WE come to neither praise the county championship nor to bury it.
The old girl is in trouble. There's no doubt about it. The championships of recent vintage have been ho-hum, so-so, medicore at best. There's been the odd moment of genius. The odd good game. By and large, however, it's a competition that lacks a little something. And no this isn't simply a reaction to the utter dominance displayed by the Crokes this year. If anything the Killarney side have been the saving grace of the competition.
No the problem with the county championship isn't the Crokes and the Gooch and Brian Looney and Eoin Brosnan, it's the fact the other teams have dropped back or failed to step up to the plate. The good thing about having a team as brilliant as Crokes in the competition is that it will inevitably lead to a raising of standards. If there isn't then you're looking at an even longer period of domination by the Lewis Road outfit. Nobody, bar Vince Casey and co, wants that.
A healthy championship is one with plenty of competition and drama and a battle right to the finish. We don't have that at the moment. The possibility that the Crokes might take their eye off the ball in a particular game isn't the same thing as meaningful competition. It's a matter of fact that between the first title of their three in-a-row and the last the gap between Dr Crokes and the rest has widened and widened significantly.
We say all this not to suggest that good work isn't being done in the other clubs and divisions around the county. Clearly there is. There's a serious determination in St Kierans, for example, to reach the summit. Under Castleisland Desmonds' Martin Horgan there was an improved focus and unity of purpose to the district's efforts. If they keep going the way they're going then, yeah sure, they can challenge the Killarney kingpins.
The lacked firepower this year. They coughed up far too many goals in the semifinal defeat by Dingle, but as Martin Horgan would no doubt point out – this is just year one of a multi-year project.
Some of the criticisms that can be laid at Kierans' door (the lack of firepower) were being laid at Donegal's door twelve months ago and look at Donegal now. Things do change. Teams do emerge from seemingly nowhere to challenge the best and boy do we need that to happen in Kerry.
When you look around the county there just doesn't seem to be too many sides with the potential to challenge for the title.
Of the club sides Austin Stacks remain best placed. The quarter-final defeat at the hands of the Crokes was probably a false reading of where they stand. Things got out of control, a little messy, they lost a man and paid the price for it. If you think back to the first fifteen minutes of that game – before the schmozzle – you'll remember a game where Stacks were going toe-to-toe with the champs, where their forwards were putting pressure on the Crokes' corner-backs.
Dingle will surely learn from their mistakes in the county final. The biggest mistake they made we feel was to go man to man at the back against the best set of forwards seen in a club side in this county in a generation. If only they could have been a little more pragmatic, look a leaf out of Laune Rangers and Joe Shannnon's book and funnelled a few men back, double teamed the Gooch, then they would surely have lived with the Crokes for longer.
They probably still wouldn't have won the game, but with some cracking forwards (the Geaneys and Billy O'Connor) they would seem to have the raw materials in place to affect a useful counter-attacking game. The purists out West might recoil from such a strategy. That's their right, but above all else the players on that Dingle team and their manager Murt Moriarty want to win. If winning means upsetting a few purists then don't for a second think they wouldn't do it.
A few years ago we were describing Kerins O'Rahillys as the team of all the talents. You had the Barry Johns. You had Tommy Walsh and David Moran. You had Declan Quill. You had the O'Sheas. They were managed by Jack O'Connor. They were going places. They lost the 2008 county final to Mid Kerry, but sooner rather than later one felt they were going to bring the Bishop Moynihan back to Strand Road.
Since then they've lost a couple of players to emigration and retirement. They've lost Tommy Walsh to the AFL and David Moran for the last two seasons to cruciate injury. They lost Jack O'Connor back to the Kerry set-up. They've gone backwards and that's not a criticism of anyone associated with the club, or of their managers since Jack (Ogie Moran, Mark Fitzgerald, Morgan Nix). There wasn't a whole pile they could have done about their decline – what team (even Crokes perhaps?) could have coped with those losses.
So you see what we mean about the gap widening. And it's not just the clubs, it's the districts too. Are we getting bang for our buck with the districts? Basically the question here boils down to: are there too many clubs in the county championship?
And does having so many clubs in the competition weaken the districts to the point where we get an uncompetitive championship?
Since South Kerry's dominance of the noughties, for example, they've lost St Michaels / Foilmore from their number and haven't been the same since.
It's not a clear cut issue, however. Can anyone, the County Board, the media, whoever else, turn around to Ballyfoilmore and say that the county championship would be better off if they went back in with South Kerry?
There are currently twenty teams in the county championship. Nine district sides and eleven clubs. Would we be better off with a smaller number of clubs in the competiton? Make it a straight nine clubs versus nine districts?
In that senario only the strongest clubs would survive. Those who didn't would bolster their districts – and make the intermediate championship even stronger.
Just look at the uptick in performance from St Brendans in 2012 (okay they lost in the second round to St Michaels / Foilmore) once Ardfert returned to the fold as evidence for how that can work. The county championship in its present form is bloated, it's not competitive enough and takes far too long to complete. A more tightly focussed competition would be in everybody's interests.
Not that it's very likely to happen. It's only natural that clubs would prefer to stand on their own two feet and if a motion advocating what we suggested above were put to the County Convention next month it'd be voted down.
And more's the shame.