Colm O'Rourke: Club championships have found the perfect formula
County finals are the days on which we honour the real heroes of the GAA, writes Colm O'Rourke
The endangered species of the GAA needs protection. The county final, the biggest day in most players' careers, seems increasingly shoved to the margins by high-profile inter-county matches. It is the day every player can aspire to be part of and it does not matter whether it is at junior, intermediate or senior, each grade has equal importance.
This is completely different to county football. Well over 20 counties have no chance in next year's All-Ireland and if it was a county board who were running the race for Sam on the same basis as club football, there would be one All-Ireland for Dublin, Mayo, Kerry and about ten more. Then there would be an intermediate All-Ireland with the rest playing junior with promotion and relegation thrown in. After a while winning the junior would assume the same significance as senior. In other words, the exact same model which works effectively at club level should be adapted on the county scene. With all the knockout stages in Croke Park too.
Anyway the county final is a brilliant day in any player's career. The build-up is about bunting and flags, sandwiches after training, local discussions on the team, tactics and the weather. Most of all, the weather. Will it be wet? Windy or warm? And there is always a local theory on how the team performs in various conditions. So much energy is put into something over which there is no control instead of focusing on what a team can do on the pitch.
Over the past month I have been at a number of finals. The same patterns prevail: new gear for the squad, a picture for the sponsor in the local paper and enthusiastic support. Everyone rolled out with no age limit. Provisional plans made for victory and none for defeat. As if raising the possibility might bring bad luck. Yet every good general has a plan for attack and another for retreat which he keeps well hidden.
In the grey and misty past the finals were played at the same time of year as now; the leaves were falling and pitches were often in rag order. The weather is still the same but the single biggest difference now is that the quality of surfaces has improved enormously. Pitches are very good and wind and rain should only be minor distractions.
At the Meath senior championship final a few weeks ago, there was the usual expectancy. Neighbours Summerhill and Na Fianna met. It was a very enjoyable game too with Summerhill winning a tight match and anyone passing through south Meath at the time knew there was something special happening with the amount of colour about. The real heroes of the GAA were having their day out.
At half-time, the Meath team of 1988 was introduced to the crowd, 25 years after winning the League and All-Ireland double. Tempus fugit. Time does indeed fly and has an effect on all the old warriors. It was a nice gesture by Meath County Board to invite us for lunch as well. We have had a fair old spin recently on the merry-go-round of crowd introductions: Croke Park on Leinster final day and at the All-Ireland final, and now at home base. We won't be doing it in another 25.
The reception was very warm although we were conscious people might think it is high time to get off the stage. There was a great cheer for Mick and Pádraic Lyons from Summerhill. Even better for Mick was that his son Alan was a star at centre-back for Summerhill. Tidy, composed, understated, a player for the team when needed most in all the big knockout games. The apple has not fallen far from the tree.
My concern on the pitch was that if it went on any longer at half-time the players would rush back on to the pitch and tell us in no uncertain terms to get out of the way. I can remember a final that I played in and there was some team being introduced at half-time and it went on for 20 minutes. I wanted to go out and tell all the old men to stop holding up the game, that their day was done and it was time to let the young men get on with it. Time mellows the hardest heart. Anyway that is the end of our waving to the crowd. It was a nice gesture though and the sort of thing that makes the GAA very special.
Na Fianna lost and the only thing that I could honestly say to them was that I knew how they felt as having played in six losing finals I had plenty of experience of days like that. For a while it may seem like there is no coming back but spring comes and it is not glory that a player looks to. There is enjoyment in playing, friendships, a healthy lifestyle and another chance, always another chance in the optimistic mind.
The ancient Fianna were men who could do extraordinary deeds. A member could fight off nine men while standing in a hole full of water with nothing but a shield and a hazel rod, he could pick a thorn from his foot while running at full speed through the forest, while he could also jump his own height and bend below his knee without breaking stride. Winning a championship is easy
compared to that. And all losing teams will be back after they have finished blaming the manager, the tactics, the selectors and everything else bar the players.
Last week the attention turned to Dublin and a replayed final between Ballymun and St Vincent's. These players turned in another great contest three days after the first game and a few more before the first round of the Leinster club championship. Parnell Park is a beautiful ground and there was a wonderful atmosphere under the lights. At this time of year there is a huge audience looking for interesting midweek games to attend. This one was full of great endeavour and honesty and I really enjoyed it.
Vincent's pulled it off at the death after Ballymun looked in control for much of the second half, an injury to James McCarthy not helping their cause. As he slowed down, Vincent's improved. Perhaps Heffo was looking down and gave the encouragement for that final push. He would have approved of the fighting spirit even if Diarmuid Connolly overstepped the mark and got a straight red. Philly McMahon walked the plank for Ballymun too; he was annoyed for getting a second yellow in that incident but could have gone a lot earlier for a lunge at Mossy Quinn.
Passion, courage, loyalty and pride in one's home place. They were all on display in Parnell Park. Change the colour of the jerseys, the venues and even the grade and it is the same story all over the country. The best day of all.