Aaron Kernan: Going gets toughest in club championships
Thanks to some clever marketing in recent years by the club championships long time lead sponsor AIB. The club game has now become synonymous with the tag line The Toughest. “With its predominantly winter schedule, the constant pressure of knockout matches, having to balance the demands of family, work or college with training and playing matches, and of course, the fact that some of the biggest names in GAA haven’t won a club medal, we believe that the AIB GAA Club Championships really is the toughest of them all” explained Brian Keating, AIB Brand Director.
The happenings in the club game across the country in recent weeks have done little to dispel the rumor. Unlike in the inter county game, where before a ball is kicked in anger months in advance, you could almost pick for certain the top four teams who will be left at the business end of the season.
The club game is much more unpredictable, and Castlebar’s exit to Corofin at the weekend is testament to that as they were the last provincial club champions from 2015 to exit the All Ireland race. It will be little consolation to them but at least they made it out of their county, my own club Crossmaglen and the current All Ireland champions Ballyboden St Enda’s from Dublin all signed off for 2016 without even making it into their respective county finals.
But that’s not the story of the weekend, and nor it should be as a group of smaller, lesser known clubs have continued amazing season for another few weeks.
First up you have The Nire from Waterford, fresh from their county final win ony seven days previous over Ballinacourty, toppling the Cork champions Carbery Rangers after extra time.
Maybe this result is further proof that Cork football is not as strong as it once was, following on from their counties shock Munster football exit at the hands of Tipperary this summer but rather than dwell on Cork’s woes, I’d rather acknowledge the positive result this is for Waterford football.
My only experience of Waterford football came as a county minor, on a nice sunny spring afternoon in Carrickcruppen when they travelled to play us in a challenge game. We had a decent side who were unbeaten in the Ulster league, this game would be a formality for us, sure they’re no good at football in Waterford was the thinking.
A reality check wasn’t too far away as the biggest underage side I’d ever seen made it’s way onto the field and proceeded to beat us both physically and in football for over an hour. It was a valuable lesson learned to never take anyone for granted.
To be fair to that Waterford group, they backed that performance up a few years later by winning the Munster U21 title, beating a star studded Kerry laced with star names like Colm Cooper, Kieran Donaghy and Declan O’Sullivan side along the way.
But because the small ball rules the roost in the deise, results like this will always be sporadic, never the less, it should give great hope to clubs around the country of what can be achieved with the right mindset.
Sean O’Mahony’s from Louth’s win over Sarsfields is another notable achievement when you consider that the O’Mahony’s only won the Louth intermediate title two years ago and followed it up with their first ever senior final appearance 12 months ago.
They are a small club based in The Quays on the outskirts of Dundalk but they’ve hit a remarkable standard of consistency this past few years and will fancy themselves to cause another upset when they meet Offaly champions Rhode in a fortnight. If you get a minute, go to YouTube to checkout their post match celebrations in the changing to see exactly what this win means to them.
Mullingalaghta from Longford who recently won only their third county title, their first in 56 years also proved that their victory over Stradbally from Laois a fortnight ago was no fluke by beating St Loman’s from Mullingar by two points to set up a Leinster semi final meeting with my favorites for the All Ireland St Vincent’s.
Unfortunately, I can’t see their fairytale run lasting into December but another solid performance against the Dublin heavyweights would cap off a memorable season. When you consider that St Vincent’s probably more minors footballers each year than there exists in the entire 450 population of Mullingalaghta, it’s no mean feet.
Ulster has pretty much gone to form, with the two best teams in the province, Kilcoo and Slaughtneil making it to the final in comprehensive fashion. Prior to last weekend, both Maghery and Killyclogher’s combined ulster club experience amassed to three games in total. One thing you can’t beat on a cold, damp November day is experience.
No matter how much hunger or youthful exuberance a new champions posses; you can’t beat the self-belief, composure and assurance that has been built up from past experiences, something both Kilcoo and Slaughtneil have in spades.
I witnessed the contest in Newry live before catching up on TG4’s coverage from Armagh when I got home. If both teams can reproduce similar pressure to that which they applied on their opponents on the weekend past, then it’s safe to say we are set for a classic encounter in two weeks time given the form both teams are in.
Over the coming weeks, I expect Dr Crokes to emerge from Munster, Corofin from Connacht and St Vincent’s from Leinster, but Ulster is not as clear-cut. Both clubs motivation's are obvious as Kilcoo go in search of their first provincial crown, while Slaughtneil want to continue what has almost become a weekly occurrence by adding to their Hurlers and Camogie teams provincial achievements.
My prediction - I haven’t made up my mind just yet.