Clare and Tipperary belatedly join Munster invasion
Kerry and Cork are familiar visitors to Croke Park at this time of year but it's different now as they are joined by Clare and Tipperary, who have reached the quarter-finals for the very first time. Is it a one-off or a sign of an expanding southern empire?
Three years ago next October, Clare and Tipperary footballers were threatening strike action. So too were Limerick and Waterford in a four-way stand against what they regarded as a downgrading of their status, while bestowing special privileges on Kerry and Cork.
The Munster Council had decided that the 'Big Two' should be seeded apart for the 2014 championship draw, thus ensuring that they could not meet until the final.
It was a throwback to the old days when they were placed on either side of the draw, thus virtually guaranteeing that they met in the final. The campaign for change lasted ten years before being successful in 1991 when an open draw was introduced.
Those opposed to the move argued that it would lead to one-sided, poorly-attended finals in years when Kerry or Cork were missing. They were wrong.
Limerick, managed by Kerry legend, John O'Keeffe ran the Kingdom to two points (0-23 to 3-12) in the 1991 final in Killarney. A year later, John Maughan led Clare to their first Munster title success since 1917.
Tipperary's close call against Cork in the 2002 Munster final (it went to a replay) and Limerick's bad luck in the 2004 final against Kerry, which also went to a replay, were other examples of how the province's so-called lesser forces could deliver in certain circumstances.
It appeared to secure the open draw concept, yet in 2013 a decision was taken return to a protectionist policy for Kerry and Cork. The other four could have stopped it but, for whatever reason, their representatives didn't.
It drew a furious response from the players in the four counties, all of whom withdrew from the 2014 McGrath Cup. They also threatened to boycott the 2015 championship unless special privileges for the big two were withdrawn.
The players issued a joint statement, stating that while they accepted no change could be made for 2014, they would not accept it beyond that.
Two of the signatories were Joe Hayes (Clare) and George Hannigan (Tipperary), men who have played significant roles in their sides' march to this weekend's All-Ireland quarter-finals. The statement was also signed by Seánie Buckley (Limerick) and Shane Briggs (Waterford).
Events of that fraught period may have dimmed in the memory but it was yet another clear example of how some counties have to battle to get even the most basic equality within the system.
Kerry have been peddling the line this week that Clare aren't being shown due respect by widespread predictions of their demise tomorrow, even if logic suggests they are in for a very difficult afternoon,
There is no record of calls from Kerry for the open draw Munster Championship to be retained when the controversy was raging in 2013, even if it would have been an obvious way of showing respect to all counties in the province.
The reality is that Kerry and Cork were delighted with the prospect of being seeded apart in the draw, knowing that they would reach the final in most years, thereby guaranteeing them last-eight and last-12 places respectively in the All-Ireland championship, depending on who won.
The eventual compromise allowed for the provincial finalists to be seeded through to the Munster semi-finals, which would be fixed by open draw.
It looked as if Kerry and Cork were all set again this year to book in for their annual clash, only for Tipperary to intervene in dramatic circumstances.
Their win over Cork in the semi-final was the most electrifying result of the championship so far and while they later lost to Kerry, the season continues after their win over Derry.
Clare also lost to Kerry before embarking on a three-game winning which, like Tipperary, has taken them the All-Ireland quarter-finals for the first time.
The knock-on impact is very positive for Munster, who provide four of the remaining ten All-Ireland contenders, their highest representation at this stage of the campaign in the 15-year history of the new championship system.
TIPPERARY: A SOLID FOUNDATION
It will always remain a special memory in Tipperary as they recall how Colman Kennedy's brilliant late goal beat Dublin in the 2011 All-Ireland minor final.
It was Tipperary's first minor All-Ireland win since 1934, a reward for the hard work put in by football enthusiasts in the county. It certainly wasn't an easily won All-Ireland. Tipperary beat Limerick, Kerry and Cork in Munster, followed by Meath, Roscommon and a Dublin squad which featured Jack McCaffrey, Ciarán Kilkenny, Paul Mannion, Cormac Costello, David Byrne, Eric Lowndes and Emmet ó Conghaile, youngsters who progressed rapidly to senior level, displacing more experienced players.
Unlike Clare, who have a poor record at underage level, Tipperary have been producing lots of excellent young talent for quite some time. They have been in seven of the last ten Munster U-21 finals, winning two, while their minors have reached six finals, also winning two.
That's convincing testament to the smart work being undertaken at underage level in a county where hurling remains very much the dominant presence.
Indeed, there are hurling elements in Tipperary who would be happy to burst every football in the county but those with a passion for big ball action get on with it anyway and are now reaping deserved rewards.
For all that, the footballers still find it difficult to attract a big following. Only 2,734 saw them beat Cork in Semple Stadium in mid-June, scarcely an act of faith by the Tipp public.
Interest has increased since then so it will be interesting to see how much of presence the blue-and-gold has in Croke Park tomorrow.
Of course, whatever the remainder of the championship holds for Tipperary, they are guaranteed to be in the Munster semi-final next year, with Cork joining Clare, Limerick and Waterford in the first round.
CLARE: RIGHT MAN, RIGHT TIME
Noel Walsh, one of Clare football's great patriarchal figures, has no doubt that appointing Colm Collins as manager was the catalyst for the current surge.
"He's the right man at the right time. He's inspiring this group of players, just as John Maughan did with the 1992 squad that won the Munster title. Whatever happens against Kerry - and I expect Clare to give a great account of themselves - this group will do very well over the next few years," said Walsh.
He was one of the driving forces behind having the Munster draw run as an open draw in the early 1990s and was appalled when they returned to the closed-shop approach, albeit temporarily, a few years ago.
He is disappointed too by the restricted qualifier system that applies nowadays, as it matches Clare in a repeat of the Munster semi-final clash with Kerry.
"There's no need for that. There are three other provincial champions Clare could play but they end up against a team they played in June. The qualifiers should be on an open draw all the way," said Walsh.
Whereas Tipperary's progress can be traced to consistent progress at underage grades, Clare have enjoyed no such bounce at minor or U-21 level.
They have never won a Munster U-21 title while their last minor success was in 1953. They last reached the U-21 final in 2002, eight years after their last appearance in a minor final.
Despite that, their seniors have solidified into a very solid unit, taking the county through a new frontier into the All-Ireland quarter-final, having earlier won the Division 3 title. "It shows what happens when you have the right man in charge," said Walsh.
CORK: A SECOND COMING?
It has been a tough 12 months for Cork. Dumped out of the championship by Kildare in a Round 4 qualifier, last July, relegated from Division 1 in April and subjected to their first championship defeat for 72 years by Tipperary in June, Cork's very identity is being challenged.
And yet, there's a feeling that if were to get one really good win, they could power up quite quickly. It makes today's clash with Donegal very important in deciding the direction Cork are taking.
KERRY: EYES ON BIG PRIZE
Never mind the journey - it's the destination that matters. The only county to reach the All-Ireland quarter-final every year since the championship system was changed in 2001, they will take care of business tomorrow, just as they did every year except 2010 and 2012.