Revamped tournaments is just one example of evolution
We’ve all been there. A slow news week in Gaelic games, one of those with a weekend containing no significant on-field action, when you dip into your grab-bag of ‘Great And Useful Ideas For The GAA’. You publish it and expect it to be gobbled up by the suits and implemented immediately.
Ah, the sheer vanity of it all. And still we persist, with newspaper columns often throwing up some of the more innovative, free-thinking ideas that might be taken up by a county board and proposed.
This process means handing it over to a committee, and committees are the place where good ideas go to die. Everyone wants to add their own personal flourish to it to get involved, to the point where the initial thought is butchered rather than refined.
In such instances, the dummy can be projected from the mouth fairly lively and we fall back on the old reflex that change comes slowly to the GAA. It is simply too unwieldy, too conservative, restrained. Constipated, even.
How much of that is true, though? As the decade draws to a close, it’s worth going back not just over the last decade, but from the start of the millennium to see the kind of changes the GAA as a body and Gaelic games as sports have experienced.
Starting with the most visible example, we look at the changes to Croke Park. The design for a new stadium was completed in 1991 and split into four phases over a 14-year period, to allow the venue to remain open throughout.
The new Cusack Stand was constructed over 1994 and 1995 and the work continued round the stadium in a clockwise fashion. By the time the Nally Stand and Hill 16 Terrace were finished in 2005, the GAA had the second biggest stadium in Europe with a capacity of 82,300.
The ushering in of a new century also brought a rush to bring provincial and county stadiums to a higher level. There was always a fear that something awful could have happened on the huge grass bank in Clones, and by 2000 that was already remedied with fathoms of concrete creating a sprawling terracing that is, as they say, an experience to be lived.
In fairness to the Ulster counties, they had their house in order round that time. Spurred on by a National Redevelopment Programme, the tight and often claustrophobic venues such as the Athletic Grounds in Armagh, the Marshes in Newry and Celtic Park in Derry were transformed beyond recognition.
The strategy was funded by Central Council and insisted that the main county ground be situated in the largest centre of population, hence why Irvinestown, a popular venue for Fermanagh county games, lost out to Brewster Park in Enniskillen.
In a political and societal sense, there’s been a fair old shift too.
Rule 21, which prohibited members of the British security forces from membership of the GAA, was rubbed out by 2001.
Rule 42 followed next. It forbade field games, horse racing and so on from being hosted on GAA premises. If it wasn’t exactly deleted, it was watered down significantly in 2005 under the presidential term of Sean Kelly, and in the Six Nations rugby tournament of 2007, England were in town to receive a trouncing on the Croke Park pitch, with European soccer qualifiers following.
Perhaps the most profound change, however, is one that causes discomfort for some but is undeniable. The Catholic Church is no longer the mainstay of communities and the local GAA club has taken that place in society.
One of the brightest and most positive changes has been the shift in favour towards ladies’ football and camogie. While they are not actually under the GAA umbrella, efforts have been made to fully integrate them. It has worked best within clubs, however, and when it comes to the areas of staging fixtures, facilities and promotion, it has transformed those two sports.
Nobody expected that the first few meetings of the Gaelic Players’ Association in the winter of 1999 might have progressed to becoming a players’ body not only recognised by the GAA, but indeed funded.
For over a century, the All-Ireland Championship format did not change. But in 2001, a back door system was introduced. By 2018, a Super8s format was added, all the while driving up the number of games that inter-county players would get – which, as a coincidence, was one of the motivating factors for the establishment of the Gaelic Players’ Association (GPA).
In 2002, the National Leagues underwent necessary and essential change. Hard as it is to picture it now, but the league started in October and there were a couple of games ahead of Christmas. It changed to a February start and an April finish and, after a couple of experimental systems, finished with a straight four-division league in time for the 2008 season.
In 2004, the recognition of proper All-Ireland series for Intermediate and Junior clubs came to pass; another innovation during Kelly’s time.
Hurling has had the greatest structural change. In 2005, the first Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard Cups were played for. The Liam MacCarthy Cup was split into group stages.
Last year, Clare and Galway went out of the All-Ireland race on points difference. Imagine telling that to someone just five years ago!
The supporter experience has changed. All around the island right now, clubs will be busy distributing branded gear through their members for Christmas stocking fillers.
It used to be a thrill for someone working in far-flung corners of the world to receive a local newspaper detailing the exploits of their club or county. Now, anyone with a Wi-Fi connection can stream games covered at all levels.
The playing side of Gaelic games has witnessed fundamental changes.
At the turn of the century, inter-county management was something that people could juggle alongside their day job. Men such as Brian McEniff and Liam Griffin could cope with running a team and their own hotels, coming up against the likes of Eamonn Coleman, a bricklayer, on the sidelines.
The application of science to teams has been astonishing. Areas of tactical appreciation, differing game plans and patterns of play have been refined through a deeper understanding of what coaching is; a mixture of science and art.
Sports psychology was already in the GAA in some forms, but kept very hush-hush. Now, it is an essential component. Athletic testing, with players now measured in the gym for weights lifted and runs recorded, is not just for the elite teams but permeates right through to the smallest junior club sides.
The GAA of 2019 bears little resemblance to that of 1999. It has evolved and refined. And there’s more to come.