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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Forget this air of purity around the GAA – soccer fans are just as genuine

Ireland fans celebrate in national colours watching their team during Euro 2012.
Ireland fans celebrate in national colours watching their team during Euro 2012.

IT’S been a good summer for the GAA.

Kilkenny’s demise, Donegal’s drubbing and London’s odyssey. There’s nothing like variety in sport and this year the GAA has shown a natural strength in depth.

Of course, it has traditional powers such as Kerry and Kilkenny and Cork and Dublin but the fact that the Sam Maguire has been won by seven different teams since 2000, even the Liam McCarthy won by three different teams, and the Premiership won by just four in the same period suggests the unpredictability that is so necessary for sport is alive and well in the GAA.

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It still seems strange though that the whiff of sectarianism remains hanging around the GAA.

I don’t mean that in the Belfast sense or in any kind of religious way, I just mean that even after hiring out Croke Park to the Protestant game that GAA retains its sense of superiority over ‘soccer.’

Now I can perfectly understand the favouring of one sport over another. I have very limited tastes when it comes to sport in that apart from football I’m not greatly interested in anything.

I’ll watch the big summer GAA games, never watch rugby or golf and couldn’t care less who wins or loses in them. That is just a personal taste thing. It has nothing to do with an ideology or a feeling that my beloved football is under threat from any other sport.

Yet there remains around the GAA a sense that love of our national sports and the purity of the sport is in sharp contrast to the awfulness and shallowness of English football. And in a way I’ll acknowledge that is true.

GAA players are truly representing their team, whether it is parish or county, and in that way it really does embody and retain the essence of sport whereby those wearing the shirt of a place are representative of it.

True too is that soccer as owned and run by Sky is a shabby, overhyped, cash obsessed thing. It is hard at times to either love it or respect it.

It is hard not to shake the suspicion that following and supporting a top Premiership team must be a bit like supporting any kind of big corporation like Coca-Cola or Nike. It is hard to think of those clubs as having retained any essence of their identity.

Watching top Premiership clubs touring the globe and seeing, for instance, thousands of Thai supporters wearing Arsenal tops, only brings home the difference between wearing a GAA county shirt and one of an English football club.

Much like when I see fans from Cork or Dublin wearing their Man Utd or Chelsea tops I can’t help thinking how deep does that support run? How deep can it possibly run?

What the GAA does not seem to grasp though is that there is a football culture beyond and beneath that of Sky and obscene million pound transfers.

This is the culture that much like supporting your GAA club and following your county on hot summer days comes deeply from within a sense of identity.

How on earth, in fact, does anyone think the entire structure of the football league, the pyramid from Premiership to Conference, would even exist if not from springing from the thousands who follow their local teams week in week out, rain or sunshine, and for the majority with the hope of only very limited success.

Way beyond Roy Keane’s prawn sandwich brigade and way beyond celebrity bandwagon fans, football fans follow their club for reasons that are every bit as genuine and heartfelt as any GAA parish or county.

So, yeah, I’ll watch those big GAA games this summer with interest and a sense of occasion. I’ll enjoy the wonderful spectacle of a packed Croke Park and 80,000 fans enjoying a purely Irish occasion.

But when it comes to a sense of identity and sense of where the heart lies, well that will always be on the shabby side of east Birmingham where a less than glorious club stumble around season after season but will always be the only sporting club, outside of the international scene, who just might, you never know, you never give up hope, just might one day move me to tears again.

And that, from a grubby old industrial English city with its disregarded back streets, that is an Irish story too and one every bit as legitimate as any GAA shirt in the country.

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