We won’t have a clearer picture of competition’s long-term viability until after next year’s staging
From the moment the Tailteann Cup was confirmed as a concrete reality, the unspoken fear was that it would ultimately suffer the same ignominious end as its maligned predecessor, the Tommy Murphy Cup.
When the initial draw was made last month, GAA president Larry McCarthy offered the bold hope/prediction that it would “take off like a meteorite” . . . to which the cynics dryly responded that these balls of fire occasionally crash to earth with devastating consequences.
But now, 13 matches later, there are grounds for cautious optimism. For the most part, Tailteann Mark I has been embraced rather than endured by counties whose recent forays into the Sam Maguire fray were never destined to end well.
Here, in theory at least, was a prize that they could genuinely go after; they weren’t preordained cannon-fodder. This has been reflected, to date, in one bona fide shock (Carlow vanquishing Tipperary); in a couple of extra-time battles, one of which went to penalties; and in the statistical breakdown of results.
Six of those 13 games have been won by margins of three points or less; a further two by either four or five points; three by eight-nine points; and just two by double-digit margins.
In other words, the matches have been closer than the recent norm of turkey shoots involving Dublin or Kerry against any of their provincial ‘rivals’.
And that, surely, must qualify as the first priority: providing an outlet of competitive summer games between evenly matched teams who have no earthly All-Ireland aspirations.
But is it time for a collective bout of back-slapping as the GAA gears up for Sunday’s semi-finals at Croke Park, starting with Cavan/Sligo at 1.45pm and followed by Westmeath/Offaly at 4pm? Not remotely. First of all, let’s see how this HQ double-header pans out, not just as a competitive spectacle but in terms of public interest measured through the turnstiles and in live TV viewing figures.
And let’s continue to reserve judgment until the final, pencilled in as the undercard to a senior semi-final on Saturday, July 9 – a date that has annoyed many critics who believe it should be played on All-Ireland final day itself.
In truth, we won’t have a clearer picture of the competition’s long-term viability until after next year’s staging of Tailteann Mark II, when all 16 entrants will be guaranteed a minimum of three round-robin games.
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Gaelic football has always struggled with the concept of second-tier competitions, partly because everyone believes they should have the right to compete for Sam. For all minnows, this was only ever a theoretical chance but that wasn’t the point.
Sceptics with long memories wondered about the Tailteann Cup because they remembered how the All-Ireland ‘B’ competition and the Tommy Murphy Cup had failed to last the course.
The latter survived for five seasons, from 2004 to ’08, and had its occasional highs in the midst of producing five different winners.
But ultimately it fizzled out because counties fell out of love with the concept. When it was decided that Division 4 counties, having suffered (inevitable) provincial defeat, would go straight into the 2007 Tommy Murphy Cup and bypass the All-Ireland qualifiers, the seeds for its demise were sown.
A year later, annual Congress voted to reinstate Division 4 counties to the qualifiers from 2009 onwards. GAA president Nickey Brennan responded by declaring the Tommy Murphy Cup “dead in the water . . . we just don’t have the dates to fit in everything.”
In other words, the competition was already on life support when Dessie Dolan Snr, then manager of Leitrim, delivered a famously withering dismissal on the eve of his team’s June ’08 Connacht clash with Galway.
“I’ve no interest in the Tommy Murphy Cup; it’s a balls of a competition. This thing about not having qualifiers is the greatest disaster and the GAA should be hung, drawn and quartered for it,” Dolan told the ‘Irish Mail on Sunday’, before adding a colourful jibe at the president that prompted a Leitrim County Board statement of disassociation from his remarks.
Still, Dolan’s primary complaint – that county footballers weren’t interested in the Tommy Murphy Cup whereas several weaker counties had flourished via ‘back door’ runs to reach All-Ireland quarter-finals – carried a ring of truth.
What has changed in the interim? Well, quite a lot. Partly as a result of the Allianz League’s move to a four-tier hierarchy, the strong have got even stronger – and more and more of the weak have been left behind. For the likes of Fermanagh to reach an All-Ireland semi-final, as they did in 2004, had become Mission Impossible.
And so here we are – back again – with a rebooted tier-two championship.
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Any discussion about the likely success or otherwise of the Tailteann Cup has, almost inevitably, returned to the subject to promotion. How will the GAA market it? Will they do enough to bestow on it the status of a competition genuinely worth winning?
The big PR ploy is about to happen: giving the semi-finals prime Sunday afternoon billing. There are no other senior matches in competition with Cavan, Sligo, Westmeath and Offaly. The stage is their own.
This will scarcely encourage the neutral masses to fill their increasingly costly diesel tanks and head for the capital.
It even remains to be seen how many partisans travel from the four competing counties, and the reality is that even a half-decent crowd can quickly get lost in the cavernous expanse of an 82,300-capacity stadium.
But a sizeable cohort of armchair fans are sure to tune in. Then it’s up to the players and, in fairness, all four semi-finalists have been enthusiastic Tailteann Cup advocates, in both word and deed.
“We totally respect the competition,” declared Westmeath boss Jack Cooney on the day of their Leinster semi-final defeat to Kildare. He referenced an ambition to get back to Croke Park – and now they’re here, after two not exactly straightforward victories over Laois and Carlow.
Cavan also fell at the provincial semi-final stage, after a gripping tussle with Donegal. As Ulster champions as recently as 2020, the Breffni men appeared to fit the bill as obvious front-runners . . . but only on the proviso that they didn’t deem the Tailteann Cup beneath them.
Mickey Graham answered that conundrum after losing to Donegal. “They’ve had a lot of dark days and still keep coming back. No doubt the players will fully buy into it,” the Cavan manager insisted.
So it has transpired, with Cavan recording back-to-back nine-point victories over Down and Fermanagh.
Down are perhaps the most glaring example of a county unmoved by dreams of Tailteann glory, with a handful of players including some high-profile names withdrawing from their squad after they succumbed in Ulster to Monaghan.
Cue the inevitable 0-24 to 1-12 loss to Cavan. But even James McCartan, after a traumatic season, sought a glimmer of hope when he said afterwards: “We have found players who want to wear the Down jersey and with pride too. The hope is, too, that players who have left the squad for whatever reason will return and that others will also make themselves available. We must take a positive outlook going forward.”