GAA Football

Kenny Archer: Great memories of football inter-pros brought to book

Ulster captain Eoin Donnelly is presented with football's 'Railway Cup' by the then GAA President, Aogan O Fearghail in December 2016 - the last ever competition?

CONSIDER these score-lines: 3-17 to 1-15 and 2-17 to 1-18 in the semi-finals, then 2-16 to 3-10 in the decider.

The year before, 3-19 to 2-16 and 2-26 to 3-21 (aet), followed by 2-19 to 1-7 in the final.

Prior to those, 1-21 to 1-20 and 1-14 to 1-13, then 3-12 to 0-17. 3-16 to 0-13, 1-16 to 1-13, and 3-11 to 1-15. That last game decided by a late goal from a full-back.

Those weren’t from hurling matches, nor from decades ago, but the results of the last four inter-provincial football competitions, in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2016.

For the life of me I’ll never know why the Railway Cup died, and I argued in its favour on quite a few occasions.

The games usually provided close contests and fabulous, free-flowing football.

It’s many years since my first sports editor here, having moved onto pastures easier, mocked me for writing a column in support of the inter-pros.

The fact that such a stance placed me alongside Ulster football legends such as Brian McEniff, Art McRory, Joe Kernan, and Pete McGrath was justification enough for me.

Beating a drum is often intended as a call to arms – this, though, became a slow lament.

The Railway Cup/ inter-pros, call them what you will, are dead, killed off by apathy from the authorities and the paying public.

Their memory lives on in the work of Dermot Kavanagh, who has recently released ‘The Story of Interprovincial Football’, following on from the hurling version published in 2016.

Mr Kavanagh kindly sent me copies of both books, accompanied by a hand-written note, which included the following words:

‘As the inter-pro competitions have now been discontinued, the books have now changed status, from being mere stories to actual histories.

‘Subtle difference.’

And a very sad one.

It may seem strange that a Kilkenny man should put together this tome but the Railway Cups were once massive and Kavanagh loved to go watching both the hurling and football games.

The mid-fifties were the highpoint, with a record attendance of 49,023 for the 1954 deciders, a double-header at Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day.

The next year more than 40,000 attended, rising to 46,278 in 1956.

Even though interest in them had declined greatly by the time I started reporting on them, I still fell in love with the competition, or at least the football version.

The hurling variant was mostly a duopoly between Munster (with 46 wins in all) and Leinster (29). Connacht won only 11 titles – and Ulster none, reaching only four finals.

The hurling book does include colour photos of Ulster teams from the early Nineties, when they reached three deciders.

The football, though, was much more competitive – and entertaining, as those score-lines above suggest.

Perhaps part of my affection was engendered by Ulster’s usual excellence on the football front.

From the year when Ulster finally broke its duck, 1942, the northern province won a Railway Cup in football on average almost every other season.

Indeed, Ulster, having struggled to even get going for so long, eventually ended up on the top of the pile, with 32 titles, compared to 28 for Leinster, 15 for Munster, and 10 for Connacht.

Obviously that tally included some great winning streaks, including a four-in-a-row in the mid-Sixties and five-in-a-row from 1991 to 1995 (which was technically part of a six-in-row after victory in 1989 and no competition taking place in 1990).

Ulster’s subs in 1995 included the Derry duo of Henry Downey and Anthony Tohill, and Down’s Ross Carr.

The year before Downey had also been on the bench – alongside a certain Peter Canavan. The latter had played in an All-Ireland club semi-final (which went to extra time) in Newbridge the day before, travelled back home to Tyrone, then journeyed down to Ennis for the final against Munster.

That was indicative of the players’ love for the competition, right up to the biggest names such as ‘Peter The Great’.

It was clearly a badge of honour to be selected for your province, even if the growth in club competitions began to increase demands on players.

Mullinalaghta have quite rightly been the talk of the GAA over the past week or so, before, during, and after their astonishing win over Dublin’s Kilmacud Croke’s in the Leinster Club SFC Final on Sunday.

Yet it was perhaps fitting that the last man to lift the inter-provincial football trophy did so in one of the smallest counties (Leitrim) and himself came from one of the smallest clubs in one of the smallest counties – Eoin Donnelly of Coa in Fermanagh, Ulster’s captain in 2016.

The inter-pros were as much about the likes of him as the bigger, better-known names from bigger, more successful counties.

Seven Ulster counties were represented that day in Carrick-on-Shannon, Donegal and Monaghan players absent.

Geography defines many players, including those whose pride of place precludes them from switching county allegiance to one where they might gain more success – but less satisfaction.

Yet even if their county never, or rarely ever, enjoyed even provincial triumph, players from counties such as Fermanagh, Wicklow, Clare, Waterford, Longford, Tipperary, Limerick, and Leitrim could show their quality on the national stage by representing their province.

Unfortunately public interest drifted away. The advent of official provincial and All-Ireland club competitions at first senior, then junior and intermediate levels, in both football and hurling, played its part in dwindling attendances.

Poor scheduling – first moving away from St Patrick’s Day finals, then moving dates and venues - and a distinct lack of promotion were also adverse factors, with the Railway Cups shoved around the calendar until they were at last pushed outside and the door bolted against it last year.

It’s rather galling, after years of being told that there was no room in the calendar for the inter-pros, that ‘pre-season’ competitions – the McKenna and O’Byrne Cups – are taking place this very month.

The inter-pros were left to die, with no serious attempts made to revive them.

At least their memories have been lovingly captured by Dermot Kavanagh in books packed with detail, potted summaries of the matches, team lists, and photographs.

RIP, Railway Cups.

* Although numbers of the hurling version are limited, both books are available at a cost of €20 each, inclusive of postage, by emailing and will be delivered quickly by courier.

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