GAA Football

The club versus county debate is almost as old as the GAA * Farewell to true Gael Paddy Donnelly

Conor McManus is just one of the players who have given yeoman service to Monaghan. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Andy Watters

THE club versus county debate is almost as old as the GAA itself and Eugene Branagan’s comments this week brought the issue into focus again.

Eugene has proven himself to be a class act at club level with Kilcoo and you’d bet he would enhance Down’s prospects if he ever decided to link up with his county but we’ll never truly know until he goes and he says he has no ambition to do that.

Eugene’s brothers and many of his club team-mates have lined out for Down but county football is not for him and that’s fair enough, that’s his choice.

His forthright comments that: “There’s a core of players who don’t know how to win. They haven’t the winning mentality” in the Down squad won’t have endeared him to some of the players he’ll come up against in club exchanges this year but that was his honest opinion.

On a side note, Eugene also expressed his admiration for James McCartan agreeing to take on the job as manager and rightly so. However, it is understood that the ‘Nobody else wanted it’ assumption is a myth. It seems that there were others – including a vastly-experienced Tyrone All-Ireland winner - interested in the role who weren’t contacted by the Down County Board. However, that’s a subject for another day.

That Down are struggling is plain for all to see and the hope among fans in the county would have been that, having reached the summit of the club game with their epic All-Ireland title triumph in February, the Kilcoo players would have thrown themselves into battle with their county because it’s a great shame that the county which is home to the best club team in the land will be playing in the Tailteann Cup this year and, let’s be honest, the foreseeable future.

It hasn’t happened which is understandable in some respects because the commitment required to take Kilcoo to the All-Ireland title was massive. To ask players who had given everything to their club to swap the black and white jersey for the red and black and get geared up for a relegation dogfight was obviously asking a lot.

The club versus county debate boils down to what a player sees as the ultimate challenge: Are they happy playing club football, or do they want to test themselves at inter-county level?

The issue is certainly not unique to Down, or to football. I was speaking to a couple of camogie coaches recently – neither native to the county they coach in – who were remarking on how surprised they were by the reluctance some of their players showed towards turning out for their county.

“It doesn’t seem to mean as much,” said one of the coaches but I argued that the majority of players see the inter-county theatre as the ultimate test and that representing their county remains the end goal. To be successful you have to have that fire in your belly.

From the late 1990s, the Armagh squad treated the county camp as their club. When a new player joined the squad, senior members were quick to get in his ear and let him know what was expected from him

“This is club Armagh,” they said: “This is your club”. There were no half-measures, you couldn’t serve two masters so if you wanted to be part of it; you had to give everything. Armagh reaped the rewards.

Two years before Armagh won their All-Ireland, Crossmaglen were All-Ireland club champions.

Perhaps the appointment of one of their own – Joe Kernan – as Armagh manager smoothed the transition from club to county and perhaps it will take something similar in Down where Kilcoo have reigned supreme for a decade.

Meanwhile, Scotstown have been equally dominant in Monaghan. The ‘An Bhoth’ club has been in the last nine county finals and won seven but the Ulster title they deserve has eluded them.

In the GAA, we often talk about the ‘smaller counties’, well there aren’t many smaller than Monaghan. A quick Google search reveals that Monaghan is home to just over 61,000 souls and only Fermanagh, Leitrim, Longford and Carlow have smaller populations.

Despite that, the Farney county has been punching above their supposed weight for donkey’s years - it’s difficult to even put a number on it.

They’re joint second with Tyrone in the list of Ulster titles and this year Dublin arrived at Clones in the final round of League games expected to end Monaghan’s eight-year tenancy in Division One. The home side were having none of it.

They won and so it was the Dubs (back to Wikipedia here which says Dublin has a population of 1,345,402 – just the 22 times bigger) who went down to Division Two.

How do Monaghan do it? Perhaps the main reason is that the club versus county debate doesn’t exist there. Ask around and those who know will tell you that every man capable of pulling on that blue and white jersey answers the call and they keep answering for as long as they’re able.

Conor McManus, Darren Hughes, Drew Wylie, Kieran Hughes, Karl O’Connell, Rory Beggan… The men who have been backbone of this Monaghan team for years are household names because playing for their county is the ultimate honour.

Undoubtedly, the mentality they inherited from the men who went before them and the benchmark they set for the new faces who come through the ranks is why Monaghan are always such formidable opposition.

So here’s to Monaghan, keep up the good work lads.

I DIDN’T know Paddy Donnelly but by all accounts he was a remarkable man. From Tullysarran in county Armagh, he was a lifelong supporter of the GAA and his native county but particularly of O’Connell’s GAC. A former player, Paddy was the epitome of the loyal club servant and he took on the roles of manager, underage coach, secretary, committee member, Scór competitor and organiser.

Despite illness and discomfort, Paddy asked his family to take him to the club grounds to watch his beloved Tullysarran play one last time when league action began in Armagh on April 3.

“Dad was really in no fit shape to leave the house but it was wish to get to Tullysaran’s game with Annaghmore,” explained his son Pierce.

“We managed to get him into the car and got parked up on the bank at the field - thankfully we got the win. It was an emotional journey leaving the ground as Dad probably knew himself that was his last time leaving a place he loved.”

Paddy passed away peacefully in the early hours of the following Thursday morning and the committee, members and players of his club turned out to give him the send-off he truly deserved.

He wrote the poem below to celebrate the titles won by the Tullysaran camogs and footballers in 2013 and 2015.

What a joy to watch our Gaels at play in their colours red and white,

Those boys and girls who show their skill give pleasure and delight,

The senior girls showed their class when they fulfilled their dream:

Camogie senior champions in 2013.

Two more years then roll by and my ink is barely dry,

Another county final win and the joy makes grown men cry,

I’ll never forget October 4th and I cannot help but grin,

We meet Clonmore in Armagh and win the cup that’s called Sean Quinn,

So here’s to Clarke who led them, our managers and team,

Crowned county junior champions 2015

So here’s good luck to all our Gaels and to those now past and gone,

And to future generations when the red shirt they will don.

May you live in peace and harmony and never come to harm.

Walk with pride and wear a smile cause you’re a Gael from Tullysaran.

Paddy Donnelly, November 2015

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