Liam Cahill’s press conference after the Cork match 10 days ago ended with a general question that gave the Tipperary manager some latitude. He played a short riff about the draw – making light of the point that had fallen through a hole in their pocket – but what he really wanted to do was issue a pep talk to the Tipp public: part impassioned plea, part rebuke.
“We are very happy to get something out of Cork, to come to a full Páirc Uí Chaoimh and the Cork supporters behind the team the way they were, they were exceptional today – and in fairness to the small Tipp following they were brilliant as well. We were outnumbered today but the small Tipp following were exceptional and I hope the Tipp following will now start believing in this team and pack out Thurles for when Limerick visit in two weeks’ time.”
Cahill is very adept in front of microphones and he doesn’t make careless slips of the tongue. His choice of words and the message he intended to convey were deliberate. He said “small” twice, for effect.
A year ago, when Tipp’s season was sinking in quicksand, they disturbed Limerick for an hour in the Gaelic Grounds, but one of the remarkable things about that match was how few Tipperary supporters had travelled. Padraic Maher, who is one of Cahill’s selectors this year, tweeted about it at the time: “Very poor support for our boys in Limerick today,” he wrote. “They deserve better.”
It is a peculiar phenomenon. All over the country, every year, losing intercounty teams are abandoned. Tipp were on a losing run last year and nobody expected them to slay the Limerick dragon in its den, so with their season on the line, tens of thousands of rabid Tipp supporters watched from a distance. You would imagine that it was the solemn duty of supporters to stand by their team in their hour of need, but in the GAA that obligation falls to the die-hards in every tribe.
Cork were in a similar predicament around this time last year. They had lost badly to Waterford in the League final and to Limerick and Clare in the opening rounds of the championship. Their only chance of survival was to beat Waterford in Walsh Park, and with the attendance capped at 11,000, Cork were allocated just 3,000 tickets. On the Tuesday before the game Cork returned 1,300 terrace tickets, unsold.
How can those numbers be reconciled with the 30,000 Cork supporters who turned up in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Saturday week? Where were they in an emergency? Standing back. Giving out. Waiting for things to get better.
It is remarkable how often this pattern is repeated. In 2018, when the current Limerick team started their march, they played Kilkenny in a brilliant quarter-final in Thurles, before a crowd of less than 19,000. When the teams met again in an All-Ireland semi-final, little over a year later, 55,000 people were in Croke Park. By then Limerick were All-Ireland champions, and Kilkenny had some momentum, but the discrepancy in the attendance from one match to the next begged a question about the fine day crowd: could it really be that big?
Faithful or flaky? In or out? Which is it?
There are always excuses. Apart from the repulsiveness of a losing team, convenience is the other variable. When Limerick and Kilkenny met in the League final in Páirc Uí Chaoimh a few weeks ago the Kilkenny crowd were outnumbered by seven or eight to one. The word in Kilkenny was that there was local hostility to the game being played in Cork, given the awkwardness of getting to the stadium. But is that a good enough reason to allow your team to go unsupported? Or did they think they had no chance? Either way, they stayed at home.
The venue was offered as a reason too for the noticeably thin travelling support for Waterford’s game against Cork – only a week after Waterford had produced their best performance in over a year against Limerick. But was the venue also the reason why they were outnumbered 10-1 in Thurles for the opening round of the championship, and again on Saturday? Or what is just plain apathy?
Expense is a legitimate concern. We’re in the middle of a cost of living crisis. The game is on telly. Or winking at you with a come-hither smile from behind a paywall. Heading off as a family to an intercounty championship match is not a cheap day out. Ticket prices are not unreasonable, but add in an exorbitant tank of fuel and bits and pieces of comfort eating and drinking, and it comes to a chunky sum.
But you wonder how football supporters in England manage it, week-in, week-out? They have bills and kids too. A season-ticket holder in England, on average, goes to 19 home games in a season, and four away games. They make a commitment. An intercounty team is only guaranteed four championship games. In a really good year, most intercounty teams will play half a dozen championship matches. That’s all.
There must be a cost of living crisis in Limerick too, but the crowd following them everywhere is consistently massive now. In reality, the greatest influence on crowds at intercounty matches – everywhere, always – has been sentiment and the prospect of glory. Not blind loyalty or undying devotion. Those supporters exist too, of course, but in a minority. Winning teams, teams on top, teams going places, are never abandoned.
At club level, this would be unimaginable. Nobody in the GAA turns their back on their club. It would be deplored. You give out, but you hold tough. For the intercounty game, though, different thresholds are at play: for pain, for convenience, for solidarity.
When Cahill made his remarks after the Cork game he was thinking about the Limerick crowd invading Thurles and stealing Tipperary’s home advantage. In the absence of conscription, he was appealing for a first line of defence in the stands. It was as if to say: Tipp have played well twice, what more do ye need to see?
It is a kink in the psyche of the intercounty supporter: that it is perfectly acceptable to step on and off the bandwagon, without relinquishing the right to wail like a banshee when a good year comes around and you can’t dig out an All-Ireland ticket.