Sunday 21 January 2018

Traditional values light way in depths of winter

Today's Leinster final will show yet again the power of the club game, writes Colm O'Rourke

If you want football in the raw then head for Mullingar today. Not that the football will be raw, far from it as the standard in the club championship has been exceptionally high this year, but it is a day for hardy souls, people who love their clubs and will follow them whether the north wind blows cold or the sun shines.

In many respects these occasions are great for clubs. Free from the local rivalries in their own counties, it is a bit of an adventure for everyone involved. Busloads of supporters of all ages, decked out in their club colours on a magical mystery tour.

Crossmaglen, the great irresistible force of club football, have set the bar high, but whoever wins this championship will have earned their corn. Dr Crokes from Killarney, St Brigid's of Roscommon, Crossmaglen and today's winners – Ballymun Kickhams or Portlaoise – will make up the best in the provinces. Most of these club teams could survive in the third division of the league and maybe even the second.

In many respects, these clubs have restored football to a more traditional game and, having watched all these teams recently, I can say that I find the style of play in the club championship much more enjoyable than inter-county football.

Anyone who argues that it lacks sophistication is wrong. These clubs put as much into their game as county sides and just because a team has a philosophy which is not dominated by 13 defenders and a glut of short passes does not mean they are tactically naive. Anyone watching Crossmaglen regularly would understand that they have developed a style of quick, accurate kicking which suits their players perfectly.

Naturally, seasons and weather conditions dictate the style of play in some ways, but today promises an honest, gripping struggle between two great club sides. Portlaoise have won six in a row in Laois and two players, Kevin Fitzpatrick and Brian McCormack, have won nine senior championships. This is a remarkable feat and shows the dominance of Portlaoise. In a way then they can nearly plan ahead for an assault on the Leinster title, whereas a Dublin club has to give all their energies to the domestic campaign.

Ballymun Kickhams are back in the big time after a couple of decades searching to replace the great team of the 1980s. Called after Charles Kickham, a revolutionary of the

1860s who was jailed in England for writing treasonous articles – one of his less contentious works being Slieve na mBan.

Anyway, today Ballymun will want to spread a bit of treason and sedition in the Portlaoise ranks and Philly McMahon and James McCarthy are their county representatives. Up front, Ted Furman is a powerful force while the main scorer is Dean Rock (pictured), just as his father Barney was back in 1982 when Ballymun were in the Leinster final and, coincidentally, were beaten by today's opposition. Maybe Rock and Davy Byrne will feature prominently in future Dublin teams.

Their form in beating Mullingar Shamrocks and Sarsfields reads well, but the defeat of Kilmacud Crokes in the Dublin final might be their greatest achievement so far, and they are managed by a winner in Paul Curran. Most club sides need a couple of wins in their own championship to give the province a lash but Ballymun will be ready.

It is a great achievement for them to be here, many would think that they must have thousands to pick from but they have the same problems with getting and keeping young players – maybe more than anyone – and they worked hard to bring a couple of good underage crops through. This is now the harvest.

Portlaoise, on the other hand, farm the Laois championship. Not surprising as it is nearly a county side with Paul Cahillane, Craig Rogers, Brian McCormack, Kieran Lillis, Cahir Healy – the list goes on and Hugh Coghlan of Tipperary is also on board. It would be surprising if a player got on the Portlaoise side without having played, as a minimum, at minor or under 21 for the county, such is the quality in their ranks. Strange, then, that they don't enjoy huge support and were outnumbered by supporters of Emmet óg from Longford in the semi-final when just about squeezing home.

This is not a celebrities' day out, but this match will be well worth watching for the raw courage and pride in the jersey that people talk about. This is it in real living colour. Portlaoise may not be the most loved club side in Laois, no team that dominates ever is, and like Crossmaglen they divide opinion as to whether it is good for the county or otherwise. How any good club team could be bad for a county is something I don't understand. Portlaoise have designs on the All-Ireland while Ballymun must be really enjoying the experience.

Buy a warm coat and head to Mullingar, or at the very least get a flask of tea, a few sandwiches and tune in on TV. This is a big day in the life of club footballers and an ambition which many other clubs could realise with proper organisation and commitment. No predictions, but I expect a great contest.

Ballymun Kickhams v Portlaoise

TG4, 1.45

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