Sport

John McEntee: Slaughtneil won't be found lacking on the big occasion which must retain its traditional St Patrick's Day slot in calendar

Crossmaglen Rangers celebrate lifting the Andy Merrigan Cup on St Patrick's Day 2011 Picture by Colm O'Reilly

Lá Fhéile Pádraig is celebrated throughout the world as a day of cultural and religious significance. It is one of those rare annual occasions where families of all creeds and none congregate to watch parades, enjoy the spring sunshine and soak up the feelgood atmosphere.

It is also a day of huge sporting significance in rugby, hurling and football fraternities. The old folk talk about cycling to Croke Park to watch Ulster take on the might of Leinster during the ’50s and ’60s, and how, for one day at least, they could cheer on the mighty Seán O’Neill, an all-time great but a Down man, without recrimination.

The Railway Cup is no longer an important competition in the eyes of Joe Public as evidenced by the dwindling attendance figures.

The GAA are aware of this fact and they opted to stage the

All- Ireland Club finals on St Patrick’s Day instead.

This was a bold move. The Railway Cup was consigned to an autumn fixture slot, where it remains poorly attended by supporters and the top

inter-county footballers.

The club finals, however, have grown in strength and attract attendances ranging from 29,000 to 35,000 annually.

The clubs have been given a day of their own to celebrate, a certain gravitas with ties to cultural significance which is what the GAA club yearns for – recognition.

Yet the powers-that-be are seriously considering condensing the club fixtures calendar into one calendar year.

What special dates of cultural significance are there in December? Black Friday? Who wants to make the journey to Dublin in a ratrace against the public on the prowl for Christmas bargains?

Discard tradition and soon there will be nothing but materiality to hand to future generations.

I’m all for a review of fixtures, but not at the expense of tradition, particularly when those key occasions are working.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The GAA calendar does not need to start in January and end in December. This is a topic I will revisit again.

Any number of clubs could win the All-Ireland Club Senior Football Championship, while only 11 counties have won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship in the past 46 years.

By stark contrast, 28 different clubs have won the Andy Merrigan Cup in that same period with only eight clubs having won it more than once. An All-Ireland club title is an achievement without comparison.

Whether you are the mighty Nemo Rangers of Cork or even minnows such as O’Hanrahan’s of Carlow, ordinary men get to have their day in the sun. They become local heroes.

When the minnows win, it is proof that the unimaginable can become the unforgettable.

This opportunity rears its head again in tomorrow’s decider.

Excitement and apprehension will permeate the townland of Slaughtneil tomorrow.

I know this because I lived through a similar experience 20 years ago. I was a 19-year-old boy who was playing alongside my idols and my friends and was managed by my neighbours.

The players of Slaughtneil are no different. These great men are preparing for a game like no other, an All-Ireland final against Kerry and Munster kingpins, Dr Croke’s. The Croke’s are a formidable opponent. We beat them in the 2007 final after a replay thanks to a young, lean and fit Johnny Hanratty and again in the 2012 semi-final in a game in which Aaron Kernan was immense for Crossmaglen.

The Kerry outfit are a seasoned team littered with talented county footballers. Their brand of football is a joy to behold. Watching the likes of ‘the Gooch’ and Kieran O’Leary exploiting space, spreading passes and scoring for fun is what makes the club championship so special.

But Dr Croke’s are also vulnerable. They have not been able to win the Andy Merrigan Cup since 1992, despite having won five Munster titles since. They’ve perfected the art of the great start and are regularly five points up before their opponents realise they are in a game.

When the opponents drop their heads they get steamrollered with performances of sheer beauty and exit the field with an inferiority complex.

It reminds me of a time when I was playing full-forward against Derry minors as they went about destroying us.

As I was walking off the pitch an Armagh stalwart came over to me, shook my hand and said ‘it was a great game to watch, wasn’t it?’ Luckily for him, I saw the funny side of it.

Examine the character of Mickey Moran’s men and the only conclusion is that you can’t see this happening.

Slaughtneil thrive on adversity. They seek out challenges. They absorb energy and return it

ten-fold like Lucas Bishop (inset) of the Marvel Comics.

They don’t know when they are beaten and, with the Ulster GAA community behind them, the only way they will be defeated is by a stroke of misfortune.

Slaughtneil will not succumb to ‘the Gooch’s’ magic in the first 10 minutes. They know this game is 60-plus minutes long and they will see it out.

Whatever the result, rest assured the experience of playing in Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day is one that will live long in the memories of both teams.

As Aogán Ó Fearghaíl hands over the Andy Merrigan Cup he is igniting a spark in many young boys who will aspire to replicate the achievements of these great men.

History shows us if he ultimately decides to remove tradition, he will blow out the spark.

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