GAA Football

Kicking Out: Was this the last great day out in Clones?

LIKE poor old Brooks Hatlen in The Shawshank Redemption, Clones pulled on its good suit on Sunday morning, straightened up its tie and watched as Rory Gallagher took out his pen-knife and scratched “Derry were here” into the old timber seats of St Tiernach’s Park.

It’s a ground that, like Brooks, has had trouble modernising.

If you stand back and study the venue itself, there’s a whole lot needing done to it.

It’s all old and it’s sentimental and it’s in need of something and it’s a traffic nightmare. But then where isn’t a traffic nightmare when you put 15 times as many people into a town as there are daily inhabitants of it?

If you’re there it means your team’s there and all the complaints are for when you get home and there’s nobody there to listen.

And when you put 28,500 people into it, every wrinkle and grey hair of the old bowl get masked by the magnification of its ability to get dressed up once a year.

The suncream shimmers from arms and legs and faces on the town’s thronging streets as hundreds jundy for the barman’s attention in Packie Willies or The Tower Bar or The Creighton.

All the old romanticisms about climbing the hill and the burgers and the hats and headbands are twee but they’re real. We love a stereotype just as much as we hate one.

By the time you’re reading this, a judgement may well have been handed down on the latest judicial review over Casement Park’s redevelopment.

That decision is due at some stage today.

A green light would signal the beginning of both construction on the west Belfast stadium and the drawing of the curtains on the Ulster final as we know it.

If it’s built then perhaps in time a new Casement would develop its own skin, build its own character, create its own unique feel for the big day.

But equally as you stand at the end of the 2022 Ulster Championship, you wonder if it’ll ever get the chance.

The restructure and devaluing of the provincial series’ adds to the questions over the redevelopment, but they’re for another day.

Because even if today’s decision goes in Ulster GAA’s favour, they have a serious battle on their hands now to keep the fire that we saw in Clones on Sunday burning.

Will we ever see a packed house for an Ulster final again?

In labelling his side’s victory as “maybe the last real Ulster Championship,” Rory Gallagher touched on the dilemma that the new structure imposes.

In 2023, the provincial championships will be run off very quickly right at the end of the Allianz Leagues.

Rather than a place in an All-Ireland quarter-final, the eternal reward will be top seeding for the round robin stage of the essentially-separated All-Ireland series.

You look at it and you wonder what shape the Ulster final will take on next year. Would Clones have been sold out if this thing was only the warm-up lap rather than the first 400m of the race?

The provincial problem is as old as St Tiernach’s Park itself.

In some ways, Ulster has to let go. Its greatest strength is its greatest weakness. We love our championship and we love that it pins football together for the first six weeks of the summer every single year, because the rest of it barring the odd game in Connacht is nonsense.

Yet in Derry having to wade through three Division One teams just to get out of the province while Kerry hockeyed Cork and Limerick to win Munster, and Dublin made Kildare pay for their springtime Newbridge delight, there is only the most recent of the bundles of evidence of imbalance.

Had Monaghan been in Munster, Tyrone been in Connacht and Armagh been in Leinster, there’s a fair chance that one if not two of them would not be exiting the All-Ireland series this weekend.

Kerry folk would feel that their stroll is a major disadvantage in its own right. Big gaps between games and going to Croke Park undercooked are very real issues that they’d maybe rather have fixed too.

But if Ulster counties want balance and they want Kerry and Dublin to stop having the handy run to the last four then they have to let the Ulster Championship go, completely.

You can’t rip up Munster and Leinster but not rip up Ulster and Connacht too.

Yet all of it should only be an option if what you’re replacing it with is better.

And what we’re replacing it with in 2023, a GPA-backed system of 48 group games to eliminate just four teams, is not better.

We’re really taking the best thing about early-summer Gaelic football, the Ulster Championship, the carnival of Clones and tearing it apart for this? Ah lads.

The old town might have put on its good Ulster final suit for the last time.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

GAA Football