Cahair O'Kane: Time for club football to become 13-a-side
EVERY summer, Claudy Green would have been thronged. People came in their thousands for the Dr Kerlin Cup final.
The cup was put up in the 1930s under the condition that it would be played for each year, and that all the proceeds would be kept by Claudy parish. Every club in north Derry treasured the idea of winning a Dr Kerlin Cup in those days. It was played alongside the old North Derry Championship until the county board joined the south and city championships to the north in 1958 to create the all-county title we know today.
That could have been the end of the Dr Kerlin Cup, but instead it became arguably more lucrative. It became the de-facto North Derry Championship. Claudy Green was always tidied up for the event. It mightn’t have been as smooth as the modern-day surfaces, but for a natural piece of land, it was as flat as any player could have dreamt in those days.
Players loved playing in it. There was so much time and space to express yourself. The crowds for finals were literally counted into the thousands. At its peak, admission was 25p, and nobody dared miss the final.
In one famous decider, a referee disallowed four Ballerin goals as they lost to Foreglen. Impromptu peace talks were needed at the final whistle to save the poor official from being thrown in the River Faughan, which ran alongside the green.
The final moved to Claudy John Mitchel’s new pitch, but everything else about it stayed the same for so long. I can recall the cars lining the road halfway to Donemana for finals between neighbours Dungiven and Foreglen. Foreglen had always been an intermediate side but were able to put it up to their rivals, their never-say-die attitude always enough to guarantee a contest.
The teams annually shed any care for their other commitments for an hour to tear full length into it. When Foreglen finally won it a few years back, they took the cup into Dungiven and drank in John T’s for two days.
Another set of rivals, Craigbane and Banagher, contested four finals in-a-row a couple of decades back and those who were there to see them say they were as good as county deciders.
Sadly, the competition has lost its appeal altogether in the last five years. A diktat that county players are no longer eligible was the biggest nail in the coffin. It killed the sense of occasion that surrounded the final.
One of its biggest attractions was that it was, and still is, a 13-a-side competition. The county board had made all senior football 13-a-side in the 1930s because of emigration, but even when numbers improved, the format had proven so successful that the old north Derry board stuck with it.
It levelled the playing field for an underdog, who didn’t have to carry two passengers. The prospect of an underdog victory continued to carry its allure right into the modern era, as with those Foreglen v Dungiven finals.
The evening I fell out of love with the competition was when Banagher met Dungiven in the decider a few years ago. For one, there was no real underdog for the crowd to get behind.
Secondly, Mark Lynch, Paul Murphy, Mark Craig - lads who should have been the game’s best players - were all hanging over the wire, banned from playing because of their county commitments.
When the ball was thrown in, the first thing both teams did was bring a sweeper back. In 13-a-side football. It was a truly depressing sight. The rain poured from the heavens, there was hardly a couple of hundred people at it, and the game was pure muck. That evening suggested that calls for 13-a-side football to be reintroduced in a bid to eradicate the game’s defensive issues would be in vain.
Instead of fewer defenders, it would mean fewer forwards on the pitch. That night, both teams played with one inside forward. There was no-one to help the
full-forward pull a sweeper away. All that space simply resulted in tired legs trying to carry the ball the entire length of the field.
Playing 13-a-side will not stop teams putting everyone behind the ball, but it may be what’s required to save club football. With the odd exception, even senior clubs are struggling to pull together enough men to field two full teams. In Derry, Slaughtneil and Magherafelt have Thirds teams in the junior league, but a decade ago, Ballinderry, Bellaghy and Glen all had Thirds as well as healthy reserve teams.
There hasn’t been a single game played in the Derry intermediate reserve league since June 12. In that time, 11 games have been scheduled, and 11 games have been postponed or conceded.
Clubs just do not have the numbers to field a team of 15 and a team of 13 on one day while retaining a couple of strong, fresh subs for their seniors. Emigration has hit small rural clubs hard again in the last decade. With the commitment required to play senior club football nowadays, there are very few clubs who can boast 30-plus players on a weekly basis.
A lot of senior managers distrust anything beyond their first two subs. So the problem with not having 30 men is that only 16 or 17 actually get any football on any given weekend.
Club players training three times a week from November to April, to then discover they’re just going to be filling out training games for the rest of the year, tend not to hang around too long.
You couldn’t blame them. Derry club football is not what it was a decade ago, and a big part of the reason is that lack of numbers, caused by a lack of competitive football.
It’s time to bite the bullet and experiment with 13-a-side games.