Tony Leen: Surely there’s a pit-of-the-stomach anxiety about Munster football now

The staleness of Munster football shines an uncomplimentary light on football structures generally.
Tony Leen: Surely there’s a pit-of-the-stomach anxiety about Munster football now

28 May 2022; David Moran with his son Eli and Paul Geaney with his son Paidi play on the pitch after the Munster GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Kerry and Limerick at Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Notwithstanding the aggravation of big GAA weekends deflated by foul mismatches, at this stage there must be real pit-of-the-stomach anxiety about the future of the football blue riband in Munster.

There will invariably be loud table-thumpers who roar change instinctively but only a traffic bollard is oblivious to the rank bad staleness of Munster football and to the uncomplimentary light it shines on football structures generally.

That might seem rich given Limerick were making a first final appearance since 2010 in Killarney on Saturday, but nothing as ironic as the half of Special Congress last October who chose to long-finger the possibility of a new beginning for Gaelic Football. Like this can wait.

On the day Kerry obliterated Limerick and Dublin did likewise to Kildare to win a 12th consecutive Leinster title, we moved on with great haste onto the European Cup rugby final featuring an Irish legend edging Ireland’s finest before settling down to Parisian drama featuring Liverpool and Real Madrid. 

At 5am Saturday in Dublin airport, as many if not more red-clad fans were heading for Paris as blue ones flying to Marseille. When the conversation gets heated about giving away the prime months of August and September to ‘rival sports’, it would be prudent to consider the quality, not the calendar. That’s where the market is.

When the alternative of a spring provincial series and a league-based championship was eschewed by the association’s voting bloc last October, there was relief among mandarins that championship change for football was limited to some fringe embroidering.

In Munster, more than anywhere, there should have been overwhelming disappointment, for it houses the worst Grade 1 competition in Irish sport.

With the cash cow that is the hurling round robin in the province enhancing the bottom line, perhaps there were less furrowed brows on Saturday at a football final attendance in Killarney of only 14,587. Or that Kerry collected their 83rd title with barely a backwards glance. That’s not a good thing. Only when futures are threatened by famine does anyone look beyond the front row for change.

For too long the notion of something competitive was perpetuated by Mick O’Dwyer’s annual insistence that Cork weren’t only the second best side in the province but in the country. To blame Cork’s remorseless slide, however, would be to excuse the fathomless void in administrative urgency, nous or inventiveness to resuscitate the football championship in Munster that is now pitifully unfit for a grandstand.

No one was expecting anything less than a rout in Killarney and Kerry dutifully obliged with a 23-point dismantling of Limerick, 1-28 to 0-8. The temptation here might be to pat Billy Lee’s side on the head and patronise them with ‘game’ plaudits. Limerick were fulfilling a fixture just about as much as Kerry were. Lee’s squad will now face a Qualifier winner in what is a more reliable benchmark of their work this campaign. In the most equitable competition they play in, Limerick won promotion and made it to Croke Park. Whatever they achieve hereafter, it’s a commendable body of work.

Kerry’s competitive concern is also about benchmarks, because there are none in Munster as they head out into open terrain. Once again, they become susceptible to an ambush or an Ulster-fried opponent who will go through them for a shortcut. Jack O’Connor shrugged on Saturday when the Munster Championship was submitted for discussion, but presumably that was a gesture of impotence rather than disinterest. It was shocking not to see Kerry vote for the summer league last October, but perhaps had it not followed their All-Ireland semi-final blindsider against Tyrone, they might have taken a broader view.

There may be other reasons, but it’s a reliable indicator of Kerry’s anxiety that they took a challenge game the week before against Roscommon. That’s a seldom-trodden path by Kerry managers and one that O’Connor suggested they may do again before the All-Ireland quarter-final in a month’s time.

Not that the state of the football championship is just a stone under Kerry’s door but one can understand why anticipation is palpable in the county for the modified championship format in 2023 that guarantees a batch of games at the business end of the campaign should they progress beyond Munster.

Don’t blame Cork for the unimpeded demise of the Munster Championship. They have their own issues, and anyone with the long-term development of football in the biggest county should be as invested in Wednesday’s provincial minor final against Kerry as next weekend’s senior Qualifier against Louth. If the best argument for continuing with the Munster Championship stet is that Cork sporadically rise up and bite the Kingdom, is there a more eloquent argument for change?

David Clifford’s absence didn’t help the chance of curious spectators, but his replacement in attack, Killian Spillane, may have been the day’s other storyline. To see Tom Spillane’s son glide about a pitch and kick scores off-balance, off both feet and from the margins, makes one wonder how he isn’t an everyday superstar. He made seismic contributions to the 2019 All-Ireland final and almost rescued the 2020 disaster in Páirc Uí Chaoimh but mediocrity in the interim has been costly with Jack O’Connor opting for the more prosaic abilities of his brother in a reshaped attack. 

The Kerry coach has long been a Killian Spillane admirer, and presented a stepping stone on Saturday. He scored 1-3.

“Killian has been going very well in training,” said O’Connor afterwards. “We just went with a very offensive team because we felt we’d have a lot of the ball and we thought that Limerick would go defensive which they did. He’s a very natural footballer. I had him as a minor and he was the best minor forward I’d say that I put through my hands. He’s very, very talented and just hoping that today will bring him on and just help his confidence. He had to wait his chance and, to be fair, he’s reacted the right way and has been very good in training so we kind of had to pick him.” 

Clifford’s unavailability isn’t a concern yet but he will need to get a body of training into him before Kerry resume action at the end of June against a Qualifier side that may resemble a combine harvester to the Munster champions who have won their two games in this year’s renewal by a combined total of 34 points. The nature of David Clifford’s ailment was not specified by Jack O’Connor after Saturday’s final but presumably it’s less significant than the parlous state of Munster football.

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