Thursday 23 May 2019

Colm Keys: 'Elitism in club football is becoming just as prevalent'

Big defeats for Cork, Meath and Roscommon champions reflect divide at inter-county level

Mind the gap: The gulf between Paul Mannion’s Kilmacud Crokes and Seamus Lavin’s Dunboyne was exposed last weekend. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile
Mind the gap: The gulf between Paul Mannion’s Kilmacud Crokes and Seamus Lavin’s Dunboyne was exposed last weekend. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

There'll be no scarcity of voices extolling the virtues of the GAA club championships at this time of year and, for the most part, with good reason.

Last week it took two periods of extra-time, 20 minutes and then an additional 10 minutes, to divide Waterford's Ballygunner and Clare's Ballyea in a Munster hurling semi-final that drew great acclaim.

Club competition is seen as a purer, less-polished version of inter-county competition, especially in football that, over 60 minutes in more challenging weather conditions, provides a much more level playing field where the advantage of population and material resources are not as pronounced.

Yet, the sparsely-populated terraces and stands at some of these games suggests that for all the positivity, they still haven't captured the public imagination like they should.

You will never have to look too hard to find a little bit of romance, though.

Mullinalaghta could be just 60 minutes away from a first Leinster senior club final appearance by a Longford team, building impressively on their three successive county titles.

Standing in their way are an Éire Óg (Carlow) team which, while unlikely to recapture the glory of their predecessors in the 1990s, will believe an extended run into December is not beyond them.

In Munster, Clare's St Joseph's Miltown Malbay have availed of a draw that has kept them apart from the Kerry champions to reach another provincial final.

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Remember the novelty of the 2010 All-Ireland final appearance of their fellow countymen from Kilmurry Ibrickane against Antrim's St Gall's.

The county champions of a Division 4 team competing against champions from a county in a division just above was held up as the shining example of how elitism had not yet taken hold of this competition.

It was much the same when Caltra and An Ghaeltacht drew teams from two rural communities backboned by well-known families to contest the 2004 final. They may have been representing two of the top four counties at the time - Kerry and Galway - but their background made it a special story.

In recent years Derry's Slaughtneil have continued that thread with their Ulster club successes and appearances in two All-Ireland finals.

In hurling, Carlow's Mount Leinster Rangers reached the 2014 final while Antrim's Loughgiel Shamrocks won it in 2012.

With no back door and consequently no meaningful All-Ireland quarter-finals, negotiating a path to All-Ireland finals is slightly less treacherous, in that previously conquered teams can't come back to bite in that same season.

However, just as the strong are getting stronger at inter-county level, so too are they at club level.

Na Piarsaigh's demolition of Tipperary champions Clonoulty-Rossmore in last week's other Munster hurling semi-final was a merciless exhibition of power and touch by a club side which has never lost a provincial game.

Despite the setback of losing an All-Ireland final just seven months earlier, there is no sign of them relenting.

In football, it was a sobering weekend just gone for three counties who still feel that tradition helps to pump blue blood through their veins, the champions of Cork, Meath and Roscommon losing to their counterparts in Kerry, Dublin and Galway, all great rivals in the past at inter-county level, by a cumulative total of 64 points.

There are a couple of qualifications to make on this. Last year, St Brigid's forced Corofin to extra-time in a provincial semi-final, having won an All-Ireland title themselves in 2013.

Roscommon can also point to competitive shows against Galway in three successive Connacht finals to insulate them from any overly dramatic conclusion to be drawn from Sunday's 27-point defeat of Clann na nGael.

Nemo Rangers, then Cork champions, dethroned Dr Crokes in the 2017 Munster club final before qualifying for the All-Ireland final earlier this year.

But in any given year the representatives of Cork should not be losing to their Kerry counterparts by 21 points, irrespective of the novelty of a first win in Cork for 33 years.


Similarly, Meath champions Dunboyne were left floundering against Dublin's Kilmacud Crokes in Navan to once again highlight just how great the gap is between these neighbours and one-time rivals.

Kilmacud Crokes have Portlaoise next and the Laois champions have a record of making life difficult for Dublin champions.

But a resurgent Kilmacud, champions in the capital for the first time in eight years, should still tidy up business in the province over the next few weeks.

There is no real suspense to the current All-Ireland club football race.

Either the current champions Corofin will retain their title or they will be deposed by one of the Crokes. Maybe Crossmaglen can have a say but they are rebuilding and face a more competitive provincial run in.

Inter-county football has become the preserve of the elite few. Because of its structure and potentially long season - 14 months - that involves negotiating three stages, the club equivalent will always be more open.

But more and more it is being dominated by clubs who are becoming more accustomed to the year-round cycle.

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