Aaron Kernan: It's time to get the Railway Cup back on track
LAST weekend, we had two games which produced entertaining action that should have attracted the interest of all Gaels across Ireland in a competition that includes players from almost every county, including a number of our game’s most recent Allstar nominees and recipients.
Both games were genuinely competitive encounters, which showcased all the skills we constantly crave throughout the GAA season, no defensive systems in sight, one v one contest all over the pitch.
As the former Armagh goalkeeper and manager Brian McAlinden jokingly remarked to me during the first half of the Ulster-Munster clash in Parnell Park last Sunday afternoon: “There’s an excessive amount of foot-passing in this game.”
Over the course of both Railway Cup football semi-finals, a staggering total of seven goals and 67 points were scored. In an age where there is not a week goes by without someone having a moan about the poor entertainment being provided by modern day football, GAA lovers could have done worse than make their way to Parnell Park last weekend. They would have seen enough traditional skills of our game to last them the entirety of 2017.
I was part of the 100-strong crowd last Sunday lucky enough to be there to witness an exhibition of all that is good in our game from Tyrone’s Peter Harte.
With only 15 minutes gone and the game looking like it could run away from Ulster, Harte kicked into gear and proceeded to dictate the entire game from centre half-forward with an array of passing, ball-carrying and scoring that showcased yet again why he deserved to pick up his first Allstar last month.
Like all great sportsmen, Harte is never flustered. He always has time on the ball and plays with his head up which allows him to bring others into the game with passes that don’t seem possible. Harte finished the game with an outstanding 1-8 to his name.
From an Armagh perspective, it was brilliant to see his link play with Stefan Campbell, another player who has matured into one of the top forwards in Ireland.
Campbell kicked five superb points from play as well as playing a key role in winning the penalty which was coolly dispatched by Harte. The partnership between Harte at centre half-forward and Campbell at full-forward was the epitome of all that is good in Railway Cup football.
It brings together players who, for most of the year, are rivals and allows them to link up and show off their full array of talents. Because these are one-off fixtures, players are encouraged to express themselves, and more often than not, they never fail to disappoint.
Campbell was enjoying himself that much that he tried, in his own words, a “no-look back heel” and ended up missing the ball completely and nose-diving into the plush Dublin sod. Hearing Niall Morgan burst out laughing from the opposite end of the field added to the humour of the situation.
I was fortunate enough to finish up with three Railway Cups medals myself. I always saw it as an honour for me to represent my province. I can still remember the excitement I felt after getting a call from Brian McEniff in 2005, the then Ulster manager inviting me to training in Augher.
Those sessions were always short and sharp, but to share a dressing room with best players in my province, even though it was only for a few weeks was something I thoroughly enjoyed.
Regardless of how well you knew players from other counties, it didn’t take long for the competitive nature to kick in and county rivalries to be set aside.
During the 2005 final, the towering Laois midfielder Pauric Clancy clipped me off the ball. As I lay on the ground getting treatment, Derry’s legendary full-back Kevin McCloy jogged out to ask: “Who did the damage to the cub?”
He got his answer and, needless to say, it was Clancy needing treatment the next time he got his hands on a ball and I was left with the run of the field for the night.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to get us the victory as we ended up losing after extra-time. But it was up there with one of the best games I have ever been fortunate enough to take part in such was the quality of play from both sides.
In 2014, after another classic contest in Navan between Leinster and Ulster which finished 2-26 to 3-21 in favour of Ulster, I took to Twitter with the following idea to try to drum up support for the competition: “I’m not a big American Football fan but I understand that the NFL has an Allstars game in conjunction with the Super Bowl and surely we should be thinking that way.
“All-Ireland finals weekend has a special buzz about it and it’s largely a closed weekend for everything, including club games, therefore the majority of players are available and still available, with the exception of the two counties directly involved.
“We’ve already seen the interest that the All-Ireland 7s have attracted, with intermediate and junior sections now. So why not play the inter-provincial semi-finals on the Friday night, followed by final on the Saturday evening, and then you’d have the All-Ireland on the Sunday. It would be a huge festival of football or hurling on those weekends.”
One argument against it was that clubs wouldn’t release players at that stage of the season but they readily release players to International Rules training at this time. I have played International Rules and while it was amazing to represent my country, it does not afford as many players from the so-called weaker counties the opportunity to mix with their counterparts from stronger counties on an equal basis like the Railway Cup does.
It shouldn’t be beyond our ingenuity to come up with a formula to give the Railway Cups new life. It can be done with proper sponsorship and marketing.
The Railway Cup is an integral part of the GAA scene and we should not let it go.