A little less than seven years ago, Cuack Park in Ennis staged the clash of the home side Clare and neighbours, Limerick, under the then tutelage of Donal O’Grady.
Although it was ‘only’ the league, a Division Two final, everything about the game screamed of championship, a precursor to – and probable replica of – this summer’s mouth-watering tie when the same two counties face off in the last round of the new-look Munster championship.
Diarmuid O’Flynn described in this paper the following Monday how the crowd tested the ground’s capacity so much, the throw-in had to be put back five minutes.
“There were shenanigans before the throw-in when both teams took up the same position behind the pipe band for the parade. Neither side would give in and marched around almost arm-in-arm. And at throw-in time, the Limerick attack grouped on the 40 in an effort to sow confusion in the Clare defence, before then taking up their allotted positions. Even the weather was summer-like, blue skies and warm sunshine.” Christy O’Connor in the press box beside him likewise vouched for how the atmosphere was redolent of championship.
“Although it was only April, Cusack Park rattled like a boiling tureen, the old ground full of noise and giddy summer-like chaos. The air was raw with pressure and tension and this frantic match seemed destined for extra-time until an excellent goal from Kevin Downes in the 67th minute provided the rapier thrust to finally break Clare’s resistance.”
In the end Limerick would prevail on a scoreline of 4-12 to 2-13, much to the delight and relief of Seamus Hickey. “It was a cauldron out there,” he’d tell O’Flynn. “We were starting down the barrel of the gun, but you got that itch that usually only comes in a championship game – all or nothing.” As it turned out, it was nothing for his team as well. It was all for nothing.
Though during game it was as if nothing else mattered, it actually didn’t matter at all.
The following autumn, the GAA’s Central Council, in their temerity more than their wisdom, effectively relegated Limerick before they even got to puck a ball in Division One by voting to reduce the number of teams in the top flight from eight to six.
Limerick’s chief executive Mike O’Riordan ahead of the vote floated the prospect of Limerick withdrawing from the competition.
“We participated in the 2011 Division Two league in good faith. It clearly stated in the rules that if we won Division Two we would be promoted. That’s not the case now.
“If that change was brought in for 2013, with a year’s notice, then we wouldn’t have had an issue. At least then everyone would know what was at stake. Limerick people see this as an awful kick in the teeth.”
Limerick wouldn’t carry out with their threat, possibly because a sizeable share of their panel had missed out on enough hurling in the strife-ridden 2010 season as was, but O’Riordan’s words still contain a sad validity even now.
Limerick had participated in that 2011 league in good faith. In fact, everyone who paid into Cusack Park that Saturday evening did so in good faith.
They did so on the premise that they were watching a promotion decider, not just some match between two neighbouring counties. We’ve often wondered that if some spectator from that evening sued the GAA for false advertising, Croke Park wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. That by right everyone who was in Cusack Park that evening is entitled to a refund in light of Central Council’s decision to essentially deem the game null and void. The fairest – and most sensible – thing would have been to give a year’s notice of a six-team Division 1A, so teams would be promoted and relegated on the field, not by the whim of a committee. At least then, as O’Riordan said, everyone would know was going on.
And as for his comment that Limerick people saw their demotion by administration as “an awful kick in the teeth”, well, even he had no idea how hard or far it would put Limerick back.
Seven years on from the euphoria of that evening in Ennis and Hickey still hasn’t pucked a ball in Division 1A. In all that intervening time Limerick have finished among the top three teams in Division 1B – in fact, in all but two of those seasons, they’ve finished in the top two. In football you win promotion for finishing in the top two of a division. But not in hurling. There can only be one, and as it has transpired, that one has never been Limerick.
It has been costly in every sense of the term; O’Riordan has estimated that the county has been losing out on an average of €100,000 each year it has remained stuck outside 1A.
Naturally, the responsibility for much of Limerick’s misfortune rests with the county itself, but it’s also undeniable that there have been other, outside, forces at play.
In five of the past seven seasons, including this one, Limerick have had a club team make it through to the semi-finals of the All Ireland series. Three of the past four years a Limerick club team has been involved on St Patrick’s Day, their prolonged unavailability obviously compromising the county side’s promotion prospects.
There’s a long string of reasons why the club championships should be completed before Christmas but the case of Limerick, seemingly forever stuck in the Groundhog Division that’s 1B, adds to it.
Then there’s the pretty fundamental – if largely unspoken – matter of what is the actual function of the league itself? All the more so with the new-look championship.
John Allen has suggested before that the league is primarily a series of preparatory games for the championship, and therefore should be structured similarly to how hurling (and football) was run off in the early noughties, where Division 1B was the equal of 1A. Under that system all the top teams had enough leeway to experiment against a Laois, while a Laois – or a Limerick – would get to pit themselves against the top sides. That format was done away with eventually because at the time it was felt there were only eight or nine competitive counties but how many real slackers are there in Division 1B now?
Johnny Coen has pointed out ahead of Sunday’s promotion decider against Limerick on Sunday how life in Division 1B has been good for Galway. They won last year’s league – and All Ireland – from there. This season they’ve been able to further experiment from there while retaining surely the lowest profile any reigning All Ireland champions have enjoyed over a spring (Compare and contrast to beaten finalists, Waterford, scrutinised and criticised after three consecutive games – and defeats – in 1A). The last three league champions came from 1B. The next three could as well.
There are so many other anomalies with the league. The retention of the quarter-finals. That a team who finished third or fourth in Division 1B can win the league outright while with football the GAA would never think to pit the top team in Division Two into a league semi-final with the three top teams from Division One, and thus free up the league final curtain-raiser slot for teams from Division Three (Two years ago there were only 8,000 people in Croke Park when Gary Brennan lifted the Division Three Cup on a Saturday night. That could have been in front of 80,000, ahead of an imminent final featuring the Dubs, just as Banty’s Monaghan enjoyed Sunday curtain-raiser status beating Meath in 2005 in front of a big crowd ahead of the Armagh-Wexford Division One final).
It still seems to have escaped the GAA authorities that a major reason football in the noughties was so competitive – the Fermanaghs and Wexfords making All Ireland semi-finals, Sligo winning Connacht – was because they were also regularly competing in a 16-team Division One, rubbing shoulders with the Dubs and Tyrones, not cut off from a spring-style Super Eight that has become like a gated community.
How a Paddy O’Rourke would have been a lot less likely to have retired in frustration had Meath been able to play Kerry and Mayo in the spring, just like his county routinely did in the noughties even though they weren’t among the top-eight teams in Division One then either.
You cannot restructure the championship in isolation from the league, something you would hope the new GAA director general will recognise more than his predecessor did.
A review of the all competitions, especially the leagues, is overdue.
Even if Limerick finally win promotion this Sunday.