Turkeys and Christmas
In 1997, I was working in Dublin with a colleague who played senior intercounty football with Cavan. I saw first-hand the commitment required back then to play senior football for your county but it pales by comparison to what is required in the present. And I saw, first-hand, what it means to win a provincial title. Cavan are the most successful team in Ulster having won the Anglo-Celt Cup 40 times. Back in 1997 though, they were enduring a famine that had stretched back to 1969. Cavan won the Ulster Final against Derry in Clones in 1997 and it reminded me of Killarney in 1987. Yes, a provincial final win can mean that much.
I remember 1994 when Leitrim played Mayo in the Connaught final. Prior to the game, Leitrim had only ever won one provincial title and that was back in 1927. Sixty-seven years is a long time to be soldiering on the football fields of Connaught with no silverware to show for it. The final was played in the Hyde in Roscommon and Leitrim won by two points. I am sure that attendance at this final is akin to the GPO on Easter week in 1916. So many people claim to have been there that Dr. Hyde Park must have been twice the size that it actually is. But the scenes that occurred at the final whistle live long in the memory of those present and even those of us watching on television. Further proof, were it needed, of the value of a provincial title.
I remember the Leinster Final of 2010, between Louth and Meath. Louth hadn’t won a Leinster title in 53 years, and hadn’t beaten Meath in Championship football for 35 years. Indeed they hadn’t even contested a Leinster final in those 50 years. With time almost up, they led by a point. And those from the wee county in the crowd of over 48,000 began to believe. But fate intervened and a goal that should never have been allowed to stand was given to Meath and Louth hearts were broken. Writing in the Irish Independent at the time, Colm Keys said it was “hard to disagree” that it was “the greatest injustice for many a year in Croke Park”, and remarked: “The 320th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne is being commemorated today, but that surely didn’t throw up a talking point to match a Joe Sheridan goal that will have the counties, divided by the same river, at odds for years to come”. Louth’s search for a Leinster title goes on.
I remember Clare footballers winning a Munster football title in 1992. Defeating Kerry, no less, in the final. The commentary from that game is memorable as a young Marty Morrissey could barely contain himself throughout and coined the phrase about no cows being milked in Clare for at least a week. Provincial final wins can make heroes of men, even Marty Morrissey.
And who can forget November 2020 when Tipp bridged an 85 year gap and secured a Munster Senior Football title. The great sadness that day was the fact that it was behind closed doors and the loyal family of Tipperary football supporters could not cherish the moment on the pitch alongside the players. But no matter, we had won a provincial crown.
Last weekend Derry won their first Ulster title in 24 years. Dublin won their twelfth in a row and Kerry won their 11th in 13 years. Huge joy on the terraces in Clones, indifference on the terraces of Croke Park and Fitzgerald Stadium. Now the Ulster final was no great spectacle but that doesn’t take from the pleasure Derry fans will feel following their win. ‘Woeful shite, but we’ll take it anyway’ was how Joe Brolly summed it up in the Irish Independent.
Is there a need to change the provincial football championship? There isn’t an awful lot wrong with the Ulster Championship other than the games are hard to watch. They are competitive, counties are for the most part equally matched. Antrim have only ever won one and Fermanagh have yet to win one, so maybe the current structure in Ulster doesn’t suit everyone. That said, no one is going to gift Antrim or Fermanagh an Ulster crown, those are hard earned and with the redevelopment of Casement Park in Belfast, a strong Antrim may well become a side product of that construct.
The Munster Championship brought one great day in recent memory for both Tipperary and Clare but, other than that, it is a non-event. Kerry have won the title 82 times. If you add up all the titles won by the other five counties in Munster you get 51, so that means that Kerry have won 62% of all the Munster titles that have ever been contested. Dublin have 46% of all the Leinster titles that have ever been contested. If we break away from the current provincial championship structure we do so in the knowledge that those great scenes in Clones, or Pairc Ui Chaoimh or the Gaelic Grounds will be no more. Not that Tipp or Clare or Cavan footballers won’t have great days anymore, it just means that it would be outside the straightjacket of the provincial championship.
The hurling championship faced a similar, but less acute, problem a few years ago. What was to be done about Galway? Continuing on with the practice of allowing Galway into the latter stages of the championship, sometimes fresh and ready, sometimes undercooked, was no longer tenable. The Munster hurling championship was competitive and fit for purpose and the re-introduction of Galway into Munster was not a viable option. Remember, Galway had played in the Munster hurling Championship between 1959 and 1969 winning only one of their 12 championship games. Leinster was always going to be a much better fit for the Tribesmen.
Not everyone in Leinster was wild about Galway’s arrival. Even to this day Galway are excluded from the Leinster Minor hurling Championship despite being allowed to compete in the under 20 equivalent. No, I don’t understand that either. Joe Canning was only starting his senior intercounty career when Galway entered the Leinster championship. ‘ In all honesty, the Leinster Championship didn’t mean an awful lot to me. It wasn’t as if we were gunning to get in there so that we could have a chance to win a trophy. That wasn’t what it was about. No, the big draw in getting into
Leinster was the chance to play competitive games in the championship, but especially against Kilkenny’ Canning wrote recently in the Irish Times.
So, we have ended up with an elite of 11 hurling counties divided into two groups and everyone is guaranteed at least four highly competitive games. Underneath, that there are six teams competing in the Joe McDonagh Cup with the winners gaining entry into the top flight competing for Liam McCarthy. Below that six teams compete in the Christy Ring Cup with the winners of that gaining entry to the Joe McDonagh and below that you have the Lory Meagher Cup. Four tiers, 29 teams, all playing at their respective standard. It is working, but Kerry might have something to say about the inherent bias against them were they to win the Joe McDonagh Cup but that is for another day (or year).
That same structure wouldn’t work in football for a number of reasons. There is no Ulster or Connaught Hurling Championship. The retention of the Leinster and Munster Hurling Championships was possible because only one county, Galway, had to be shoehorned into the structure. Had there been other counties looking for admission then the structure would have fallen apart. Next year both Antrim and Galway will be playing in the Leinster Championship which goes to show that it is a Leinster Championship in name only.
So, can we achieve reform of the football championship? Can we have more meaningful matches and more meaningful finals? Might we perhaps replace the league with a round robin provincial championship? Less travelling to far flung counties in the winter months? It has merits but doesn’t address the problems in Leinster and Munster with Dublin and Kerry dominance. And a twelve team Leinster championship in the spring versus a five team Connaught Championship? Hardly comparable. No, real reform will require redrawing ancient provincial borders. Abandoning the provincial championship structure altogether.
Perhaps retain the league in its current format. Use league placings to seed teams and then proceed to draw teams into four groups of five and two groups of six? Everyone gets at least four games, maybe five, played over eight weeks before a straight knockout with the twelve qualifying teams culminating in an All-Ireland final played fourteen weeks after the championship starts. Begin in May, finish in the first week in August. Play matches on Friday and Saturday nights as well as Sunday afternoons. Involve all the free to air broadcasters, not just the state owned version. And don’t put anything behind a pay wall.
It’s not perfect but it would be an improvement. However, it would require provincial councils to essentially vote to disband themselves. It would require the biggest administrative change in the
138 year history of the Association. It would be like asking Henry Grattan to vote for the Act of Union. It would be akin to asking turkeys to vote for Christmas