Saturday 17 March 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Commitment of foot soldiers clears path to Croke Park

Last weekend's games showed why reaching HQ means so much

The match between St Vincent's and Corofin was one of those helter-skelter games where anything could happen - and did most of the time
The match between St Vincent's and Corofin was one of those helter-skelter games where anything could happen - and did most of the time
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

After last week's rant about the dreadful state of football, it was good to see last weekend that rigor mortis has not set in altogether. Of course, it was not county football that lifted the fog, but two absorbing All-Ireland club semi-finals.

The first one on Saturday between St Vincent's and Corofin was one of those helter-skelter games where anything could happen - and did most of the time - while Slaughtneil and Austin Stacks was an old-fashioned humdinger. Now both of these matches had plenty of handpassing, but there was enough of every type of football to keep all neutrals happy.

All-Ireland club championships at every level are the greatest modern development of the GAA. In Croke Park on Saturday evening, players from Ardfert in Kerry and St Croan's of Roscommon played out an intermediate final, while John Mitchels of Liverpool and Brosna of Kerry contested the junior final. The great dream of every young player to play in Croke Park is within reach and even if Ireland were playing France in rugby across town, there were no divided loyalties in Croke Park.

Not only are these games a once-in a-lifetime experience for players, they are also a marvellous opportunity for every person in the community to share, in a very close way, the thrill of having your own in that special arena. They also bring people home from abroad and give a huge lift in both a social and economic way to these clubs. These sort of clubs have a positive approach, they believe in self-help and a team on the pitch, whether it is senior, intermediate or junior, reflecting the energy and commitment of the huge army of foot soldiers who oil the wheels of all local life, in rural Ireland especially.

In contrast to this, St Vincent's as a big-city club have done and continue to do what a city club must do: they have embedded themselves as part of the community as much as any club anywhere through selfless voluntary work for local youth.

St Vincent's gave up their title, but it was a mighty struggle. Now Diarmuid Connolly can get his break, a break he did not want, but he has continued on the treadmill for a couple of years without being able to step off.

Of course, Dublin will want him now and the club league will be starting for Vincent's immediately, but if Connolly is to rediscover his imperious form, he would be better off away from the game for at least a month. No professional in any sport would be expected to play their sport continuously for as long as he has. It had started to show, too, the body and mind were willing, but the spark of genius has just gone for the moment. Every player needs to get away and smell the roses for a while or the engine just goes stale.

To beat Corofin, Vincent's would have needed a few Connollys. Corofin are a very good side. They came with a tall reputation and all of it was deserved. Their hunger to succeed was admirable and they played a lovely brand of football. At times, they held on to the ball with a series of handpasses, but unlike many of the recent county games, it was usually going forward and was followed by intelligent kicks into space.

Up front for Corofin, Michael Lundy was terrific and he made a lot of hard yards for his team. He took scores, created scores and was always showing for the ball. With his pace, he must be a bit of a nightmare to mark as he drifts into open country to look for passes. No back likes to mark a small forward who is brave and keeps running. Indeed, it was a tribute to the fitness levels of both teams as they kept up a very fast pace from start to finish. Corofin also had Martin Farragher and Ian Burke in the inside line to take scores. Another example of the old football maxim - keep your best scorers close to the goal.

The other semi-final on Sunday was just as intensely fought and was possibly a tougher physical battle. Most neutrals would probably have liked to see a draw and more action as this was good, honest, hard football.

There was no fairytale ending for Kieran Donaghy, either, and it would have meant as much to him, and probably even more, to have ran out in Croke Park with his club than any of his All-Irelands with Kerry.

But the man above does not listen to prayers involving football matches and it is easier to count the stars in the sky than get to Croke Park on St Patrick's Day. It just shows what great clubs the likes of Crossmaglen and Nemo Rangers are as they dined in Croke Park on so many of these big days. Ordinary clubs would give anything for one.

St Patrick's Day will be a huge one for Slaughtneil manager Mickey Moran. He has coached, trained and mentored a thousand teams from children to veterans and does so with the same enthusiasm and honesty as any man ever has.

The Slaughtneil players were generous in their praise of Moran after last Sunday - and rightly so; he coached Derry along with Eamon Coleman to win an All-Ireland and now he is within touching distance of a remarkable double. I had experience of working with Mickey when we were involved with the international rules team and his training sessions always kept players thinking. Drills were always new and added to players' enjoyment.

Slaughtneil also have plenty of quality and Patsy Bradley showed that a good county man should always turn up and inspire his clubmates. He led by example, but he had plenty of support from a variety of Bradleys and Barry McGuigan. No battle will be too hard for these boys.

Of course, the debate on the club final is about moving away from St Patrick's Day. If it was finished before Christmas, it would mean a definite break for club players. Yet there is something special about Paddy's Day and I am quite sure that every club player would gladly train on Christmas Day, New Year's Day and every other in that holiday time just to get a chance to march behind a band in Croke Park on March 17. Thankfully, these clubs also play football.

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