Relegation: GAA’s hidden horror

It’s the taboo word within the club game.

Relegation. When it strikes, a club is cast in shame, drastic reviews take place and for those communities defined by the senior team it makes the winter longer, darker and depressing.

When that club has a name that used to strike fear into opponents across the land it hurts all the more.

There are several causes: emigration, complacency, injuries, a bad run at the wrong time... but there is only one cure and that’s to bounce back straight away.

Galway’s Clarinbridge could have faced it this year. Had they lost to Liam Mellows and Carnmore beat Ardrahan in the relegation group the unthinkable will have happened. A year and seven months after hammering O’Loughlin Gaels in the All-Ireland Club SHC final, they would have found themselves in the Intermediate grade. Relegated.

But an appeal lodged by Liam Mellows to the Galway County Board resulted in no relegation from the championship for a second consecutive year. Nightmare avoided.

They are the lucky ones though. For some that day has come already.

Buffers Alley conquered the All-Ireland title back in 1989 and remain the only Wexford club to have done it. They haven’t won a senior title since 1992 but have always been viewed as aristocrats within the county. Complacency set in this year and in the relegation final Glynn-Bartown came back from 11 points down to send them to intermediate level for the first time in 50 years.

“We probably hadn’t prepared right and we just got caught,” admitted club chairman Seamus Kenny.

“Once you get into the relegation, it’s the first year in Wexford we’ve just gone back to 12 senior teams, and it was an absolute dogfight.

“We were in quarter-finals and semi-finals and the final a couple of years ago. We didn’t see it coming and it caught us by surprise completely. We’ve ended up where we are now very quickly.”

The quest to bounce back has already gathered momentum. A meeting in the clubhouse recently attracted 80 people willing to help out. But they know it won’t be easy. They know they will be a big target for teams that once looked up to them.

“Our aim is to come up quickly because the intermediate clubs will all want a go at us and playing Buffers Alley will be like an All-Ireland for them.

“A name is no defence. Once we went back to 12 teams in the county no one was prepared and didn’t realise how easily it could happen.”

Their decline was completely out of their hands. Since 1974 they had flown the Erris flag in the Mayo SFC but when the ESB power plant at Bellacorick and Bord na Móna operation in Oweninny were closed in 2005 they drifted out of contention.

Towards the end of October the final blow was landed and Kiltane were relegated. An entire defence was ripped away in the past two years as London and Australia offered jobs to their best and brightest.

Paddy Corrigan captained the side in 1972 when they won the junior championship, the intermediate title followed the year after and they contested a county semi-final in their first year at senior level.

His son Rory is one of those who had to leave Ireland. Paddy was part of club delegations sent to businesses in North Mayo and beyond hoping to secure work for their players but the queues for work were long and they weren’t the only ones knocking on doors.

“We’ve been rattled with it,” said Paddy.

“Two of our players played with London the last couple of years, Tony Gaughan and John Scanlon. My son Rory, another back, played for Parnells in London this year. We’ve lost one to Australia, David Cuffe, and two more to London too. About five or six backs and we’re really up against it.”

For the past three seasons they scored more than any other Mayo team in the league but crucially were conceding more than the rest. Work on the Corrib gas pipeline has kept a few bodies about but everyone knows that’s short term.

“The Tiger never came here,” said Paddy.

“I worked for the ESB myself for 37 years and Bord na Móna had 300 fellas working for them. We had over 150 of them.

“It’s difficult because all the Erris teams, Belmullet, Kilcommon and ourselves, are all at a low ebb at the moment.”

In the ’80s it was called the brain drain, the large scale emigration of a young people with technical skills. In Kiltane though it’s a relatively new phenomenon. Whereas in the past players left secondary schools and got jobs within Ireland, now a combination of third level education and the national recession is robbing the team of players.

“These lads all went off to college, got their qualifications and then had to move further away because there was no employment around here.

“It was going down for a while. We try our best. We have still one of the best clubs in the county. We’re the biggest sellers of county board tickets over the last four of five years with 400 tickets sold at €100 a head which for a pretty small population is a great thing.

“With Corrib, all those jobs didn’t go local. We have guys down there on security waiting to head off again. It’s a short-term job. It’s brilliant to have it but it’s a difficult situation and the decline of football in Erris is striking.”

They’re confident they can return though. To live in that part of Ireland requires a tough spirit and the club epitomises it on the field. They had to play in the Mayo MAFC this year despite struggling for numbers having only competed in the 13-a-side C grade up until then.

“The heads dropped in the relegation play-offs this year. Usually we have a great fighting spirit and the fact it didn’t show it is a worry but we’ll get it back.

“Our minors typified the spirit this year. We nearly got Knockmore in the end. They had about 30 players and still we gave them the fright of their lives and only lost by a point or two in the end. It showed the spirit of Kiltane.”

They might not bounce back straight away though. Their situation doesn’t allow that kind of optimism but Paddy insists they will return one day.

“We probably won’t have a minor team next year because we don’t have the numbers. We’ve a gap between 16 and 18 but from that down we have a great underage structure and there’s an awful lot of work going into it. We might have a period where we go through a lean phase but we’ll bounce back.

“The lads in London are promising to come back for games. That would put great expense on the club so whether we can afford it or not I don’t know.”

Castleisland Desmonds’ name is known the length and breadth of Ireland. All-Ireland club SFC winners in 1985 they produced Kerry legends Charlie Nelligan, Mossie Lyons and Dermot Hannafin.

After fading to intermediate level in 2003, hope emerged in the guise of a young team and ultimate victory in 2010’s Celebrity Bainisteoir. But it never materialised and after five of that team left for Australia, they were relegated to Division 3 of the Kerry league last month.

“There’s a lot of disappointment in the club,” said chairman Martin Murphy.

“We have a very young team and two thirds of our panel are under 23. Our future is promising but the problem is keeping those guys around. There’s no industry or anything like that to keep them around Castleisland.

“Before we always had construction to get guys summer jobs and there were a lot of lads in the club with their own construction companies to give the lads work to keep them around but that’s gone now.”

They haven’t met up for a club meeting yet but plans are forming. Former Kerry goalkeeper Ger Reidy is returning home from England to go to college. That’s what they need.

“People are disappointed but everyone believes we’ll bounce back up again. It’s been over 30 years since we played Division 3.

“Two years ago we won a relegation play-off and last year we were still going strong after winning the Celebrity Bainisteoir but with the lads that are 22 or 23, we’ve been losing them to emigration,” added Murphy.

When they were relegated they made national headlines. Cork’s St Finbarr’s and Mayo’s Charlestown — two of the most high-profile relegated clubs in recent years.

In 2007 the Barrs went down to intermediate level. They provided the GAA with the likes of Jimmy Barry-Murphy, John Allen and Donal O’Grady. But when they lost their first round game against Aghada in 2007 and finished with 12 men, the subsequent suspension fallout left them weakened.

After losing the second round to Clonakilty, they went straight into the relegation battle and needed to avoid losing to Douglas by five points to stay up. They lost by six.

“It was a huge shock for the club that had been senior for all its existence but it did bring good football people and good Barrs people back to the club,” said Martin Murphy, St Finbarr’s senior football chairman.

“We were exceptionally lucky in that we had Mick Comyns who became football chairman and Tony Leahy came in as coach having been hugely successful with U21 Cork teams. He would have been capable of running any inter-county team so we were lucky he came in.”

Beating St Vincent’s the following year in the Premier Intermediate seemed like a formality for everyone outside the club. But internally they had revolutionised the way they prepared forever.

“It made us very focused as a club on the type of preparation that needed to be done at every stage,” said Murphy.

“The word relegation changed from being a word to a reality. It’ll either kill you or cure you. We had a number of very good people that put the shoulder to the wheel and focused. And we had the quality of player too that had been winning at underage. Did it make us stronger? Yes. Did we think it would at the time we were relegated? No.”

So much stronger that they contested the 2009 and 2010 senior finals.

They don’t mention the word relegation anymore. They fear and respect it but have made a conscious decision to focus on the future. That’s why when you ask what would have happened if they didn’t come straight back up, Martin is relieved they didn’t have to contemplate it.

“I suppose the fact we were only there for a year that was the best response. I would like to think if we weren’t successful in the first year that we would have got up in year two and if we didn’t get up in year two, we would have done it in year three but I wouldn’t like that to be tested.”

For Charlestown, who won a Connacht SFC club title in 2001 and went undefeated through the 2009 league and championship in Mayo, the answer is a lot clearer.

They beat Burrishoole in the county IFC final in October but former All Star John Casey believed they had to come straight back up or face complete disaster. Two cruciates, a broken ankle and ligament damage robbed them of their spine this year while their best forward Paul Mulligan emigrated.

“If we got into a rut the mindset could have changed. With the current economic situation you don’t know what you are going to do with losing players.

“That’s the biggest downfall of teams and when you hear of it happening in the great Crossmaglen you wonder what hope do smaller clubs have.

“Had we not got up, some of the players are the wrong side of 30 and might have thought ‘well that’s it’. I know some of our older players hung in after we got relegated because they weren’t going to leave the club like that.

“Ginger [David Tiernan] had retired and didn’t play football this year. He was a real leader of the club. We drew our semi-final and nearly threw it away against Kilmaine and with all the injuries the management were looking at the bench and thinking ‘who’s going to win me a game here?’ Drastic times and drastic measures came so Ginger got the call three days before a county semi-final replay.

“We don’t belong in intermediate but if we didn’t win there could have been a massive clear out and we’d be in serious trouble. The likes of Tom Parsons is working in Cardiff now, would he bother coming back for intermediate football? Probably not.”

The effect it’s had on the community has revitalised the town. After a depressing winter last year, they went on a run to win the Connacht Club IFC.

“It’s amazing the last couple of weeks how the vibe in the town has changed,” said John. “The flags are out and everyone is talking football again. Everyone pulls together. Already we’re talking about the next few weeks. It shortens the winter for us and creates a feelgood factor that has been missing for a while.”

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