This week brought back to me some of the words of Tommy Tiernan in his very first ‘Live’ DVD. He argued that us Irish, “we’re just as interested in taking over the world. We don’t do it by invading though – we do it by infesting.” As with most comedy, the humour is often found in the deep truth behind it. Unfortunately though, Irish ‘invasion’ for many years and consequent ‘infesting’ as he called it, has been the product of a forced emigration from a country that can’t provide enough for the people that love it.
But what if our invasion became more sustained, more organised and more purposeful? What if the recently announced GAA – Sky Sports deal suddenly presented a golden opportunity for us to invade the wider sporting world and more specifically, that of our good neighbours in Britain?
As a primary school teacher in England, I am becoming aware of the various sporting interests of young English children. In the school I teach in, Sachin Tendulkar is their Henry Shefflin or Colm Cooper; Wayne Rooney couldn’t tie his batting pads. Football is the game for the autumn term when the weather is unpredictable, rugby for spring when it’s just plain miserable and cricket is for the summer, when the real sport can be enjoyed in sunshine. In between, there are dabblings in athletics, swimming, hockey and basketball. Naturally, they have never heard of Gaelic Games but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t fascinated by the possibility of trying them. I recently organised a Long Puck competition for a charities week; it was over-subscribed every day.
As part of my job, I am expected to run an extra-curricular club every week. With the encouragement of the Head of Sport in the school, I will be running a Gaelic football club in the summer term for Year 4s (3rd class equivalent). Out of a total of 35 pupils, the vast majority from highly-affluent Asian families, I already have 15 signed up! But how did I promote a game that none of them had ever heard of or even seen played? YouTube.
The GAA, to their credit, have started making use of YouTube as a medium for communicating their games. After watching ‘Top 5 Goals GAA football’ and ‘Top 5 Points GAA football’ 2012 & 2013, there was an obvious sense that this was a game worth trying – this game looked really exciting! Of course, in the consciousness of young people today, YouTube gives a subject legitimacy in a way that RTE Player could not have done. In any case, there was no resources available on RTE Player when I needed them. Sky Sports can give our games this legitimacy as it is firmly ingrained in the minds of all sports fans, young and old. In June and July, I will now be able to point to live games that my new young charges can actually watch in their own homes on a channel that they are absolutely familiar with. In today’s world of high media exposure, branding is everything.
According to the Sport England Active People Survey (October 2012-October 2013) that measured the ‘once a week participation in funded sports by people aged 14 years and over’, the top sports in England were swimming, football, athletics and cycling. Each of these sports had over 2 million participants (swimming actually had more than 3 million). No other sport came close to these. Rugby Union came in 12th (with less than 250,000 participants) and is the only field sport other than football in the top 12.
But why can’t Gaelic football make a serious impression on these results? According to the GAA Britain website, there are just over 80 GAA clubs in England alone, 30 of which are in London. That is a fantastic platform from which to build a coherent and vibrant level of participation in under-age Gaelic football. Why could Gaelic football not become the second-most played field sport in England?
Rugby is often seen as the preserve of the middle-classes in the UK and so seen by many as ‘inaccessible’. In my own school, it is the physical nature of rugby that is the big turn-off. Ironically, Sky Sports and other media don’t help in this manner, as the slow motion replays that are now possible tell of the crushing reality of a full frontal by a 16 stone second row! Gaelic football, for all it’s manliness and hard-hitting, doesn’t have the same visual impact. And what’s more, with the introduction of the black card, Gaelic football has returned to being a free-flowing exciting game full of goals and much less devoid of cynicism. My new charges will hopefully never know of the miserable rot of an 0-11 to 0-12 war of attrition, with 70+ frees, 6 yellow cards and a red. Could it not be argued that Gaelic football has the potential to be the second most marketable field game throughout the UK?
The coincidence of so many important events occurring together cannot be ignored. A historic deal between Sky Sports and the GAA to make our games mainstream throughout the UK and the world; a historic first state visit by an Irish President to the UK, that speaks of tolerance, friendship and collaboration; all coming at the tail end of the most exciting National Football League in recent memory – the moment is primed for the GAA to make a move here. Like many Irish people, I don’t buy the line of looking after the Diaspora with this deal – the Diaspora have always made it their business to see a game, even if it means getting up in the middle of the night to watch it on a poor Internet connection. But this Sky deal has the potential to be hugely positive in a far more meaningful way. The GAA has spoken about using this deal to show off and market our games to the world and our games are definitely something to be proud of. But what then? What happens when a young boy or girl in Newcastle watches a game just as spell-binding as Kerry v Dublin last year and says to their parent, ‘I want to play that game, where’s the nearest club?
The GAA cannot expect the current structures in Britain and London to deal with a possible influx of interest on a reactive basis. Why not be proactive? Why not start an initiative to get young Irish coaches into schools throughout London, England and the UK? Our teacher training colleges are spewing out hundreds of excellent, enthusiastic teachers every year with no jobs to follow-up. I’m sure many of these people would jump at the opportunity to spend a year coaching a game they love as a visiting teacher. Growing up in North Tipperary in the 80s and early 90s, football was not a game to be played; hurling was the code. But the North Tipperary juvenile board promoted football extensively, sending coaches into schools on a regular basis. In a club that knew nothing about football, suddenly there was potential and success. The only medal I brought to London with me was the county minor football medal I won with my club Borris-Ileigh in 2000.
If you have ever watched the excellent documentary on RTE, Féile Dreams, this gives a glimpse of the possibilities of promoting Gaelic football in schools. This follows the fortunes of the South London U’14 football team that won the Féile (Division 4) last summer in Derry but also looks at the way Gaelic football is promoted in St Paul’s Academy in South London, who work in partnership with Dulwich Harps GFC. Here is template that can be replicated with the proper influence from the GAA centrally.
Many people will say, ‘What’s the point? Sure that’s our game. We don’t need anyone else playing it.’ This is totally at odds with what Michael D Higgins and the Queen spoke about this week about “shedding our inhibitions about seeing the best in each other”. Gaelic football and hurling will always be our games and we can always incredibly proud of them as our crown jewels. If in 20 years time however, there is thriving level of participation among 14-25 year old in the UK and possibly even an international element to under-age competition, then surely the powers that be have done our games and us a huge service as a nation.
For now, I will stay dreaming of my Coach Bombay moment, when my young novices become a footballing machine in the space of three months. But seriously, I have no doubt about the impact that Sky Sports can make in promoting our games – there’s an opportunity here not to be missed. So let’s allow them to help us invade Britain – as Tommy said, ‘it’s a different plan of attack’.