Time for Cork football to change its nonsense grading system

The senior grade is the only one where Cork has a level playing field with Kerry, says John Fintan Daly.
Time for Cork football to change its nonsense grading system

CUP OF CHEER: St. Finbarrs' Ian Maguire celebrates with fans after the game on Sunday. Pic: Laszlo Geczo

The start of a new season, allied to St Finbarr's wonderful success in Thurles on Sunday, makes it timely to examine the current state of Cork football and to explore how we can improve standards both within the county and at inter-county level - especially how we can compete more effectively with our neighbours in Kerry. 

No doubt, the progressive thinking of Cork County Board (in particular, CEO Kevin O'Donovan) in totally rejigging the club grading system for both league and championship has resulted in healthier and more meaningful competitions in both hurling and football.

However, what we continue to ignore are the ongoing pitiful performances of our club representatives in the Munster Junior and Intermediate football championships. While our hurling clubs continue to compete well (Ballygiblin, for example), here are some stark facts that make for shocking reading for our football fraternity: Since Canovee won at the Junior grade in 2007, there have been 15 titles fought for in Munster's Junior and Intermediate. That’s 30 championships… all won by Kerry clubs with the exception of two notables in Clyda Rovers (Intermediate, 2013) and my own club, Knocknagree (Junior, 2017), the latter being the only Cork club to beat Kerry opponents in 25 championship meetings during that same period. 

Why should that be?

The lazy and uninformed answer would be, of course, that Kerry remains a football powerhouse Cork cannot compete with. In fact, the remedy for this imbalance lies entirely in Cork's own hands. Of the three club football grades in Munster, the only one pitched on a level playing field is clearly Senior. This is simply because the top grade club team from each county are competing against each other.

While the recent domination of Dr Crokes denied Cork clubs much provincial success, the emergence of other champions from Kerry will help level the playing field for Cork in the future. 

Beyond senior, the green and gold domination is total and must be tackled urgently. Whereas there are five main adult grades in Cork football, Kerry has four. Therein lies the problem. It is true that Cork has more adult football clubs than the rest of Munster put together, hence more grades. Consequently, Kerry’s second-grade champions (Intermediate) play Cork’s third grade, known as Premier Intermediate (and not the Senior A second tier). Worse still, Kerry’s third grade (Premier junior) play Cork's fifth grade, Junior (and not the third grade, Premier intermediate or even fourth grade, Intermediate).

Cork cannot ignore this ongoing imbalance. While the clubs may only look inward and believe Munster titles are of little relevance to them, they should talk to those few clubs who've tasted Munster/All Ireland success to appreciate the long-term confidence and benefits it brings. 

The difficulty is that many Cork clubs don’t wish to be regraded and see it as a demotion of their standing. My proposal would first be that Cork approach the GAA to seek its secondary grade champions (currently Senior A) compete in the Munster Intermediate championship and the current fourth grade, Intermediate, be rebranded as Premier Junior and enter the Munster Junior championship.

If we are then directed that the existing rules don’t allow for Cork's second grade to enter without rebranding the Senior A championship to, say a new Premier Intermediate grade, then let's do it (how come Kerry Senior hurling champions Kilmoyley were allowed play the Munster Intermediate Hurling Championship). 

I say this from a position of my own club being Senior A currently but I would be in favour of doing whatever is necessary for us to meaningfully compete in Munster. If that was to become the case, then a County bye-law could be added to ensure players from that new grade could not qualify to play with their divisions in the Senior Championship.

To illustrate how difficult it is for Cork clubs to overcome Kerry opposition, just look at the relative standings of our Munster representatives in 2021. Newmarket were ranked as the 25th best Cork club team in the order of merit standings (12 in each of the Premier and Senior A grades above them). They got knocked out by Clare's Corofin without even reaching a date with Kerry champions Na Gaeil, who are ranked as the ninth-best club in the Kingdom - with only eight senior clubs above them. 

Worse still, County Junior champions, Boherbue, are ranked 53rd in Cork (four grades above them, 52 clubs) while the Kerry opposition who beat them convincingly, Gneeveguilla, are ranked 25th in the Kingdom. Both Na Gaeil and Gneeveguilla went on to comfortably win provincial titles at the weekend.

The only result to buck the trend of the past 13 years was Knocknagree who overcame Dromid Pearses in 2017 even though they were ranked 56th in Cork at the time while Dromid were ranked 25th in Kerry. Any way you look at it, it is up to Cork clubs to change what is a nonsense grading system for the better. 

We are currently making great strides with new management at Senior, U20 & Minor intercounty level to emerge from Kerry’s shadow and become a football powerhouse in our own right - but that won't happen easily unless the grassroots at club level start winning Munster/All Ireland club titles and,  more importantly, expect and demand to do so on a regular basis.

Therein lies the challenge. It is high time the conversation turned to action from within so that we can all look forward to a better future for Cork football. Cork remains, without question, the greatest under-achiever in Gaelic football … the biggest county with by far the largest number of clubs and playing numbers, not to mention huge untapped resources. Only as a collective can it put an end to the lazy perception that it's 'really only a Hurling county that play a bit of football'. 

It's time to change the narrative.

*The author is an All-Ireland winning Junior manager with Knocknagree 

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