We might have mentioned this one before somewhere, but after a decade of inter-county football concluded last Saturday with Croke Park housing both the crowning of Dublin’s five in a row and a meeting where Central Council gave its blessing for a two-tier championship to be motioned at Special Congress, it’s worth revisiting how different things were at the start of the decade.
On our way home from a gripping All-Ireland semi-final which had resulted in Stephen Cluxton once again being denied a place in the last game of the year, an indefatigable Cork team having condemned him and Alan Brogan to a fourth All-Ireland semi-final defeat by a kick of a ball, a curious text was read out on RTÉ’s post-match radio show.
Were the panel aware, asked a listener, that the loss meant that for the first time since the 1930s, Dublin had gone an entire decade without winning Sam Maguire?
They’d lifted it in 1942, 1958, 1963, three times in the ’70s, then again in 1983 and 1995, but in the noughties there had been nothing, not even a final appearance, now that Dublin’s last game in that decade had just ended.
It seemed to escape that listener, the presenter and the analysts — one of whom was Tommy Carr, we can recall — that the noughties had actually expired the previous decade. They were now in 2010, a different decade by virtually everyone else’s definition.
In a way though the listener was right. In hindsight that 2010 season feels like it belongs to a completely different decade, the one which the listener confusingly attached it to.
Louth almost won Leinster. Meath — remarkably, controversially, wrongly — did win it, blitzing Dublin for five goals. Limerick very nearly won Munster, an inspirational John Galvin point drawing them level with Kerry with just minutes to go in Killarney. Sligo beat Galway and Mayo in Connacht. Wexford beat Galway and Longford beat Mayo in the qualifiers. In the All-Ireland quarter-finals all four provincial winners were beaten.
Although it was a particularly special year for the underdog, it wasn’t like it was an outrageous outlier from the years that had preceded it. Only a few years earlier, Sligo had won Connacht. Wexford and Fermanagh contested All-Ireland semi-finals. Laois and Westmeath won Leinster titles. A county as small as Armagh won an All-Ireland.
Now, though, after how football and the GAA has evolved throughout this decade, will we live to see such occurrences again? More so, does the GAA and a good share of its counties ever aspire to having such days again?
In football’s defence, the sport itself has never been better played than it is now, and not just by Dublin.
Compare and contrast the last match of this decade, for instance, with what Meath and Cork offered up in the final match of the 1990s, a desperately scrappy affair in keeping with how football was at the time. Virtually every championship game between Dublin-Kerry, Dublin-Mayo and Kerry-Mayo game was epic, or at worst, like the rain-spoiled 2015 final, compelling, outscoring even the Kerry-Tyrone-Armagh triumvirate of the noughties for sheer number of classic games.
Mayo, in particular, were remarkable contributors to the past decade. It didn’t translate into any SamMaguires but a measure of their contribution is the number of All Stars they won.
By universal consensus, Paddy Durcan should win an All Star next month. When he does so, it will be the 24th time this decade that Mayo player has been so honoured. Should Colm Boyle also be accommodated in the half-backline, it will bring that All-Star count to 25, and his own personal tally to five, something only Jack McCaffrey this decade will have equalled. Eugene McGee’s Offaly team of 1979-1983 ‘only’ amassed 13 All Stars. The continuously-competitive Cork team of 2006-2012 won 14. The Armagh team of 1999-2008 won 17.
Even two-time All-Ireland-winning sides like Galway 1998-2003 (18 All Stars), Meath 1986-1991 (23 All Stars), Meath 1995-2001 (20 All Stars), and Cork 1987-1995 (25 All Stars) weren’t honoured more at the end of the season.
Even the great Tyrone side of 2001-2010 that captured three All-Irelands barely won more All Stars, Phil Jordan’s statuette for the Ulster-winning campaign of 2010 bringing their final count to 26. That’s how exceptional and consistent the Mayo team of 2011-2019 were, and just how all the more exceptional this Dublin side were to deny them even a solitary All-Ireland.
Donegal, thankfully, did get an All-Ireland to show for their innovation, as much as they’ll have some regrets about not winning a second for how much they made Dublin have to innovate after 2014.
Tyrone never went away without ever making a proper return while Monaghan, and, to a lesser extent, Roscommon deserve a mention for how they fought the good fight, winning a couple of provincial titles apiece when at one point it looked like as if Jim McGuinness and James Horan had eliminated such notions from their heads forever.
Clare under Colm Collins also deserve a nod, even if their progress hasn’t translated into even a provincial title.
Football needs more teams this coming decade to do a Monaghan. We’re looking at you in particular, Derry. Kildare, and Meath with their population base and current managements should be aspiring to do a Donegal and Mayo, or what they used to themselves back in the days of Micko and Boylan. Tyrone need to start getting impatient again, with Mickey Harte himself if needs be.
But just as counties need to be doing more for themselves, there’s more the GAA could be doing for them as well. John Horan’s second-tier championship isn’t it.
Not in its proposed form, at least. Instead of merely coming up with a structure that reflects the gulf that has opened up between the elite and the rest this year, he should be asking why it occurred and trying to bridge it.
Sligo’s Neil Ewing in these pages and Kevin McStay only yesterday in The Irish Times have made several suggestions as to how. Provide funding for development coaches, full-time S&C coaches.
As of now Cork would be in that second tier championship. At the start of the decade that would have been unimaginable — remember, after that 2010 All-Ireland semi-final, and all the more so after the 2011 league final, thefuture seemed red, not blue.
Yet, if we were to look nine years forward instead of back, the one county we’d expect to most challenge and even break up the likely Dublin-Kerry duopoly is Cork. It might not be until 2024, the final year of their five-year-plan, for it to translate into a September appearance, let alone success, or even some time after, but already certain developments on KevinO’Donovan’s watch scream ambition and common sense.
There’s been the publication of the five-year plan, the appointment of Conor Counihan as a football coordinator, Aidan O’Connell as a performance director, and as of yesterday, Cian O’Neill as senior team coach to current manager Ronan McCarthy, providing the sort of external experience the setup requires.
Not only has O’Neill one of the most impressive and varied CVs in inter-county GAA but as the head of Cork IT’s department of sport, leisure, and childhood studies, the potential for the county team to tap into that college’s expertise and facilities, much like Dublin tapped into Dr Niall Moyna and DCU this past decade.
Croke Park needs to realise it should be doing a lot more for the smaller guns but just like Parnell Park did some time ago, Páirc Uí Chaoimh seems to have copped it’s up to the giants to awaken and help themselves.