Saturday 24 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: In sport, as in life, nothing is more valuable than bouncebackability

One hopeful hump forward, one nice break of the ball and one absolutely stunning finish from Michael Quinlivan and Clonmel found themselves boldly going where no Tipp team had gone before.'
One hopeful hump forward, one nice break of the ball and one absolutely stunning finish from Michael Quinlivan and Clonmel found themselves boldly going where no Tipp team had gone before.'

Eamonn Sweeney

There's no joy in Irish sport which quite matches the joy of a club team who've just won a county, provincial or All-Ireland title, is there?

That's why nothing else last week struck the same resonant emotional chord as the victories of Oulart-The Ballagh in the Leinster hurling final and Clonmel Commercials in the Munster football final.

A big win for the soccer team, a Six Nations title, a Sam Maguire or Liam MacCarthy victory might produce a greater quantity of celebration but I still think the club triumph has the edge in terms of quality. There's an intensity there that you don't quite get from anything else. It stems from the fact that most of the supporters know the players on a personal level, they know their families, what it cost them to make it to this level and precisely what this victory means to them as individuals.

This bond is so close as to be almost unbearable in times of defeat. But when victory is achieved it gives supporters and players alike one of the most emotionally enriching experiences of their lives. Winning provincial titles at this time of year is one of the most satisfying things the GAA has to offer. And that's why I'm glad both Oulart and Clonmel can luxuriate in their new status as provincial champions over Christmas and the New Year.

Call me old-fashioned but I fail to see how the championships would be improved if they and their opponents were forced to plough on through the wind and rain of December, the great merry-go-round of club activity finally concluding in a mudbath the week before Christmas. The dream of a big day out on March 17 is part of the club All-Ireland dream and that's the way it should stay.

There was something special about both of last week's victors. Oulart were making their 12th attempt to win the Leinster title when they met Cuala on Sunday. On 11 previous occasions in the last 21 years they'd prevailed in Wexford but failed to follow through in Leinster. On six previous occasions they'd made the final and come up short. This included an absolutely heartbreaking run between 2010 and 2013 when they lost four in a row by a combined total of just 14 points.

And when, two years ago, rank outsiders Mount Leinster Rangers of Carlow beat them by 0-11 to 0-8, Oulart would have been forgiven for thinking they were destined never to win it. Because in the entire history of the club championships no team in either hurling or football had lost four provincial finals on the trot. Imagine how utterly crushed they must have felt. The year before they'd hit 17 wides when losing by four points to Offaly champions Coolderry.

Yet they girded their loins once more and were rewarded with a 2-13 to 0-13 win over Cuala. Rarely has there been such a triumph for persistence. Twelve of the players defeated by Mount Leinster turned out on Sunday. Twenty years ago, an Oulart team which contained Wexford hurling's two best players of modern times lost a Leinster final to Glenmore. It was the second provincial decider loss in a row. Martin Storey and Liam Dunne never did win a Leinster title. And the great Mick Jacob never even had a county title to show for his time with Oulart. Yet his sons Rory and Michael played key roles in last Sunday's historic victory. Such is the dynastic nature of the GAA. The disappointment of one generation can eventually be redeemed by the efforts of the next.

It's been the lot of the younger Jacobs and Storeys to ply their trade at a time when Wexford hurling has gone into a steep decline. Yet Oulart's victory, the first by a Wexford club since Rathnure's in 1998, is just the latest indicator that this decline may not be irreversible. Add in the hat-trick of Leinster under 21 titles completed this year and the dethroning of All-Ireland senior champions Clare last year and there's evidence that something may be stirring in strawberry country.

Clonmel's victory over Nemo Rangers is an even more remarkable achievement and not just because it was achieved in the most dramatic fashion after the Tipperary champions launched what the Americans call a 'Hail Mary' delivery into the goalmouth at the end. Oulart may have had to overcome a tradition of provincial failure as a club but Clonmel had to overcome historical failure by an entire county. For while Oulart had previously gone 0-11 in Leinster, Tipperary had gone 0-45 in Munster.

On nine previous occasions Tipperary teams had reached the final, Clonmel flying the flag on three unsuccessful outings and taking Dr Crokes to a replay in 1990. But no team from the Premier had made it to the decider since Fethard lost to Nemo in 2001. And in recent years Tipp clubs seemed to have dropped out of the reckoning altogether. In 2011, Moyle Rovers suffered a humiliating 19-point defeat at the hands of UCC; in 2013 Dr Crokes had 17 points to spare over Loughmore-Castleiney and last year the county didn't even get around to entering a team.

In the circumstances, the two-point defeat which looked likely as the game entered injury time looked to be a very honourable result for the underdogs. They were, after all, playing against about the last team you'd expect to lose a late lead. Yet one hopeful hump forward, one nice break of the ball and one absolutely stunning finish from Michael Quinlivan and Clonmel found themselves boldly going where no Tipp team had gone before.

Young Quinlivan is no stranger to this making history lark. He played a leading role four years ago when a Tipperary side who were also unregarded outsiders shocked Dublin to win the All-Ireland minor final for the first time since 1934. The year after came a second Munster minor title. In 2010, there was a first ever Munster under 21 football championship and this year a second one, a first ever trip to the All-Ireland final and a single-point defeat by Tyrone. The Tipperary minors also made the final.

This surge by Tipperary has been one of the most remarkable and unremarked stories in Gaelic football in recent times. You'd have to go back to 1986, for example, for the last time that Cork reached under 21 and minor All-Irelands in the same year. It's only two years since a 17-point defeat by Kerry prompted a lot of 'what are we going to do about the terrible weakness of everyone in the Munster Championship who isn't Cork or Kerry - into a 'B' Championship with them' chat. But the fact is that Tipperary are getting stronger all the time and Clonmel's breakthrough is merely the latest proof.

On a personal note, I was delighted to see Commercials win because they're managed by my first great sporting hero. It's largely forgotten now but Charlie McGeever was as good a prospect as ever played in the League of Ireland, his 1980-'81 season one of the great individual campaigns.

Not long out of his teens, McGeever was an athletic juggernaut who could play anywhere in the back four or in midfield. I can still remember his clinching goal in the 1981 FAI Cup quarter-final for Sligo Rovers against Home Farm as he simply galloped through the visiting defence before slotting home at the second attempt. Big English clubs were interested, the kid went on trial to Spurs and when Dundalk played Rovers in that year's Cup final, the canny Jim McLaughlin made stopping McGeever their top priority.

And then, before he could even start a second senior season, McGeever suffered a knee injury in training, and that was basically that. He came back eventually but, as he admitted himself, "played on one leg" for the rest of his League of Ireland career. For anyone who'd seen him at his best the Donegal man was the big what-if of that era, a player who could maybe have made the same impact cross-channel as his contemporary Paul McGrath. I've often wondered if the fates had been kinder whether McGeever would have been playing for Ireland in the Charlton era in front of Packie Bonner, cousin of his former Donegal under 21 midfield partner Declan Bonner. Who knows? Instead he became a school teacher and fetched up in Clonmel where he's the principal of the Clonmel Technical Institute.

It had already been an eventful year for McGeever who'd steered Tipperary minors to the All-Ireland final where they froze completely and were destroyed by Kerry. So he, like Oulart and Clonmel, had a point to prove last Sunday.

They all did so in style.

In sport, as in life, nothing is more valuable than bouncebackability.

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