GAA Football

Hitting The Target: Wheel of fortune keeps turning in Ulster club football scene

Coalisland Fianna celebrate winning their first Tyrone SFC title since 2010.
Pic Philip Walsh

THE greatest thing about the GAA off the pitch, however you want to phrase it, is its sense of community, its togetherness. At home or abroad, an Association member can find friendship and support.

The greatest thing about the GAA ON the pitch, despite its love of tradition, is the LACK of continuity, in terms of the teams that are successful.

Sure, there are dominant clubs – but they’re not always dominant.

Even the remarkable Crossmaglen Rangers, who’ve just won their 44th Armagh SFC title, once went 13 years without being crowned county champions, and twice ‘suffered’ decade-long droughts. Their recent three-year hiatus was only remarkable because they’d won 19 out of the 20 championships up to and including 2015.

Fate paired the only champions to return from last year’s Ulster SFC in this year’s preliminary round, both in their fourth consecutive provincial campaigns, with Fermanagh’s Derrygonnelly Harps knocked out by Scotstown of Monaghan.

All clubs know not to take success for granted, at any level.

As an illustration, let’s look at a slightly self-indulgent snapshot, back to the nine Ulster county football champions of 1998, the year I started with this august publication (straight out of kindergarten, obvs, still waiting for my cake…):

In alphabetical order by county, the winners were: St John’s (Belfast), Crossmaglen, Mullahoran, Bellaghy, Ballyshannon, Rostrevor, Enniskillen, Castleblayney, and Ardboe.

Of those, no fewer than four have failed to be crowned county senior champions since then: St John’s, Ballyshannon, Rostrevor, and Ardboe.

With all due respect, that’s not a great surprise regarding Rostrevor, who had only won the Down crown once before then, but it’s more remarkable when you consider those other clubs.

Ardboe’s absence from the Tyrone podium isn’t astonishing, but the loughshore men probably would have expected to add to their tally of seven titles - and they really should have done so in 2009 only to lose out to a last-gasp penalty for Dromore.

‘The Johnnies’ ended a decade-long drought in 1998 to extend their tally at the top of the Antrim SFC roll of honour to 24. The Corrigan Park club is still in top spot for Antrim football – but still on 24, and St Gall’s have narrowed the gap significantly, adding 13 titles to move onto 19, with six more going to current champs Cargin (that duopoly only interrupted by Lamh Dhearg last year).

Mullahoran admittedly had ended a 35-year wait to be Cavan champions, but that triumph left them second on the roll of honour, behind only Cornafean, who hadn’t won since 1956 – and still haven’t.

Yet Mullahoran have been overtaken by Cavan Gaels, who have won exactly half the county senior titles since then. Even with such dominance there have been first ever triumphs in this decade by Ballinagh and – at last – Castlerahan this year.

Ballyshannon were joint top of the pile (with Gweedore) in Donegal 20 years ago, on a tally of 12 (although the 1997 title was won in the boardroom, St Eunan’s, Letterkenny having beaten them on the pitch) – and that’s not counting the seven they won in the ‘St Joseph’s’ amalgamation with Bundoran in the Sixties and Seventies.

Yet the Aodh Ruadh men have not been top dogs in Donegal since then, and indeed have only reached the final once, in 1999.

Gweedore are now back as joint leaders of the Donegal roll of honour, on 15, but alongside St Eunan’s, Letterkenny, who have won seven times since their former arch-rivals Aodh Ruadh did so – including a sweet success in the 1999 final.

Three of the other 1998 champs are now arguably in the ‘sleeping giants’ category: Bellaghy, Castleblayney, and Enniskillen.

The Wolfe Tone’s retained the Derry crown in 1999 – beating Ballinderry – and completed a rare title treble in 2000 – defeating the Shamrocks yet again.

However, Bellaghy have only won Derry once since then, 13 years ago, whereas Ballinderry have garnered seven more titles, and Slaughtneil – Slaughtneil! – have won five.

Other one-time powerhouses of Derry football, Dungiven, Lavey, and Newbridge are all still without the John McLaughlin Cup for a long time, although at least the Erin’s Own men got to this year’s decider against Coleraine.

The biggest surprise of all is arguably ’Blayney. Not only were they top of the Monaghan pile in 1998, they were top in Ulster, with 33 SFC titles, and indeed joint-top on the entire island with Ballina Stephenites of Mayo, who also won their county championship 20 years ago.

The Faughs went on to record a four-in-a-row in Monaghan in 2001, and regained the trophy off Clontibret in 2003 – but they haven’t won it since then, and indeed have only lost one final, in 2007. Scotstown and Clontibret have been the main winners over the past 15 years, even if both still trail behind ’Blayney overall.

Enniskillen Gaels have struggled recently, like many county town teams over the years, but they did once seem unbeatable in Fermanagh.

That 1998 triumph was the start of a six-in-a-row streak, during which time they reached two Ulster Finals. They were well beaten by Errigal Ciaran in 2002, but deserved better than defeat to Crossmaglen in 1999. Roslea is the only other Erne County club to even reach the provincial final stage, way back in 1982.

There’s another sleeping giant among the bushes of the O’Neill County too. The competitiveness of the Tyrone SFC in this decade has been well-documented, but there was a time when it seemed largely to be a contest between Errigal Ciaran and Carrickmore.

Errigal did at least reach the final last year, and won in 2012, but Carmen are now looking at a minimum 14-year gap.

The likelihood is that such a proud club will be back as top dogs in Tyrone – although you never know.

Hope springs eternal in the GAA, as Castlerahan found to their delight on Sunday, but the wheel or fortune can turn downwards as well as up.

The difference between inter-county and the club scene is that the latter is largely a generation game, with offspring of former heroes taking time to follow in their father’s footsteps.

Counties obviously have much greater talent pools, which is an undoubted factor in the recent Dublin dominance, where weight of numbers and money have borne plentiful fruit.

The specious argument offered that ‘Dublin aren’t even Leinster Minor or U20 (football) champions this year’ should get the response it deserves – so what?

Come back to me if we go a decade without the Dubs winning either of those titles, never mind two; in fact, come back to me in half a decade.

Crowds at inter-county football matches may continue to fall if that one giant dominates the landscape for much longer, but at least in club land many more can hope to have cause for celebration.

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