Some years some titles should be valued that bit more than usual, having been that bit harder earned.
Last Sunday in Salthill, a few hours before half of Roscommon would storm the pitch, the Connacht Council marked an even more joyous day in the history of that provincial championship.
As part of the day’s ceremonies, the Leitrim team of 1994, known these days among their own as The 94s, were presented to the crowd, having attended a silver jubilee banquet the previous night in the town thrown by their own county board.
While it’s become perfunctory in recent years to see Declan Darcy as one of Jim Gavin’s selectors with his hands on the Sam Maguire Cup, there was nothing routine about him raising the Nestor Cup in Dr Hyde Park 25 years ago along with a 95-year-old Tom Gannon, the only other man to ever captain Leitrim to a Connacht senior title and the last living member of the victorious team of 1927.
What made that Connacht title all the more remarkable than just bridging a 67-year gap, though, was who they all had to beat.
This was no cheeky Connacht like Roscommon snatched in 2010 when a Kevin Walsh-coached Sligo did most of the heavy lifting for them by eliminating Mayo and Galway only for Fergie O’Donnell’s boys to ghost in like Flynn and turn Sligo over by a point in the final.
In ’94 Leitrim had to go through all three traditional powers in the province. First, Roscommon, in Roscommon, a county and team that had infuriatingly knocked them out of the championship for four consecutive years. In the next round they edged Galway, in Galway, again by a point, after a replay. And then in the final they saw off Mayo, by a couple of points.
Even though Roscommon by then weren’t quite the side they had been when they had Tony McManus winning Connachts for them in ’90 and ’91, and Galway and Mayo were unrecognisable from the teams that would frequently contest All-Ireland finals later on that decade and into the next, it was a stunning accomplishment by John O’Mahony and his troops to take the scalps of all three.
That’s what made last Sunday particularly sweet for Roscommon and prompted scenes of joy from their supporters and players that you wouldn’t normally see from a county that had won the same trophy only two years earlier.
For sure 2017 was something for all Rossies to rejoice in, it being only the county’s second Connacht title in 16 years, and for the manner in which Kevin McStay clearly had them primed to turn over a heavily fancied Galway team in their own backyard by nine points, a dividend at last for all the county’s promise and success at underage. Yet it still seemed less a campaign than a game, an ambush.
2019 involved much more than a solitary ambush. If beating league champions Mayo in Mayo qualified as that, trumping All-Ireland semi-finalists Galway in Galway proved there was nothing freakish or one-off about it, or 2017.
Just as with provincial title and gymnastics, the degree of difficulty should be factored in when it comes to All-Irelands. Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a ‘soft’ All-Ireland, but it would be fair to say that Kerry’s passage to the 1997 and 2004 titles wasn’t quite as arduous as Armagh had even winning Ulster in 2005, let alone Tyrone winning the All-Ireland in ’05.
When Donegal landed the All-Ireland in 2012 this column argued that they’d negotiated the most impressive and hardest route ever. The subsequent years have only reinforced that view. Only three other sides had ever previously won Ulster from the preliminary round.
They beat five Division One teams en route to September, including their provincial overlords Tyrone, a Kerry team that should have won the All-Ireland the year before, Counihan’s Cork at their zenith and a Mayo side that would subsequently prove themselves to be a proper heavyweight.
Like in the big ball, there are no handy All-Irelands in hurling. Offaly’s All-Ireland in ’98 was hardly soft but it was certainly exceptionally fortuitous, them having been outplayed in both their games in Leinster and outscored by Clare after 137 minutes in the All-Ireland series.
Clare themselves in 2013 didn’t win a handy All-Ireland either but was it a cheeky one? Given they were dismissed by eight points in a provincial championship, this group of players have yet to still win, and avoiding both Tipp and Kilkenny on a year’s sabbatical, for sure it was.
Contrast that with Tipp, 2016. Over the previous 50 years no team had won three Munster championship games in the one season against their fellow hurling counties (ie excluding Kerry) in the province and gone on to win the All-Ireland.
The last side to do so — the Cork team of ’66 — didn’t have to play an All-Ireland semi-final. Michael Ryan’s Tipp did. After holding Cork to 13 points, beating Limerick with just 14 men, and then blitzing Derek McGrath’s Waterford for five goals in the Munster final, they had to go up against a Galway team that were in the process of contesting three All-Ireland finals in a four-year stretch. But Tipp pipped them, by a point, then drilled a Kilkenny side in the final by 10 points.
Tipp didn’t get enough credit for winning that All-Ireland, just as they got too much criticism for failing to retain it in 2017. That was an All-Ireland and a half they won in 2016, the manner of which would should have offset — but didn’t — any criticism and disappointment that came their way the following year.
Now in 2019 under Liam Sheedy, they could pull off something even more audacious and remarkable.
Already they have done something no team has ever done before, winning four Munster championship games in the one season; by virtue of topping the group, let alone having a 100% record in it, they should have been rewarded with home advantage in the Munster final.
Should they beat the reigning All-Ireland champions in the LIT Gaelic Grounds next Sunday week, that has to be the most impressive Munster championship ever won, even more so than Waterford’s high watermark of 2004 when they pulverised Clare, foiled Tipp with a last-minute goal, and then won that classic Munster final against Cork.
And should they then go on then to win the All-Ireland itself, then it simply has to go down as the greatest All-Ireland ever won.
Kilkenny won multiple All- Irelands under Cody, having won just four games over a summer. Galway under Cyril used to win them having played just two. Tipp are looking to go 7-0 this summer.
Their form and quality suggests it’s on but the law of averages suggests it’s not. Play seven games against proper opposition and you’re likely to lose at least once. Already Limerick have lost twice and you get the sense they wouldn’t be too perturbed by losing a third on Sunday week, knowing they’d fancy themselves against Dublin in an All-Ireland quarter-final and whoever wins Leinster in a semi-final.
But Tipp will want to have a Munster title to show for all their early-summer endeavours and excellence. And they’re the one team in Munster with the best and most recent experience of managing a four-week layoff before any All-Ireland semi-final, having overcome a five-week hiatus in 2016 and indeed under Sheedy in 2009.
It’s often been levelled at this group of Tipp players, even — especially — the 2009 survivors like the Mahers and Noel McGraths and Seamus Callanans that they should have more than two All-Irelands in their pockets by now.
But that’s being reductive to the point of pettiness. Even parking their contribution to years they didn’t win it all, like 2009 and 2014 and 2015, we repeat, that was an All-Ireland and a half they won in 2016. And they’d be winning that and more if they were to go all the way, and the direct way, in 2019.
Their three gold medals would weigh more like four.
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