Wednesday 11 December 2019

Colm O'Rourke: 'The true heart of the GAA pumps in parishes and it's a model the association should never change'

Croke Park and the counties could learn from the ego-free pride of the local clubs

A misty Healy Park in Omagh before the Ulster semi-final between Clontibret and Naomh Conaill. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
A misty Healy Park in Omagh before the Ulster semi-final between Clontibret and Naomh Conaill. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Nothing in the GAA can beat winning a championship with your club. By extension, the provincial and All-Ireland club championship raises the club to new levels because the humble club player gets to perform in new grounds against other champions. They also become ambassadors for their counties.

It must have been the greatest feeling in the world for players, officials and supporters to line up in Croke Park on St Patrick's Day. The meek sometimes do inherit the earth. It's a pity that the date has changed.

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Sadly, many of these competitions are well-kept secrets. Last year, when I commented about how poor the official GAA app was, I got a smack of a wet tea cloth from Croke Park. The gist of their argument was that accounts of all matches were up very quickly after big games. That is true but is not what I was saying. Over the last few weeks I have found it very hard to get the results of junior and intermediate provincial championship matches. I could not find fixtures last week on the official GAA website - they may be there, but if so they are not easy to find - and there is a mistake in the draw for the All-Ireland semi-finals in January. The winners of Munster are playing in both semi-finals. Results of all games should be immediately available on the app. The winners of a junior championship match deserve the same recognition as senior.

This marvellous competition continues today with the kings of the club scene, Nemo Rangers, playing Clonmel Commercials in the Munster final. Nemo are football royalty and often there is the debate on why some clubs are successful and others struggle. It is primarily a cultural thing. Of course, no team can win anything without great players but allied to that and central to it is the sort of standards which clubs foster.

Many counties could learn from the top clubs in terms of governance, honesty, integrity and lack of ego. Perhaps it is because the people of the highest calibre personally and professionally tend to remain active in their clubs rather than move on to county committees. Good people drive high standards. Players respond.

It is hardly coincidence that Nemo are successful. They have wonderful facilities now but they were winning without them too. Their whole club is built on the basis of unselfishness and nobody getting above themselves. They are not unique in that but their record of club titles marks them apart. They just keep on winning.

There are big names from every era. Billy Morgan, Dinny Allen, Jimmy Kerrigan, Steven O'Brien and Paul Kerrigan now continues the family tradition. Nemo do not seek popularity in Cork, they look after their own business and good luck to those who beat them. It does not happen too often.

Hovering in the background is the greying figure of Billy Morgan, who is the godfather of Nemo, Cork and UCC. Never too proud not to carry the jerseys or put up the nets he represents all the good points of the GAA as someone who is happy to be selector for juniors or seniors, even if some who have received the sharp end of his tongue might not agree. Good clubs are driven by passion and pushing high standards on the pitch. Nemo have all that.

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So have Clonmel Commercials, who put Nemo out in 2015 with a last minute Michael Quinlivan goal. Neither the first nor last he scored in tight situations. The Tipperary club have been unfortunate in that their county successes have meant meeting a big dog very quickly down the road. They could have easily won that All-Ireland in 2015 and the great journey goes on.

In Ulster the final between Kilcoo and Naomh Conaill will probably be much more prosaic. Both teams like to strangle the opposition with defence, defence, defence and it will be interesting today if one decides that fortune favours the brave and really goes for it. Hard to see leopards changing their spots though.

In many ways these clubs represent the traditional GAA. A small number of families dominate in Kilcoo - Branagans, Johnstons, McEvoys, with Conor Laverty providing a bit of magic.

Aaron Branagan gave the quote of the year after their win in the semi-final when he said all they had in Kilcoo was mass, sheep and football. He did not put them in any particular order but these are men who are hewn from the highlands they inhabit.

Naomh Conaill are on the go for 10 weeks and must be looking forward to a couple of weeks off. Their Donegal final against Gaoth Dobhair was a marathon where a point was worth about three in a normal game. There are Thompsons and McLoones and McGettigans and they have more scoring power than Kilcoo if they trust themselves to attack. But the obsession with extra defenders will ensure this is a game of endless handpassing and low scoring. The scoreboard operator will need warm gloves as he will hardly be too busy.

Yet for all of that I will enjoy these games and won't be too critical of the style. These four clubs are sending out great men to give their all for their own patch. It is about pride of place and men driving long distances without any expenses for a bigger cause than individualism.

It is what the GAA is really about. This is the model of the association which should never be changed.

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