An All-Star popularity contest?

The eagerly awaited nominations for the 2013 GAA GPA All-Stars were announced this month, with the awards ceremony to be held, for the first time, in Croke Park on 8th November.

The awards process has always been subject to criticism, but in recent years have seen enough highly controversial decisions to bring the validity of the process into question.

This year especially was a vital one for the All-Stars credibility. After a footballing year that saw Monaghan come from nowhere to claim an Ulster title, Cavan shock the country on a run to Croke Park and London appear in their first ever Connacht final (not to mention a resurgent Tyrone team), it was a vintage year for the sport.

If football enjoyed a good year, it was nothing compared to the renaissance that gripped hurling this season. Clare’s fourth All-Ireland victory was just the tip of an iceberg that included Limerick bridging a 17-year gap to the Munster title, Dublin winning their first Leinster final in 52 years and an overthrowing of the traditional powers that saw Kilkenny, Galway and Tipperary fail to advance past the quarter-finals.

However, the nomination of Clare hero Shane O’Donnell for a place on the team of the year highlights one of the main problems afflicting the All Stars in previous seasons. While O’Donnell was unarguably the main factor in Clare’s victory over Cork in the All-Ireland replay and deservedly awarded the Man-of-the-Match, this does not warrant an All Star.

O'Donnell celebrates in the wake of Clare's All-Ireland victory [credit:]
O’Donnell celebrates in the wake of Clare’s All-Ireland victory [credit:]
To be placed on the short-list for the team of the year after 65 minutes of playing time (O’Donnell was replaced by Darach Honan with five minutes remaining) undermines the entire nomination process, not to mention robbing those players who performed consistently over the year the opportunity to be recognised.

The failure of O’Donnell to be included on the Bord Gais Under-21 team of year, and yet still be nominated for its senior counterpart speaks volumes as to the lack of thought given to his selection.

This sentimentality and willingness to accommodate big names was also apparent in the football selections with the nominations of Cian O’Sullivan (Dublin) and Sean Cavanagh (Tyrone). Despite both players spending the vast majority of their years at midfield, O’Sullivan received his nomination in the half-backs and Cavanagh in the half-forwards.

Under the current rules, players are nominated in the positions they lined out in for the majority of the year, with the nominations being grouped into differing lines of the field (e.g. 3 keepers, 9 fullbacks, 9 halfbacks, 6 midfielders, etc.). While O’Sullivan and Cavanagh both had an outstanding year, the performances en route to the All-Ireland final of Aiden O’Shea and Michael Darragh MacAuley make the selection of the two midfield slots a mere formality.

While both players had stints in their nominated positions, this is more an excuse to shoe-horn O’Sullivan and Cavanagh into the team rather than a legitimate reason.

Situations such as these have arisen in the past, most notably in 2010. That year several questions were raised over Graham Canty’s inclusion at centre-back over Downs Kevin McKernan, despite the Corkmans year being plagued by injury. Add that to the fact that not one of the All-Ireland winning Cork forwards received an award compared to three from the Down side they defeated and the inconsistencies begin to pile up.

Last year, Bernard Brogan’s nomination ahead of the likes of Paddy McBrearty and Michael Conroy was seen as an example of the ‘big name bias’ many feel influences the All Star selection committee. Brogan had, by all accounts, a disappointing 2012 season, hampered as it was by injury and bad form, while McBrearty and Conroy were both pivotal in helping their respective side’s advance to the final.

The announcement of Kerry stalwart Tomas O’Se’s retirement from inter-county football last week threw up a remarkable statistic. Despite redefining the wing-back position, one of the greatest defenders of the modern era received only five All-Star awards during his 15-year career.

Kerry legend Tomas O’Se in action [credit:]
While the All Stars garner great publicity for the GAA both here and over-seas, as well as affording players from so-called ‘weaker counties’ well-deserved recognition for their accomplishments, steps must be taken to improve the selection process before the scheme becomes a joke or, even worse, descends into Railway Cup levels of non-interest.

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