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An open and shut case

A S protests go, it was relatively low-key, but the message was unequivocal. In 2007, five Limerick footballers declined an invitation to play for Munster in the Railway Cup. Their refusal was a direct response to the Munster Council decision to abandon the open draw and revert to a seeded system, a move seen as favouring Cork and Kerry and disadvantaging the weak.

Strongly supporting the players' decision at the time was the Limerick manager, Mickey Ned O'Sullivan, ironically a Kerryman who had suffered personally from the open draw when it was first introduced. In its second year in 1992, Clare defeated his Kerry team to win their first Munster senior football title in 75 years and O'Sullivan's head rolled. Clare had reached their first final in 43 years without having to play Cork. Before the open draw any of the four weaker counties would have to defeat the big two to win Munster and that looked impossible.

Fifteen years later, O'Sullivan found himself staunchly defending the open draw and railing against special privileges for the old order from whence he came. In a surprise decision, the Munster Council voted to reinstate the seeded draw, gaining vital support from Waterford. There was a strong suspicion of other agendas influencing the decision, primarily a desire in Waterford for a seeded draw in hurling, but the proposal won the majority backing it required and for the 2008 championship Kerry and Cork would be kept apart up to the final.

"I was very angry over that," says John Kiely, who was then managing Waterford footballers and led them to a first Munster championship win in 19 years earlier that summer. In Clare, the open draw crusader Noel Walsh described it as a "dark night" for football. O'Sullivan was equally piqued. "If they are serious about developing football in the weaker counties, they must have a fair crack of the whip. The Munster final is their All-Ireland. And when the draw was seeded you had no equality. What annoyed me was it was a political decision, not a football decision."

Walsh had been beating the open draw drum for years before the Munster Council finally saw enough merit in the proposal to run with it. Walsh had been a selector with Clare footballers over a long period of time and had seen at first-hand players without any realistic hope of ever playing in a provincial final. Kerry had an outstanding team in the 1970s and '80s while he was involved and Cork weren't far behind. In a seeded draw their prospects of winning a final were virtually nil.

In Walsh's view there had to be an incentive to keep them interested. In 1979, Clare hosted Kerry and lost 1-9 to 9-21 in the Munster Championship. The home supporters were more thrilled to see a great Kerry team in the flesh than concerned about the welfare of their own players and the damage a defeat like that could inflict hardly needs explaining. Knowing an open draw would probably not wash, Walsh proposed a fall-back option for the next year. Kerry were so intimidating, he argued, that they should be given a bye straight into the final. The smaller counties could then at least know if they overcame Cork they'd make the showpiece. And Kerry and Cork would still play in the final if the form book held up.

The Council went for it and Kerry were not pleased to be denied their earlier matches in the lead-up to the inevitable joust with Cork. Even reaching a final was something the likes of Clare, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford could scarcely dream of. Limerick had been in the final last in 1965, Waterford in 1960, Clare in 1949 and Tipperary in 1943. No other province had such a rampant duopoly or such depressed hopes for the remaining contenders.

As a selector, Walsh knew motivating teams was next to impossible in those circumstances but it took him ten years to win over the council because of fears of change and falling revenue if a Cork-Kerry final wasn't guaranteed. Finally, in 1990, they secured enough votes to win, 8-7, with all four of the weaker counties voting for the change.

"A number of players in those counties have played in a Munster final now -- Clare, unfortunately, is the only one to win -- but there were a number of occasions when Limerick could have won. At least they had the honour of having played in one. So from that point of view it is a vast improvement on what was going on before; it is not the ultimate solution but it's an improvement. You had variation," says Walsh.

Twenty years down the road he believes it has proven its worth. "I would say on balance it has been relatively successful. I would say what had happened is more or less what we expected. At least you felt you could beat one of them."

Walsh says he had no ambition to get involved in the Munster Council, which he later chaired, but felt it was the only way he could get reforms passed. "When I went into the Munster Council first, Cork and Kerry were seeded at junior and minor and under 21 level. It was the same in the Munster senior club championship. The big problem in the Council that time was that most of the delegates were hurling people, very decent fellas, but they were hurling. We got it changed at the other levels first but senior was hard. It was defeated about four or five times. We could not get all four counties to vote together. Eventually in '90 we got it, and as luck would have it Cork and Kerry were picked out in the same half of the draw."

John Quane turned 20 the next year and made the Limerick senior championship team for the first time. The Council decision encouraged John O'Keeffe to come on board as manager and with Waterford and Tipperary standing between them and a Munster final, they felt they had a chance.

"It gave us an opportunity to play in a Munster final," says Quane. "A lot of the old lads on the team, it spurred them on to give it another go. We put in a huge effort under Johnno. We scored 3-12 and went very close. Small things cost us."

Limerick went to Killarney and rocked Kerry in the final but lost by two points. After that Quane endured a long spell before playing another final when players from the successful under 21 teams of 2000 and 2001 began to filter onto the senior panel. In 2004 and 2005, they fiercely contested Munster finals against Kerry and had by then replaced Cork as the main contender.

But victory remained elusive and Quane packed it in after the second defeat. To him the open draw gave Limerick a realistic chance. Younger players who might have drifted away stayed on. Good managers were easier to attract when they didn't have to face Kerry and Cork every year to win a Munster title.

"It adds spice to the championship," says Quane. "At the moment Limerick have been involved in the last couple of Munster finals and could have won either of them. They are worthy Munster finalists, like. I think the Munster championship means more to the likes of ourselves than it does to Cork and Kerry."

After an outcry the open draw was restored in 2009. "The last two years have proved me correct, financially and football wise, that it was the right thing to do," says Mickey Ned O'Sullivan. "'Tis great to be able to go into a dressing room and say, 'look lads we have every chance of progressing'. With the seeded draw you are closing out the light."

Despite fears of mismatches and slumps in revenue, the 1991 Munster final attracted a crowd of 29,000 and was anything but one-sided. Clare won the next year; then Tipp reached two finals in a row. The open draw came up for review after the 1994 final when only 13,000 attended but it was kept in place. The aggregate attendances were not declining and Cork and Kerry could still attract a large attendance even if they met in an earlier round.

Nineteen of the last 20 seasons have had an open draw in Munster and over that time there have been eight traditional Cork-Kerry finals. Only Waterford have failed to play in a final but they have upped their standard and ambitions to a point where it is no longer an unrealistic target. In the past week the Tipp minors defeated Kerry and last year they won the Munster under 21 championship. This year's draw has kept Cork and Kerry apart, however, so the odds are on another traditional final pairing. Today Tipperary square up to Kerry in Killarney and Clare travel to Cork to tackle the all-conquering locals. The draw cannot protect counties from unkind breaks like that but their players at least know they can go through their careers with some prospects of playing in the provincial final.

Before scrapping the open draw in 2007, the Munster Council became alarmed at falling attendances. Average match attendances fell from 16,367 in 2004 to 12,082 in 2005 and 10,954 in 2006. This made a strong argument, some felt, in favour of the seeded draw. But attendances were also being affected by other events outside Munster's control. The arrival of the back-door format in 2001 meant Cork and Kerry began to meet outside the province where the stakes were higher.

In the last decade the counties met 19 times in the championship, culminating in the 2009 All-Ireland final. All of Cork's four wins over Kerry in the last decade came in Munster. Each time Kerry bounced back and beat them later. In the 2009 All-Ireland final, Kerry avenged an eight-point defeat by Cork in Munster. This chipped away at the appeal of the Munster championship and had to affect attendances.

Kiely remembers Greg Fives being in charge of Waterford footballers in '91 and how little separated them from Limerick who made the final. He is a strong open draw advocate. "The Queen said we (Ireland and Britain) are equals. In the sporting world if you want to be regarded as equal you are not put in this silly little draw for small teams. But things are looking up. I am involved in a Munster Council football review committee and you can see the work that is being done in the schools. The seeded draw made fellas feel like second-class citizens."

John O'Keeffe agrees: "I think the fact that we did so well in '91 set the tone and would have created greater self-belief in the other counties. If Limerick could do that, why not us, became the attitude? I think the football is in those counties alright, but it's the self-belief that's the big factor."

Clare and Tipperary will need buckets of it today.

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