Kicking Out: Be careful that calendar year wish doesn't destroy club finals
FOR Cuala hurlers, the echoey saturation of a near-empty Parnell Park on Saturday was a lifetime removed from that glorious afternoon in Portlaoise just two weeks ago.
Their battles with Na Piarsaigh across St Patrick’s Day and the following Saturday will go down in legend, not just for the Dublin club’s remarkable achievement, but for the relentlessness of the two games themselves.
There are few more atmospheric grounds in the country than O’Moore Park and the noise that bellowed from the main stand during the replay made for an electrifying occasion.
All was much quieter on Saturday as the Dublin SHC kicked into gear for 2018, with the All-Ireland champions beginning the defence of their titles against St Brigid’s in the lashing rain.
Two weeks is not a very long time for a club to come down off that cloud after back-to-back All-Irelands and throw themselves back into championship action, knowing that every sinner out there will be looking for their scalp.
They survived that first test at the weekend with an autopilot display. Their class was enough on its own to get them by in the second half, unlike last year when they were beaten on their return to action by Ballyboden St Enda’s.
Mattie Kenny had no choice but to let the players’ engines cool. In their bid for success, they had been going almost non-stop since the tail end of 2014. The club’s county players were given an extended break and the rest eased off and only tapered their way back up when August rolled around.
It was a risky strategy that ultimately paid the greatest dividend, though there were times last autumn when they were on the cliff’s edge.
The clubs whose campaigns exceed the turn of the year will never complain at the time, but the scheduling as it is doesn’t do them any favours in the long run.
It is undoubtedly a major factor in why only three clubs have ever won back-to-back hurling All-Irelands, and why Crossmaglen (1999-2000, and 2010–11) are the only football club since St Finbarr’s (1980-81) to win consecutive football titles.
When Slaughtneil came off their run to the 2015 All-Ireland final, those nursing knocks or getting on a bit in years were basically given the whole club league off.
It was the same last year and, just like Cuala, it left them vulnerable. Swatragh, an emerging side with the parish rivals axe to grind but who haven’t had a major senior championship result in a good few years, very nearly caught them in the first round of Derry’s straight knockout championship.
Had Ballinderry not been reduced to 13 men in the quarter-final, then they too could have easily stopped the run before it started. But the Emmet’s survived and from there on, they slipped into gear and ended up winning a third Ulster in four years.
Between dealing with the peaks and troughs, trying to negotiate the difficult Christmas period and retaining your sharpness despite the lack of available opposition for challenge games at that time of year, there are obvious reasons for wanting the competitions finished inside the calendar year.
“If you finish up in November and you’re not out again until February 24 the following year, it’s a long layoff. It’s hard to keep going. It’s been the same for Nemo,” was how Slaughtneil assistant manager John Joe Kearney framed it after their All-Ireland semi-final loss.
But what is the alternative?
Even in the very, very best of circumstances, the biggest squeeze clubs can realistically hope for in terms of the inter-county calendar is for it all to be finished up by early August.
That seems like a grand starting point but not every county has the same set of problems and the issue is that the national calendar would be dictated by the likes of a strong dual county like Wexford.
Enough time is needed to play both football and hurling championships before provincial competitions can begin.
Then you need at least four weekends in Ulster. The simple mathematics of it means that you’re in early November by then, at the very least.
Tag the All-Ireland semi-finals and final on after that and you could, at a real squeeze, have your All-Ireland club finals on the first weekend of December. That’s the absolute best-case scenario.
Players in this situation seem to assume it would be improved by bringing all inside the calendar year but, when you think of Slaughtneil in particular, it would completely bust their chances of competing on two fronts.
It would also be asking players to go week-on-week-on-week. For those that end up in an All-Ireland final, they could be on the go for a full three months with very little break between big games.
While I’ve always been an advocate of more games and less training, there is a happy medium. There is a different physical and emotional drain after championship games and the reality is that to put the All-Ireland series right on the end of the provincials could completely destroy it in more ways than one.
For one, imagine winning an Ulster club title and not celebrating it? That’s what would happen. And that would be sad.
As Damian Cassidy said when he took Clonoe to the Tyrone title in 2013: “I’m not going to tell the boys to go home after winning a championship and throw their bags in the corner and sit in the house.”
If you don’t enjoy the winning, then what’s the point in it in the first place?
More realistic than early December is that, in a single calendar year competition, the All-Ireland finals would have to be played somewhere close to Christmas.
Imagine trying to stoke the public interest in that.
”Get to Dublin this weekend, where you might only have to sit an hour in the shopping traffic trying to get to the College to park. There, you’ll see the last 48 minutes of glorious daylight before the sun goes down at 3pm. Temperatures are expected to rise above minus 3, but we’ll be selling boiling hot tea inside if you need thawing out.”
This year’s Grand Slam affected games aside, the decade-long average attendance for the club finals has been 30,000. It has become part of the country’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations and is fierce attractive to the neutral GAA fanatic.
Could the same be said of a winter’s day in the middle of December, when everyone has so much else to be doing and so much else to spend their money on?
Recognising that St Patrick’s Day is not ideal for the clubs involved is not difficult. But is the alternative better for anyone?
Am I the only one that sees it as potentially depressing? Played in the dark afternoons in the worst of weather, with a few thousands hardy souls dotted around the Hogan Stand? The neutral population becoming detached from what have become the best competitions in the GAA?
Be careful what you wish for.