Wednesday 29 January 2020

Cups of cheer

Nigel Crawford (Meath)
Nigel Crawford (Meath)
Brian Dooher (Tyrone)
Bryan Sheehan (Kerry)
Peter Domican (Roscommon)

The traffic was still snarling up through Ballaghadereen and Frenchpark late on Sunday and the bonfires were blazing brightly at every other junction on the slow road from Castlebar back into the north-west midlands.

From Fraher Field in Dungarvan to MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey and Casement Park in west Belfast to Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney, a 32nd match had decided the destiny of the fourth and final provincial championship.

Whether it was Sligo or Roscommon, it was always going to be a story in Castlebar. It just happens that Roscommon, down on their luck to the point of "embarrassment" as their manager Fergal O'Donnell put it after last year's 20-point hammering to Mayo, were a slightly bigger story, given their anonymity for so long in those parts.

As closure came in Castlebar, there was a sense that the provincial championships had endured something of a revival over the last two months, a stay of execution that will keep the wolves baying for change at a distance for now.

Essentially, the provincial championships feel as if they have been a whole lot more vibrant than in recent years. It feels as if they have meant something.

Consider John Galvin's anguish in Killarney after Limerick had come so close once more to ending a 114-year famine, their comeback from seven points down earlier that afternoon making it a Munster final to remember.

Even Kerry's unwillingness to buckle against Cork in two games, driven by a desperation to avoid the qualifier route, added something. There haven't been two more competitive games in any province since Armagh and Tyrone slugged it out over two games in Croke Park to decide the 2005 Ulster final.

Sligo's three-game odyssey -- that saw them beat Mayo and Galway for the first time in the same Connacht championship season -- was tarnished somewhat by their failure to close the deal last Sunday. But their exploits and the quality of some of their football was another shot of oxygen for the provincial structure.

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Leinster was also in revivalist mood, with Louth routing Kildare en route to their first Leinster final in 50 years. On the other side of the draw, Meath were able to lay to rest the recent bogey that was Dublin at the fifth attempt and bridge a gap themselves that was nine years in the making.


In its own perverse way, the catastrophe of the conclusion to their game last week also did the longer-term prognosis of the provincial championships no harm at all. In one respect it showed how much people cared, even if they used the most uncouth and, in some cases, unlawful methods to show it.

For some time the proponents for change have been gathering momentum. The lure of a structure not based on geography, but an equanimity across the board with seedings linked to league placings, has been on the minds of quite a few.

The argument is straightforward. The imbalance between the provinces is too great. Different teams in different provinces must raise their games for different times.

Is it a coincidence that Kildare have found their form over the last three weekends against Antrim, Leitrim and Derry in a two-week window either side of the Leinster football final?

Their manager Kieran McGeeney spoke earlier in the year about approaching training differently in 2010 and it seems, from a distance, that such an approach was weighted towards performing at the back end of the season. It may have cost them a Leinster title, but conversely it puts them in the picture at the business end of the season for the third campaign running.

By virtue of its county status, the football championship has the most perfect solution to a restructuring. Take Kilkenny out of the equation, retain London, and you could have eight groups of four. Apply seedings from league status and the games between February and April carry distinct relevance.

It has its merits but there are detractions: changing from 32 counties competing for five titles to 32 counties competing for one being the obvious one. Almost everyone has an outside chance of winning four of the five titles; very few have a chance of winning the remaining one.

However, nothing illustrates both sides of the argument more than Roscommon's success out west.

They seized the moment, they took the opportunity, they followed the path set out for them, they did what they had to do and could do no more.

At last a team germinating for so long sprang shoots. Five of the All-Ireland minor champions of 2006, carefully nurtured by O'Donnell, started the Connacht final and eight finished it.

But their journey to Sunday's final hadn't taxed them greatly, a point that won't be missed too easily by those in other provinces that face a much steeper gradient every May.

Beating London, Leitrim and Sligo, albeit a Sligo team that had taken care of Mayo and Galway, doesn't represent the hardest route ever taken to a provincial championship. But that's not their issue and shouldn't take from an excellent achievement.

For the first time since 1978, the county has an U-21/senior Connacht double to savour and that means so much.

As the 12 teams remaining in the football championship prepare to become eight this weekend, the provincial championships can look back on the last two months and at how they made a compelling case for themselves as to why they can survive, even with all their imperfections.

Irish Independent

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