Mossy Quinn was the hero for Dublin against Laois in Croke Park. Armagh and Tyrone couldn’t be separated the first day also on Jones Road and Michael Meehan turned up when he was needed most at the death to give Galway a win over Mayo in Salthill.
All four deciders went to the wire and the aggregate winning/losing margin was six points. The attendances reflected what was on offer — a mighty 81,025 watched Dublin-Laois, there were a remarkable 60,186 in GAA HQ for the drawn northern derby, Cork-Kerry attracted approximately 32,000 and there was 29,711 in Pearse Stadium. Altogether, over 200,000 — 230,000-plus if you include the Ulster replay, were in attendance.
Fast forward to this year and while one figure grows — the total difference between the teams in this year’s finals was 51 points — another declines — the crowds for the four matches was in and around 121,000.
That represents a drop of roughly 40% from 2005. We must bear in mind only two of those attractive 2005 pairings repeated themselves this year and both the Connacht and Ulster finals were sell-outs, the former at a reduced capacity venue in Dr Hyde Park.
Ulster no longer boasts an oligarchy like that one enjoyed by Armagh and Tyrone in the mid-2000s. However, these factors don’t completely mitigate the tumble, which is inversely proportional to the widening gap between the best two teams each province is offering up.
That 51-point figure is a record but it comes as little surprise as we have been moving towards it for some time. Last year it was 39, in 2016 it was 27, and prior to that 40 in ’15, 39 in ’14, 31 in ’13 and 28 in ’12.
Before them, apart from 2008 when Dublin’s 23-point win over Wexford skewed the statistics (the difference in the other three matches was an aggregate of 12 points), the total margin for provincial finals from the introduction of the qualifiers had never risen above 25. Indeed, in both 2001 and ’02, the average winning/losing margin was just over two points.
We go back to the qualifiers because they were considered the last solution to satisfy the demand for more matches whereas now they are little but second chances for the major contenders.
Kerry have never failed to come through the backdoor, Tyrone have succeeded in it several times and Mayo are two games away from entering the last eight for the third year in succession having taken a second bite of the cherry.
In former GAA director general Páraic Duffy’s October 2016 paper supporting the Super 8, and responding to criticism of it, he didn’t attach the growing scoring margins between teams but the relatively steady fall in All-Ireland football championship attendances from 2003 onwards.
From almost 20,000 per game 15 years ago, in 2016 the average SFC crowd was 13,146. There was a bump in 2015 but the economic slump wasn’t enough to explain the lowering numbers.
The new (Super 8) structure will generate an increase in football championship attendances, which have been declining in recent years,” wrote Duffy.
It was listed as advantage number six but it may as well have been number one for it is the wisdom of crowds that the GAA look for counsel more so than competitiveness.
Ulster secretary Danny Murphy pointed out: “At the end of the day, what you need is competitive games that are relatively close to the people who are going to them.
Proximity is what makes the GAA’s heart beat but it’s the cocktail of proximity and rivalry that makes it beat strongest. Proximity can’t die but rivalry can.
Its passing was mourned in Leinster a few years back and seems to be on its way out in Munster too.
It’s not inconceivable that while Dublin should eclipse Kerry’s all-time record of eight consecutive provincial titles next year the Kingdom, as they aim for a seventh in a row in 2019, could leapfrog them in the coming years.
After recording their biggest Munster SFC win over Cork in 35 years in Killarney last July, they bettered it by 55 years on Saturday.
Cork may be a better outfit than what they produced in Páirc Uí Chaoimh but there is only one way it is going.
Both Duffy in 2016 and the Football Review Committee four years earlier came to the conclusion that counties wished to retain the provincial championships but it, as it was then, as it is now and as it has always been, is a matter for the public. And, with good reason, they have never been more uncertain about them.
Referees under scrutiny
The appointments of James McGrath and Fergal Horgan for this Sunday’s Munster and Leinster SHC finals raised an eyebrow or two.
In what is McGrath’s first Munster decider since the 2013 game when he sent off Patrick Horgan, a decision which was later rescinded by the Central Hearings Committee, his call-up is an interesting one given he missed a couple of high-profile incidents this summer.
There was the call not to send off John McGrath in the Limerick-Tipperary opener and he didn’t see the incident between Paddy Deegan and Lee Chin in the Kilkenny-Wexford match, which could have seen one if not both men dismissed.
Might he feel he has to take a firmer stance this time around?
That question also applies to Horgan whose only previous appointment this summer was the Galway-Kilkenny game in Pearse Stadium where he was incredibly soft on Daithí Burke when the Galway full-back poleaxed Luke Scanlon for a penalty.
Perhaps he felt that a yellow card and the penalty was sufficient punishment but it was a foul worthy of a dismissal and later Gearóid McInerney managed to escape what appeared a stand-out yellow card offence, which would have been his second booking.
Then again, Joe Canning was booked for an incident in the same passage of play and the Tipperary referee may have deemed one caution was enough.
Much like every player that has struck a ball in anger this summer, no referee is without sin and the call to appoint another eligible two from the refereeing panel would likely be scrutinised as closely.
However, when hurling refereeing is under the microscope, and in games which could go a long way to determining who wins the All-Ireland title, errors on the part of referees will be felt just as much as those made by the competitors.
Breaking the ice with Arlene Foster at the Ulster final
This column hopes it wasn’t alone in believing Arlene Foster’s photo opportunity with the Fermanagh jersey, Rory Gallagher and co last week was a compromise and she would not be going to the Ulster final.
Well, colour us ignorant as the Democratic Unionist Party leader took the thoroughly commendable step of attending her county team’s defeat to Donegal in Clones.
Some of her opinions haven’t exactly done justice to her surname but that can’t be said about her attendance in St Tiernach’s Park. Sitting close to her opponent, Sinn Féin Northern Ireland Assembly leader Michelle O’Neill and posing in photographs with her, under that baking west Monaghan sun it broke so much ice.
Standing for the National Anthem along with Christopher Stalford was a fine conciliatory gesture. “I am a leader of a political party that wants to have a shared society in Northern Ireland and to do that you have to take steps forward and to do that we have to build a respect and tolerance and that’s what I want to do,” she said.
Obviously, many of her constituents were at the game and, even if the vast majority of them mightn’t have voted for her, she represents them and it didn’t do anyone any harm.
The mood of the occasion was best summed up by The Impartial Reporter’s Rodney Edwards who recorded an Erne County supporter, who on hearing a man close to him boo Foster as she took her seat, turned to him and ordered: