Wicklow gave full media access and nearly shocked Kildare - more teams should follow suit

Allowing The Irish Times to sit in on preparations last week did not do McConville’s side any harm and engagement shows huge hunger by GAA public for insight

It’s not often you find yourself sitting in Croke Park with your head in your hands, wondering if you just saw what you think you just saw happen in a Wicklow match in Portlaoise. But that’s how your correspondent found himself on Sunday afternoon, astonished like everybody else at the harum-scarum endgame in the Wicklow-Kildare game.

When we come to settle the books on the 2024 championship, it will barely get a mention. But it’s hard to imagine we’ll see a more remarkable injury-time all year. Wicklow were down three. Then they were level through Oisin McGraynor’s penalty and had two extra men for the couple of minutes of stoppage time yet to play.

Then they turned Kildare over in midfield, after what probably should have been a free against them got waved away. Then they had a three-on-two and an empty goal. Then wing back Matt Nolan shot from the 45. Then it went wide. Then Kildare got up the other end. Then Jack Sargent fisted the winner. All in the space of around three minutes. Bedlam.

Ordinarily, the comings and goings of a Leinster quarter-final between teams that will play in Division Three and Four in next year’s league wouldn’t detain me for long, particularly on a working day when I’m at a different game. But, with all due respect and love to the good people of Kildare, this was a game I dearly wanted Wicklow to win.


The reason was entirely selfish – they had been good enough to open their doors to The Irish Times last Tuesday and give us the run of the place while they got prepared for the game. Access to intercounty teams is so incredibly rare these days that it’s natural for the visit to mean this little corner of the GAA press corps will retain a soft spot for the Wicklow footballers for the rest of the season.

But it was more than that as well. The level of paranoia around the media in the GAA is just so completely baked into the cake now. Everyone is afraid of their lives of saying a word out of place so players are generally off-limits (although they tend to be able to brave it out when there’s a sponsor’s cheque involved, in fairness). Yet here was a team that had just pulled off a shock result laying themselves bare in the pursuit of another.

The piece ran in Saturday’s paper and on The Irish Times website. In terms of engagement, it ranked only behind some of our coverage of Leinster v La Rochelle that day. This was no dead Saturday either – the Masters, the Grand National, and the Premier League title race were all bubbling away. Yet the Wicklow piece grabbed plenty of attention.

To repeat – this was an article on the Wicklow footballers, a team that had just been relegated to Division Four and who hadn’t won back-to-back matches in the Leinster Championship in 35 years. They won’t win the All-Ireland. They’re 12th in the betting for the Tailteann Cup. They have a well-known manager in Oisín McConville but you’ve never heard of most of their players. And if you have, it’s likely because goalkeeper Mark Jackson has been one of the kickers chasing a spot in the NFL.

It’s not difficult, therefore, to divine why there was such interest in it. It really had little to do with Wicklow’s fortunes. It was because there is a huge GAA constituency that has been starved of access to its teams and players, over the past decade and a half in particular. The cordon sanitaire around county teams is laughably stubborn. Any peek behind the curtain is bound to be interesting, regardless of the team.

So yeah, I wanted Wicklow to win on Sunday. Or at the very least, I didn’t want them to be hammered, as had been the case the last three times they’d won their Leinster opener. I didn’t want anyone saying that they need to be doing a bit more work on their defensive shape and a bit less chatting to The Irish Times. Even if that would have been nonsense, it’s the sort of nonsense that has a weird currency around the game.

Croke Park’s media guide for the championship was emailed out to the press last week. Until 2020, the guides included phone numbers for every intercounty manager, every captain (and joint-captain), every county secretary and every PRO. Another tiny, helpful bit of media engagement that has gone the way of the dodo.

Not everywhere, in fairness. Before the league, I rang Louth manager Ger Brennan to see would he be up for an interview. Not only was he, he asked if I fancied talking to a few of the players as well. He found a time that suited everyone and set up a Zoom call between us all. Didn’t affect Louth one way or the other – they stayed up, they relegated Kildare, they’re a game away from their second Leinster final in a row.

None of this amounts to a hill of beans, obviously. The games are still the games, the results aren’t influenced in the slightest. But since we’re generally b*tch*ng about access in the GAA, it feels right to give all due praise when it goes the other way.