Last July in Killarney, while we stood among the thousands in the Michael O’Connor Terrace looking out at both the majesty of the mountains in the distance and the depressing familiarity nearer by of two lop-sided Munster football finals, the thought occurred to us: This has been going for generations. Our grandfathers witnessed this and, if things don’t change, our grandkids could well be subjected to this.
In the minor game, the Clare footballers had been trounced by a rampant David Clifford and company, 2-21 to 0-3, just as the second-previous Clare team to make a Munster minor final, way back in 1964, had been drilled by 17 points by their other provincial slavemasters, Cork.
The senior game was marginally closer, yet for ardent Rebel supporters of a certain vintage, it was still akin to a bad drug trip, triggering ’Nam-like nightmarish flashbacks to the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the Cork challenge in a Munster final in Fitzgerald Stadium had last been this feeble.
For those of a more detached persuasion, the afternoon still had its upside. It was the first post-Gooch Munster final and yet the tradition of the ingenious Kerry forward was clearly living on in the form of Clifford and Paul Geaney. Just like those mountains, the splendour of Kerry football and the Kerry footballer, it seems, will always be with us.
Will the provincial championships, though? At least in their present state?
One of the ironies of the provincial championship is that the same fixture that best exemplifies why it should be discarded (or at least radically altered) is also rolled out as a standout exhibit for its retention: Clare-Kerry.
Only minutes after seeing their teenaged countymen being decimated in that minor Munster final, the Clare senior footballers of 1992 were honoured and introduced to the crowd.
Twenty-five years earlier they had shook up the world, stunning Kerry in Seamus Moynihan’s first game for the county and Jack O’Shea’s last.
It was one of the most influential matches in the history of Gaelic Games, and not just because it gave birth to the legend that’s Marty Morrissey.
After Clare ’92, everyone started to think anything was possible. That same year, Donegal won their first All-Ireland.
Two years later, Leitrim won Connacht, their first since 1927. The year after that, the Clare hurlers located a missing person called Liam MacCarthy, their manager Ger Loughnane, aping the hill- and back-breaking training regime that John Maughan drew up for the footballers.
In the decade that followed, counties such as Westmeath and Laois won Leinster, while
Fermanagh and Wexford contested All-Ireland semi-finals. They were the revolution years, in football as much as hurling, and the first shots were fired by Maughan and his merry men.
Since then, the revolution has been quashed. Limerick football struck up the odd
rebellion, under Liam Kearns in 2003 and 2004, and then Mickey Ned O’Sullivan in 2009 and 2010, but fell short every time.
Twenty-six years on from the Clare rising, every subsequent Munster senior football champion has been either Kerry or Cork, just as it was for 56 years prior to ’92.
Traditionalists and defendants of the provincial championships like to reference the rivalries that the system has cultivated: Meath-Dublin, Galway-Mayo, Tyrone-Derry, Kerry-Cork.
But what you don’t hear the same people rattle off are the one-sided pairings that the system inflicts on everyone: Mayo-Leitrim, Cork-Waterford, Kerry-Limerick, Kerry-Clare.
Colm Collins, who has tilted brilliantly and manfully at the windmills in recent years, tells a story to convey the Clare football condition and what he and his fellow county men are up against.
A 17-year-old is in the local shop, where a neighbour behind the counter asks has he any news. The young fella informs him he’s been called up to the county minor football team. The shopkeeper heartily congratulates him: “Good man, that’s great, well done!”
Then, he enquires as to who they have in the first round. Kerry, he’s told. At that, the shopkeeper’s enthusiasm visibly fades. “Oh, I see...”
That’s been the way as a Clare footballer for generations, even in spite of the beacon that was ‘92. Reared on a thousand such conversations and interactions with well-meaning people who didn’t know better, because they’ve known nothing else.
It’s probably why Clare were the county who proposed at Congress back in February an open-draw minor championship, one which would free them from the monotony and shackles of Kerry or Cork every year, and allow their seasons to be defined by other means and teams. After last year’s Munster minor final, the same Clare team that was destroyed by Kerry pushed Dublin all the way in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
You’d have thought such a motion would have gained enough support to go through, but unfortunately for them, all the whipping boys of the Gaelic football world did not unite, not realising they had nothing to lose but their chains.
Change, though, could be on the way, at senior level at least.
Further senor championship reform in the coming years is inevitable, judging by comments from both the new GAA president John Horan and new director-general Tom Ryan.
In an interview last weekend with Philip Lanigan of the Mail on Sunday, Ryan outlined that he would be meeting with the Club Players Association (CPA) over the next fortnight.
That’s what the CPA have been advocating since their inception. That, rather than making every change on an ad-hoc piecemeal basis, the GAA should consult with its various constituents and look with a clear mind and a clean slate as to how best everyone can work and co-exist together.
That would involve looking at everything that is currently in place, starting with the current calendar. As of now, the national league is played in late January and all of February and March. Why? The rationale now may be that the GAA needs national fixtures and profile at that time of year, but does everyone appreciate that or is that logic valid enough?
At the end of that process, Horan and Ryan may well find that inter-county shouldn’t start until at least mid-February, thus avoiding clashes with third-level and condensing the duration — and costs — of the inter-county season.
April didn’t work everywhere as a club month, not least because not every county’s inter-county championship campaign starts at the same time; fine for Dublin to play club championship in April, when the county team won’t be meeting a fellow top-16 team until June 10, while Galway and Mayo, in contrast, face off on May 13.
Ryan and Horan may well address such an imbalance with a system where all teams commence championship at the same time, similar to this year’s hurling championship.
Also, if you have a tiered championship, can you fit the provincial championships into the summer as well?
By the time they’ve consulted with everyone, they may come to the same conclusion that Ciarán Whelan did six years ago : Reverse the current scheme of things, play the provincial championships in the spring (in groups), and then have a round-robin championship in the summer.
That way, the provincial councils still have their football championships to look after, just like they have the hurling in the summer. They’ll still draw good crowds, with people craving inter-county football from having to wait that bit later for it to come around.
The Carlows can still have their crack at the Dublins, while Jim Gavin’s men are still limbering up.
Eamon O’Hara’s grandchildren will still have some idea of what a big deal it was he and Sligo won back in 2007.
The only thing that would be lost is the national league – and sure that’s essentially what we’d be getting in the summer, only it would be called the All-Ireland.
Change along those lines is inevitable, though it won’t be until at least 2021.
Before then, though, the provincial football championships may yet witness groundbreaking history, even in Munster.
If ever there is a year that someone other than Kerry and Cork are going to win the Munster championship, then it is 2018.
Never have Kerry been more vulnerable in a Munster first-round game to an opponent other than Cork.
Éamonn Fitzmaurice has to blend all those youngsters he blooded in the league with some returning veterans, who missed that spring campaign, as well as embed certain tactical systems that he couldn’t during the relentless game week-in week-out nature of the league.
Get over that first round and they’ll push Dublin as close as anyone this summer, but they have to get over that first-round. The core of the Clare team they’ll likely face has been on a trajectory very similar to that of Maughan’s team leading into 1992 and now they crave a similar moment in time.
If they can’t take Kerry on June 2, if they can’t then win Munster out in 2018, when will they?
Tipperary will be thinking along similar lines. Their likely semi-final opponents, Cork, are very beatable. Kerry, beatable. Why shouldn’t they beat them?
Alternatively, when else are they likely to beat them? As Eminem, that close observer of the GAA scene, once noted: This chance comes once in a lifetime.
It’s time for a new champion. And soon after, time for a new system. Future generations of Clare minors frequenting their local shop are owed that.
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