Colm O'Rourke: Ordinary men will ensure contrast in styles and geography
No matter who wins, the club final pairing is a victory for the little guy, writes Colm O'Rourke
T he real All-Ireland final takes place on Wednesday in Croke Park. Not only is it the ordinary man's day out, but it is also the culmination of a process where the winners, or even the finalists, could hardly be anticipated at the beginning of the provincial championships in October, never mind going back to the start of the championships in each county, which is probably at least ten months ago.
Contrast that with the championship at county level. You would not need to be a guru on football to predict at least four or five of the quarter-finalists -- even at this stage -- while the eventual winners come from a possible two or three. All too predictable.
The club championship is entirely different. Take the case of Kilmurry-Ibrickane. They are hardly one of the big clubs of the GAA. Far from it. They don't have a huge pick but by careful husbandry they have made it to the top. Their location and lack of self-importance and swagger are their greatest assets. They just get on with the business of playing football and no matter what happens today, they will all be back looking after the garden by the weekend.
While others have regarded them as some sort of west Clare hillbillies, Kilmurry-Ibrickane went about their business in a methodical, disciplined and thoroughly organised way.
It is unusual for a club team from anywhere but Cork or Kerry to win Munster. Yet Kilmurry-Ibrickane have done it twice in the last five years and it is still not enough to win acceptance. I wonder would Portlaoise have looked on their defeat in the semi-final in a different way if it was at the hands of Nemo, Crossmaglen or St Vincent's, all recent winners of this great prize.
There could be no greater contrast in this final between the two clubs. If Kilmurry-Ibrickane are like a county team who are striving hard to make progress from the second division, St Galls are in the top tier. From west Clare to Belfast, the geography is different, predominantly rural to the teeming life of a busy city. Yet if football is a numbers game, in many ways it is often just as difficult to build, motivate and hold onto players in an urban environment where the bonds of loyalty to place are harder to set in cement.
St Galls have done that. A dominant force in Antrim, they now attempt to go one better than when beaten by Salthill Knocknacarra in 2006. Their side has far better known players than their opponents from Clare, a lot of experienced county men. Sean Kelly is a very good player, Rory Gallagher is on the last of his travels while the McGourtys are the cutting edge. This is especially true of CJ. A beautiful kicker of the ball and top scorer, he still has a lot to prove. He has far too much to say to the referee and opponents, but if he concentrates on being a really top-class player, he can certainly make it. There are a lot of things besides ability that go into making a star.
St Galls will look to his scores on St Patrick's Day. Every time he gets the ball he will have at least two opponents on his tail and they will hound him at every turn. Quite legitimately too. Kilmurry-Ibrickane are not Brazil. They will have to win a low-scoring game; the weather conditions would favour an open game which is probably the last thing Kilmurry-Ibrickane want.
So the odds greatly favour St Galls. It will be a great day out for these players. The best decision the GAA ever made was to introduce the club championships, and the extension to include intermediate and junior clubs with their finals in Croke Park was also inspired. A lot of great club men have had the experience of playing in Croke Park and see it as the crowning glory of a career spent toiling far from the bright lights.
Wednesday is another chapter in that story. On form, the Andy Merrigan Cup seems destined to head north and it would certainly help in the continued renaissance of football in Belfast. If it heads in the other direction, there will be plenty of songs, and Percy French's song about the West Clare Railway will get an airing. 'Are you right there Michael, are you right, do you think that we'll be home before the night?' It won't matter what night they get home if the Clare men win. The locals will be happy to wait up.