Colm O'Rourke: Club competitions provide equal opportunities for all
The top players in the top clubs have really raised their game this winter, writes Colm O'Rourke
It has not been at all like club championship weather these last few weeks and the standard of football has reflected that. Dry pitches, good handling, a high skill factor and very enjoyable matches.
The provincial finals have been epic battles. The Connacht final between Castlebar and St Brigid's was a fantastic contest which went to extra-time; Ballinderry and Glenswilly kept a huge crowd entertained last Sunday while Cratloe nearly scuppered the last ambition of the Gooch and Dr Crokes. Better stuff altogether than the provincial finals between the counties. Maybe it is down to the possibilities offered. A club player at any level can harbour ambitions of playing in Croke Park in spring. Very few county players have a hope of playing there in September.
When a club like St Brigid's win an All-Ireland they are a huge inspiration to clubs everywhere. They got there by dint of hard work over many years. In doing so they also provided huge entertainment, and had two of the last great characters in the game, Frankie Dolan and Shane Curran.
There are not too many like them anymore which is a great pity. Most players now are programmed in a certain way but those two are mavericks, and the crowd was bigger everywhere they played. For them alone many wanted Brigid's to win last year, and maybe there are a couple more lurking in some of the sides that are left.
Great clubs like Nemo Rangers and Crossmaglen have harvested the club championship and are known and respected all over the country. There were other great sides too like Clann na nGael of Roscommon and Baltinglass from Wicklow, names people immediately recognised. They looked for their results on a Monday in the paper or listened in to Seán óg ó Ceallacháin on a Sunday night as he wound his way around every boreen in the country.
Now the standard is so high and the competition so fierce that most clubs at this stage could probably survive in Division 3 of the Allianz League. In many ways too it shows the real value of a county man. Gooch is a star because he replicates what he does with his club for the county, last Sunday notwithstanding. Ask him which he would prefer at this stage of his career, another All-Ireland with Kerry or the elusive title with Dr Crokes, and he probably would take the club.
Diarmuid Connolly and Ger Brennan might not want to answer that question, or diplomatically reply that they are of equal importance. Yet when you go to play a big game for your club and see the people who helped you along the way supporting you, as well as those who mark the pitch, take down the nets and give happily of their time, then it is better to plead the fifth amendment.
Another great game is in prospect today in Tullamore. Portlaoise are trying to break out of Leinster after dominating Laois football for the last decade. St Vincent's did the same in Dublin from the 1950s to the '80s but Dublin club football is very democratic now with different winners emerging on a regular basis.
The most dominant player in the Dublin and Leinster club championship this year has been Mossy Quinn. He has played fantastic club football since packing it in with Dublin and St Vincent's are lucky he took the decision to concentrate on the club. There is nothing worse for a player in his late twenties to be a sub on a county team, especially if he has been used to starting. There is no real glory, even in winning, so such players are better off with their club playing every week. Sitting on the bench is alright if you are up and coming but when you have been there, done that then it is time to put on the club jersey. Just as Quinn has done.
Brian 'Bruno' McCormack is attempting something similar for Portlaoise. He gave good years to Laois and is now benefiting from more time with the club. To players like them, pride in their home place is not just a phrase, it is reflected in the way they play the game for their clubs.
Another man who lived by that code was buried last week. Liam O'Connor was a reluctant hero at full-back on the Offaly team who beat Kerry and stopped the drive for five in a row in 1982. This was an amazing achievement against
the best team that I have seen playing the beautiful game and O'Connor had probably the hardest job of all in having to mark the Bomber Liston, who was almost unmarkable in his prime.
Liam sent in that ball which Seamus Darby finished to the net for the most famous goal of all time. It was unusual for him to kick the ball as he preferred to move it on quickly to a team-mate but knowing that something major was needed he moved upfield and sent in that diagonal kick. When I visited the funeral parlour on Wednesday evening, Seamus Darby and Tommy Doyle, who got the infamous nudge, were standing there side by side as they were all those years ago. Mick O'Dwyer was just leaving. It showed the respect Liam O'Connor was held in as a man, never mind as a footballer.
Now Liam can have an even bigger inquest with Tim Kennelly, Páidí ó Sé and John Egan from Kerry who all played in that game. Noel Curran from Meath can also listen in. He was a giant of the game in Meath in the winning team of 1967. Liam O'Connor won't say much. He just wanted to do his job and knew his limitations.
It is the last great game of the season today but unfortunately it is a year which has been hard on great men.