GAA Football

Kicking Out: A good crop just won't cut it any more

Derry captain Henry Downey prepares to lift Sam Maguire in 1993

AROUND 4.10pm on Sunday next, Croke Park will gently acclaim Derry’s one and only All-Ireland title.

Henry Downey will lead them out. Damien McCusker. Kieran McKeever. Tony Scullion. Fergal P McCusker. The line will go through McGurk and Coleman and Tohill and Barton and Cassidy and another Downey, through Danny Quinn and Richard Ferris and Dermot McNicholl.

It’ll be memories of the Marshes, the deluge in Clones, toxic battles with Donegal, McGurk’s winner, Cahalane’s box, Downey’s goal.

September 19, 1993 is a day I can sometimes come tantalisingly close to remembering.

But all I have is the image of my cousins, Therese and Ciara, minding us at home, and borrowed memories from the VCR aunt Rita briefly lent my obsessed young mind.

There’s a vague recollection of being in Dungiven on the Monday evening for the team returning. Darkness and madness and no idea what it’s all about. At five, you don’t know what you’re supposed to remember.

Matthew Clancy's left-footed dagger in 2001 is really the earliest vivid recollection of the way following Derry would treat your heartstrings.

All that really exists of ’93 is memories of a fading team, playing their days out on the club circuit.

It was how must successes are. Derry built it from the ground up. Not only were Maghera winning MacRorys and Hogans through the ‘80s, but St Pius’ were strong on the vocational scene. An All-Ireland minor in ’83, another in ’89, and under-21 final defeats in ’83 and ’85.

Trace the lineage of most All-Ireland winning teams, and that’s what you’ll find. A couple of strong underage county sides, a heavy school presence and a club scene with a bit of depth. It’s never just as simple as 30 men getting together.

It took a lot for the ducks to line up in a row like that. Eamonn Coleman had to do exceptional things, one of which was to get the county board to accede to his wishes on club football. He made sure that the fixtures suited around his own plans to bring Sam Maguire home, though the idea that the players didn’t play club football that year is a myth.

Their success didn’t have a knock-on effect on Derry football, but they aren’t unique in that regard.

The history books are not short of teams that find themselves there for a good time but not for a long one.

Meath hasn’t been back since the late 80s, Cork just once since their ‘89/’90 successes, Galway not at all since 2001.

Armagh, Donegal, Down, Derry, they’ve all tasted the last drop in the bottom of the bottle. It was great stuff, but it was gone in a flash, leaving a thirst that they’ve no idea now how to quench.

Meanwhile, Dublin have won the last three, and they could win the next three.

Kerry haven’t built up four (soon to be five, more than likely) All-Ireland minors in a row for nothing. They’re coming to take Sam back again in the near future.

65 All-Ireland titles between them, there has never been more than a five-year spell without one or the other appearing in a final. The next decade will attach new fables to the old rivalry.

But unlike between 1986 and the 2000s, this time they aren’t going away.

Dublin’s recent minor record is average, yet they’ve had Brian Howard come through this season at 20 years of age and play himself into the running for Footballer of the Year.

Eoin Murchan has stepped in and marked Ryan McHugh and Niall Sludden to perfection. Last year it was Niall Scully.

The extraordinary has become normal. With their depth of resources, they stand a good chance of producing those couple of players they need every winter to keep the thing ticking over.

It’ll not be enough to win All-Irelands every single year, because nothing ever is. But the problem football has now is that Kerry look to be past their complacency and morphing back into superpower form.

Tyrone, with the prevailing attitude that every young boy wants to play for the county and a club scene that will facilitate it, even it is through gritted teeth at times, have a legacy at their disposal that others in Ulster can’t match. So they might challenge in the long term too, but their resources aren’t huge.

The rest are in bother. For Derry, for Armagh, for Donegal, for Down, it was always cyclical. A good team followed by a few bad ones. It was about making the most of the good times, and they all managed to do that.

A good crop coming along isn’t enough any more. It needs to be a good crop with the back-up of another squad’s worth of the same quality, to deal with injuries, disinterest and general AWOLism.

County boards need to find the funding. They’ll need to fend off the AFL. Even fend off its own club game, where dissent grows by the week.

It’s a simpler jigsaw now for Dublin and Kerry. Their professional structures are in place at the bottom that will enable them to keep churning out good players at the top.

The population advantages that no-one can do anything about will mean that even if they lose 80 per cent, they’ll still bring more through than the rest.

Unlike the spell from 1987 to 2015, when 12 of the 19 finals were free of the sky blue or green and gold, these two are not going away again.

Of the last 15 finals, one or the other has been in 13 of them, winning 11. That won’t change over the next 15 years.

They’ve reached such standards at the point of development now that everyone else needs to overstretch just to compete.

The direct correlation between spending and winning will create boredom with the inevitable, and the demands of just competing will just drive good players away.

Not just good players, but good generations.

Cavan offered a recent run of under-21 teams. The last four years at minor have been Derry’s. Monaghan are stronger at underage than ever before. Donegal too.

But what will have come of all the effort in ten years?

The financial cost of success, the long-term demands on players and the short window that actually exists for a more limited county means that the likelihood of serious challengers from beyond the existing bracket is reducing.

And the impact competing at that level has on the club game is enormous. There hasn’t been a ball kicked at senior level in Tyrone since July 1.

The price of competing is just too high.

So here’s to Downey and O’Rourke and Molloy and McGeeney. We’ll always have the memories.

Or the DVD.

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