Colm O’Rourke looks back on the inter-county season
It seems a lifetime away now, but the straws in the wind for the season were evident from early in the Allianz Football League.
The serious action started in the last weekend of January. Kerry drew in Newbridge with Kildare, Galway gave Meath a hammering and Ulster champions Derry did the same to Down. The big teams for the year were up and running early. Of the last four, only Dublin lost — to Armagh in Croke Park — they were subsequently relegated, but it was only in the Leinster championship that they got going.
The Dubs will add a bit of colour and flavour to the second division next year. The GAA should come up with some excuse to make them play all their games away next year: poverty, deprivation, or whatever. And if they come to Navan I won’t even mention splitting them in two, three or four. That is now officially off the agenda.
Anyway, January and February is a most God-awful time to be playing football. The quieter months of the year, October and November, are much better weather-wise. The season needs to be rescheduled with a later start. Naturally I have a personal interest now and I hate the cold. Someone needs to push the dial forward a month away from storms and tempests.
The league, as usual, proved to be a good guide to the championship. Kerry, under new guru Jack O’Connor, who had never been heard of before apart from winning All-Irelands every time he was in charge, came up with a revolutionary new trick where they would set out to win every competition. No special focus on anything, just win the next match. And it worked.
As always, the league provided some very good games. I was in Croke Park on the opening night when Armagh beat Dublin in a very entertaining game. Armagh showed that by kicking the ball accurately they could entertain and win. They persisted with this tactic and it worked most days, but ultimately they got messy against Galway and their year finished with a lot of ‘what ifs’.
In terms of the standard of football it was a year which was a little underwhelming. The idea of winning the All-Ireland is still confined to an exclusive club of first division teams. There were a few good matches, the best of which was the semi-final between Dublin and Kerry. It was played in heat and settled by a calm score in the storm. Perhaps it signalled the emergence of a great new power to take over from Dublin, but Kerry’s final win did not signal that. Instead, they struggled to the promised land, but then again, Moses had similar problems before arriving at his destination.
That final was a very civilised sporting occasion, but my view of it was that it was not of a great standard. Two stand out performances saved it, David Clifford and Shane Walsh, one as good as the other. When it came to the decision on man of the match, I was firmly in the Clifford camp. Not because he was on the winning team, that should have no bearing, but he was the man who was under most pressure.
All of Kerry looked to him and he delivered. Not single-handedly, but when many around him were not looking for the ball, he stood out like a great general. He demanded the ball, high or low, when marked by one, two or three. There has been no better performance in a final from a player with such a weight of expectation on his shoulders.
Clifford dragged Kerry across the line. It is on such days, with a county craving success, that heroes are made. It also makes my argument that no player can be deemed great until they do it on the biggest days. Clifford’s outstanding performance will therefore stand the test of time. Shane Walsh was not far behind. He also delivered when there were big questions being asked of him after less than inspiring displays against Derry and Armagh.
The point I make about it being a very civilised final relates to the whole atmosphere on the day. Both sets of fans were loud in their support, yet respectful of each other inside and outside the great arena that we call Croke Park. They mingled easily and without incident, it is not exactly the same with all counties. Dublin supporters in general are a good example of a crowd who can be loud, good humoured and can take a beating. Of course it is easier when you win regularly, but a loss can bring out the worst human traits in many.
The most enjoyable competition of all was the Tailteann Cup. It is one I hope Meath are not in next year, yet it produced a series of exciting games and finished with Westmeath dancing in the streets in Mullingar. If they were in the final again next June it would not have the same appeal, but this should be viewed as the start of something bigger, both for the Tailteann Cup and for Westmeath.
It also demonstrates that this is a sort of intermediate competition in club championship terms and there is a need for a junior one as there are many counties with no chance in the Tailteann Cup. We await more revolutions. Rome was not built in a day and the mood for reform is real. Unfortunately, this sort of reform has not improved the rules of the game. Football is turning off a whole generation of older supporters.
As for the split season, the jury is still out. The evidence that there is no need for such an early start is clearly demonstrated by counties only starting their club championships around now, despite most counties being out of the championship for two months. The exodus to the US took on biblical proportions this year and there are many clubs in the land of the free that are much stronger than in any county in Ireland, with the possible exception of Dublin.
Large parts of some county squads have hitched up for the summer in places like New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco among others. You can argue that it is their own business if clubs in America want to go to such lengths to win a title in the cities which have become home. It is something which I have never had a problem with and we have paid the price at club level with Simonstown this year with students going away — and being encouraged to do so.
However, what is happening now is a movement of players on an industrial scale when counties go out of the championship and the early championship finish here is now facilitating this mass movement. The GAA does not own players, but the question needs to be asked whether there is any need for the All-Ireland to be so early when counties are not going to start club championships until August no matter when their county team goes out. It makes far more sense to start the league a month later and finish the All-Ireland a month later.
This would not suit many county men who get a nice earner from playing in some far off place in the summer months, but the number one priority is a proper games schedule in sunny Ireland. The current split season concept needs a rethink. Otherwise, we accept an early end to the county championship here which allows players to go on holidays in most of June and July and if they find a golden goose in some US city then good luck to them.