ahead of the final amongst Sky Blue fans.

Yet all sports see one team monopolise honours. In football we saw Manchester United claim 7 of the initial Premier League titles. During the 1990’s Wigan Warriors won an incredible 8 Rugby League Challenge Cups on the spin. Neither have seen huge levels of trophies in recent years.

The GAA is no different. Indeed, the Championship that secured Wexford’s four in a row in 1918 is the last they won. In time Dublin’s rivals will overtake them and there is no reason to suspect next year won’t be that time.

I, for one, have thoroughly enjoyed the 2018 Football Championship. Roll on May 2019 as 33 teams set out on the long road to Croker.

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