GAA Football

The End Line: Nothing compares to the excitement of club championship

Enda McGinley in action for Errigal Ciaran during his playing pomp. The class of 2019 take on Trillick in Sunday's Tyrone final. Picture by Mark Marlow

COUNTY final weekends are now coming thick and fast.  For those privileged enough to be there, either as players or supporters, they are very special times.

My own club, Errigal Ciaran, will compete in Tyrone’s title fight against Trillick on Sunday.

In Tyrone, there has been much reflection on the ongoing merry-go-round of champions.

Trillick’s defeat of Coalisland in the semi-final confirmed that, for the 14th season in-a-row, there would be a different winner.

The Irish love for a superstition means we don’t take long in assigning some unforeseen force as responsible for the seemingly inexplicable and, sure enough, Coalisland’s demise was met with the ‘Champions’ curse strikes again’ headline in one local newspaper.

Certainly, if a healthy championship is seen as a competitive one with multiple possible winners, then Tyrone’s is in fine fettle.

My wife, being the proud Antrim and Cargin woman that she is, doesn’t ever take the second-class citizen seat too quietly, so the regular pronouncements of the Tyrone championship’s superiority over its peers are met with unsurprising disdain.

Like referees, wives are right even if they are wrong, but with this one, however, I think she is bang on.

There is an attempt by some to try to compare county titles with each other and assign differing value.  Comparisons are usually based on weighting the competitiveness of the teams, the number of different winners, the subsequent performance of those teams at the Ulster or All-Ireland stages or even the standing of the senior county team.

None of these measures, of course, hold much water.

If a county championship has perennial winners, there is undoubtedly less excitement being generated, but given that no championship is easily won, those county titles still matter massively.

Tyrone’s much-talked-of championship, with no back-to-back winners since 2005 and a remarkable run of seven different individual winners between 2010 and 2016, appears the most evenly contested championship in Ulster and attracts the local crowds worthy of this.

However, it is 17 years since any of those same clubs took home an Ulster club title and none have ever won an All-Ireland.

Those facts, of course, rankle with people in Tyrone, where the club game is treated with reverence, yet they should bring a modicum of humility, as well as firing a degree of ambition to go on and achieve more.

I had first-hand experience of the Derry club championship this year, not that the club scene there is new to anyone who follows Gaelic games.

Derry, opposite in many ways to Tyrone, are currently struggling somewhat to regain past glories at county level and were held under Slaughtneil’s monopoly for several years.

However, the impact of the Derry club champions on the provincial and national stage is unparalleled within Ulster.

Armagh’s Crossmaglen are, of course, an exception to the rule, but given that this was a one-club attack on the record books, Derry’s record with Slaughtneil, Loup, Ballerin, Bellaghy, Lavey, Dungiven and Ballinderry all gaining Ulster crowns and three All-Irelands between them is remarkable.

The fact they have a break-out final pairing this year of Glen and Magherafelt, and consequently a new modern champion, will add a new chapter to what always has been a remarkable club championship.

From reigning Ulster champions Gaoth Dobhair’s battles in attempting to regain their Donegal crown, to the replay fest of the Antrim club championship, it’s fair to say that, in every county, the prestige of the club title remains absolute.

The ‘mine is better than yours’ variety of debate rarely does anyone credit, and there is no need, regarding club titles, to go down this route.

The reality is that each county title has its own rich history which, for any team, to become a part of is a rare privilege. The more important point is that county final days are the showcase for the club game in that county.

As much as it honours the top clubs and what they have achieved, the club game, with its intermediate and junior grades, manages to spread the positive and infectious magic of success across a much broader range than the inter-county game.

This is hugely important, for, as much as it is easy to look admiringly (or enviously) at the teams competing for the titles, it is important to remember the clubs whose very survival is probably an even more remarkable feat.  Here again, there is a need for acknowledgement and respect.  Winning titles, especially senior ones, is an unrealistic prospect for many clubs, but in how they go about their business, the role they play in their community and what they give our young people, clubs, at every level, deserve every bit of the respect that we give to our county champions.

All of that is very sensible and logical.

There is a ‘but’ of course. If your club is lucky enough to be there, then sense should go out the window a bit.

Without passion, our club game has nothing, and there are no better occasions to get caught up in the excitement and daftness of it all as on county final day.

With my wife’s Cargin out on Saturday and Errigal out on Sunday, this weekend will not be one for logic or sensible chat in my house.

Great joy, or crushing disappointment, are massive over-powering emotions that are poles apart usually, but will sit just either side of the mythical winner’s line this weekend.

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