Sometimes small is beautiful
There are the giants of the GAA world, St Vincents in Dublin, James Stephens in Kilkenny, Blackrock in Cork, Austin Stacks in Kerry, clubs with stacks of county titles and All-Ireland medal winners in their histories. And then there are the likes of Cill na Martra, of St Colum's and of Ballyclough.
At the start of the millennium, Cill na Martra, from the Muskerry Gaeltacht, St Colum's from Kealkil near Bantry and Ballyclough, situated a few miles from Mallow, had never won as much as a divisional junior title between them.
Ballydesmond, on the Kerry border in Sliabh Luachra, had been marginally more successful; they had three Duhallow junior football crowns to their name. A few miles to the east, Kanturk's greatest ever day was a 1969 county junior hurling final win over Mayfield. In the Carrigdhoun division, Carrigaline had come no closer to a county title than losing a 1996 intermediate football final to Clyda Rovers. That win was itself the greatest ever achievement for Clyda Rovers from the North Cork parish of Mourneabbey. West in the Lee Valley village of Ovens, éire óg could boast a county senior hurling final win over Mallow in 1928, but the highlight since then had been a 1985 win in the intermediate hurling championship.
The octet belonged to the great legion of GAA clubs whose victories are few and far between, a lack of population in most cases dooming them to a history as also-rans, clubs whose main achievement was sometimes just to get a team on the field, where it was a huge deal to have a player good enough to make a Cork underage squad and where the local faithful travelled to see county teams in action, teams packed with players from the powerful senior clubs, and fantasised about what it might be like to see a Cill na Martra man, a Ballydesmond man or a Kanturk man in Croke Park.
They would also have treasured the small bit of success they had managed to enjoy. It's a fair bet that the heroes of Ballydesmond's first divisional win in 1971, of Kanturk's 1969 hurling victory and of Clyda's other county title, the junior hurling victory of 1985, are still lauded locally and that those games remain etched upon the minds of everyone who saw them.
Things have picked up for these clubs since 2000. The footballers of Cill na Martra won their first Muskerry junior title in 2002 and added another one in 2003. Ballyclough broke their duck with an Avondhu football title in 2004 and made it two in a row the following year. Carrigaline, transformed by the Tiger era from a country village to a large dormitory town, took a first ever county title two years ago, winning the intermediate A hurling championship, and added an intermediate A football final win over Cill na Martra last year. éire óg won the county junior football championship in 2008. By previous standards, these clubs were enjoying a veritable orgy of success.
One of the main reasons for this transformation was that the little clubs had unearthed some prodigious talent. Cill na Martra, you see, is the home club of Noel O'Leary. Alan O'Connor is a St Colum's man, Colm O'Neill plays for Ballyclough, Aidan Walsh for Kanturk, Nicholas Murphy for Carrigaline and Donnacha O'Connor for Ballydesmond. And éire óg and Clyda Rovers, two clubs who play intermediate football in Cork, ended up providing almost a third of the county's starting line-up in the All-Ireland final. Daniel Goulding and Ciarán Sheehan tog out for the former, Paudie Kissane and Ray Carey for the latter.
The remarkable fact is that of Cork's starting 15 last Sunday, only seven play senior club football. And four of the five subs introduced by Conor Counihan -- Nicholas Murphy, Graham Canty, Colm O'Neill, Fintan Gould -- also ply their trade outside the top grade, bringing the junior and intermediate contingent to an amazing 12. The little clubs provided not just quantity but quality. Of Cork's likely seven All-Stars, five (O'Leary, Goulding, Kissane, Walsh and Donnacha O'Connor) come from the minnows. (I'd presume Paddy Kelly and Michael Shields will also be rewarded).
I don't think any other All-Ireland-winning team has relied so heavily on the lesser lights of the club scene. On the previous occasion when Cork lifted the Sam Maguire, in 1990, the team was packed with players who had won All-Ireland club titles with Nemo Rangers in 1987 and St Finbarrs in 1989, players from the reigning Munster club champions Castlehaven and players who would win an All-Ireland club with Skibbereen three years later. If you'd predicted then that Cork's next victory would be achieved with a team largely made up of intermediate and junior footballers, you'd probably have received a visit from men in white coats who were neither umpires nor AI men.
éire óg alone among the eight are no strangers to All-Ireland success. Colm Sheehan scored two goals in Cork's 1966 All-Ireland hurling final win over Kilkenny while Mick Malone played on the Rebel teams which won the 1976 and 1977 deciders against Wexford. But for the likes of Cill na Martra, St Colum's and Ballyclough, seeing one of their own in an All-Ireland senior final must have seemed like an impossible dream.
That Cork's success owed so much to these clubs makes it peculiarly heartening. It is these small outfits, after all, who find it toughest when times are bad in the country; the emigration of the '80s would have been a nightmare for them, the decade of high unemployment we probably have ahead of us will test them to their limit once again.
Yet the GAA at grassroots level is often about keeping the show on the road. Its defining quality has nothing to do with big days in Croke Park -- there are plenty of sports with big stadiums, big crowds and big hype -- it has to do with making the most out of scarce resources. The miracle of the GAA is that it draws teams at all levels from areas where the population doesn't seem to be there. In the big towns and cities, the GAA is an exciting addition to life. In the small rural communities, it's essential, to the extent that sometimes it's hard to tell where the community stops and the club begins.
If you're involved in one of those small clubs, you know that the titles will come along once in a blue moon but you keep going all the same. And you know that you may never see a local player in Croke Park. Yet there must have been a moment when an underage trainer in Ballydesmond looked at Donnacha O'Connor and thought, 'I don't know am I being daft, but that lad has it in him to win a senior All-Ireland'. Imagine the excitement among the mentors in Kanturk when they realised the same thing about Aidan Walsh and how they must have felt in Ballyclough as a young Colm O'Neill started doing his stuff. Then there's the fact that éire óg, never a senior football team, now have two of the best young forwards in the country in Goulding and Sheehan, and Kevin Hallissey, outstanding on the Cork minor team which reached this year's All-Ireland final, coming through. There's somebody doing something very right there.
Cork footballers have shown that no matter how small your club and no matter how unsuccessful its history, you can still produce an extraordinary talent. And that in the GAA a star can come from anywhere.