The Munster football final may be a feast day in decline, but it still has adherents.
A chat with Tom Spillane, who lit up many southern deciders for Kerry, isn’t long convincing you of its power, though the Templenoe man offers some qualifications.
“The Munster final’s a classic day, particularly for Cork people coming down in Killarney, let’s be honest,” says Spillane.
“July, a hot day, the cars streaming through Kenmare all morning, 40,0000 people in the town...”
And the tar melting on the road?
“Absolutely, and all true. Now I like having games on a Saturday night, but it’s a different kettle of fish. It doesn’t have the same ring to it as it used to have, when the whole of Sunday was built around it.
“And the game this weekend should establish where they are — Cork and Kerry alike. Cork are regrouping, they have some established players still there and are going well in challenge games, if they count for anything. But last year, when Kerry won by 17 points, they (Kerry) didn’t learn anything. That wasn’t a test. Kerry had a good league and made the league final but had a poor second half that day, so there are still questions about them.
“I thought we did well against Clare in the first game in the second half but they weren’t as good in the second half, though the conditions may have something to do with that.
“The whole Munster final thing has changed in that it’s clearly not as important as it was, but it’s still Kerry-Cork, it’s still a rivalry. And it’s a rivalry that’s needed in the GAA. Both teams will want to show their best, because Kerry don’t like to be beaten by Cork and vice versa. It’s an important game and hopefully it’ll be better than last year. In the first eight minutes of that game Cork got two goals, but after that, nothing.”
It’s an interesting point, because alongside the revamped structures, it’s still important for the GAA to find a place for tradition, pageantry, and occasion, though the balance is hard to strike.
“A very hard balance to strike. There’s no doubt the sense of occasion has waned in Munster in recent years, and it’s also waned in Leinster.
“Ulster always brings that sense of passion, and maybe Connacht as well, but Munster and Leinster have gone backwards, if anything, in recent years.”
Dominance ebbs and flows, of course. Spillane admits freely that success dictates opinion when it comes to the competition.
“Your view of the championship is always going to be different when the wheels come off the wagon, as it were. In my time, the writing was on the wall for us in around 1986 — we were still belting it out but only just. Then the following year there was the draw, though I still wonder how we drew that game, and Cork came to Killarney and hammered us in the replay, a young, vibrant team that had been knocking on the door.
“There’s great credit due to Mick O’Dwyer for the All-Irelands we won from 1984 to 1986, but at that stage he was really re-inventing the wheel with the same bunch of players. Which might have come against us later, but that’s always the challenge with team-building, trying to work out who to keep and who to let go.”
And now? Tomorrow evening Kerry will have a new manager prowling the sideline.
“It’s our first year with Peter (Keane) and his management team, and he’s starting from scratch because he’s not Éamonn (Fitzmaurice). That’s why the Munster championship is so important — the league was good but not great, we blooded players and got to the final and so on, but championship is different, and Saturday is important for us to find out where Kerry are at.
“We need to know that because once you go beyond Munster there are plenty of other big teams around who’ll soon tell us where we are pretty quick, the teams in the Super 8s will ask you hard questions. We found that out quick enough last year, going up to places like Clones for championship football.”
Would Spillane have liked that format himself, touring the country and taking on tough teams in unfamiliar
“No, I wouldn’t have liked it at all!” laughs the Killarney-based auctioneer. “We had our route — first round of Munster, Munster final, All-Ireland semi-final, final. This format, going to different pitches ... if you go back to the years of the back door the draw was often pretty important.
“Go back a few years further to 2009, when Kerry played Sligo in the qualifiers in Tralee and got out of jail, absolutely. Kerry went on to win the All-Ireland that year but even though that game was played in Tralee, Kerry were still put to the pin of their collar to win. If that had been played in Markievicz Park who knows how some of those decisions would have gone?
“Would I have liked to play in the backdoor system? No is the answer. And the same for the Super 8s.”
Fair enough. He played on the team held up as the greatest ever, so how does he view the Dublin side hunting a five-in-a-row?
“They’re awesome. Absolutely awesome. They have the benefit of (manager) Jim Gavin — he brings that huge sense of confidence, of calmness, particularly in public. He’s at a different level. When I played we were used to (Mick O’) Dwyer and how he operated, and I’m sure the Dublin lads are used to Jim Gavin and how he operates. They’re used to winning, we were the same.
“Of course, with all teams when a new manager comes in he has a different approach, different training ideas, tactics, all of that, so the players have to buy into all of that and it can take time. Dublin haven’t had that issue for a few years, and that’s a big help to them. I think Jim Gavin sums up everything that’s good about Dublin.
“I can only imagine how he deals with the panel, which is so strong: The 26th man would walk onto any team in Ireland. But the way he brings fellas on it’s obviously important how they’re doing in training, their skills are good, they’re very competitive... their club championship is also very strong, which helps.
“That’s something people don’t pick up on, by the way, how important the club championship is to the county team. How strong is the Cork club championship now? The Kerry championship?
He’ll roll into Cork tomorrow for the game and pay particular attention to one of the Kerry players: Killian, his son. Is it harder to watch when one of your own is involved?
“It is, I’d much prefer to be playing myself. My own father died young and never saw us play and my late mother never went to any games, she’d be working at home. When I go to games myself I try to pick a quiet corner and watch.
“Look, all you can do is listen to it, encourage them and wish them all the best — but there are times when it’s not easy to watch. I’d prefer to be playing myself and just have that to worry me, but we’d all love to still be playing, wouldn’t we?”