Kenny Archer: ‘Chasing Sam Maguire’ offers GAA nostalgia for those lacking optimism for 2024

Looking back better than looking forward for most counties in Championship

Kenny Archer

Kenny Archer

Kenny is the deputy sports editor and a Liverpool FC fan.

EVAN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING...Meath attacker Evan Kelly (left) attempts to sidestep Ciaran O’Sullivan (right) during yesterday’s All-Ireland football final
1999 All-Ireland SFC Final Meath's victory in the 1999 All-Ireland SFC Final was, surprisingly, their last.

Perhaps it’s the time of year - December is a time for looking back, after all - but it’s hard to look forward with massive optimism, at least for followers of most GAA counties.

Perhaps the dark, dreary, cold, wet, and windy weather has some saddening effect, dampening down optimism.

Even if hope does spring eternal between seasons, the depths of winter tend to engender realism, if not pessimism. The memories of the summer just past ironically cast some gloom too, though.

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I’ve pointed out before the two-thirds probability that the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship will be won by either Kerry or Dublin, with the dominance of that traditional ‘Big Two’ only having increased in this century.

And yet the football landscape is a veritable free-for-all in comparison to hurling in 2024.

Remember when some people thought that Limerick might not even make it out of the Munster Hurling Championship earlier this year?!

Instead the Treatymen went on to power their way to a record-equalling fourth consecutive Liam Mac Carthy Cup triumph, and few would bet against them completing their ‘drive for five’ next year.

Questions have been raised again about paying the cost of attending National League games next year, which has increased, plus the ‘stealth tax’ of the first Championship match for your county no longer being included as part of the GAA Season Ticket.

Yet maybe that’s partly a consequence of the public placing less value on those opening football Championship encounters, certainly in Leinster and Munster, which are almost exclusively the preserves of Dublin and Kerry.

Even the benefits of winning Connacht and Ulster is increasingly being questioned, at least in terms of the bigger All-Ireland picture.

The League, despite those rising admission costs, will continue to attract considerable interest because it’s a competition that supporters can realistically see their county win at their own level.

The ‘real’ football Championship doesn’t kick in until the almost the All-Ireland quarter-final stage, despite some drama in the preceding group stages which were introduced this year.

Enough of the recent past and the near future.

The upside of December is that it offers an excuse for nostalgia.

Looking back doesn’t just have to be about 2023, which should remain fairly fresh in the memory.

The cover of 'Chasing Sam Maguire' book by Dermot Reilly and Colm Keys
Chasing Sam Maguire 'Chasing Sam Maguire' is a treasure trove of information about 50 All-Ireland Football Finals.

A recently-published book is a great overview of a more competitive period of GAA football history – ‘Chasing Sam Maguire’, subtitled ‘The All-Ireland Football Championship 1928-1977′.

The provenance of the authors – Kildare man Dermot Reilly and Irish Independent GAA correspondent Colm Keys from Meath – made me think about the faded football fortunes of their counties, among many others.

It’s not just Lilywhite bias that made Reilly choose 1928 as his starting point, a season when his county ended up the best football side in Ireland. That was also the first year the Sam Maguire Cup was awarded to winners of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship.

Kildare won it for the first time – and also the last.

Hardly anyone alive will remember Kildare being the kingpins of both Leinster and Ireland.

Yet many of us are still a little puzzled that Meath haven’t collected ‘Sam’ since the last century (1999). Even their last Leinster came in 2010, although the winning ‘score’ owed more to rugby than to Gaelic football.

Still, if there’s little hope of Kildare or Meath lifting ‘Sam’ in the near future, at least they and others can look back and enjoy the reviving of the past in this terrific tome.

‘Chasing Sam Maguire’ is a brilliant book, packed with facts but fun with it.

The depth of research involved is astonishing. The clubs of each player from every finalist are listed. All the clubs throughout their career. Even down to the substitutes.

That information will be warmly welcomed by Scor quiz contestants, but the greatest joys come from each chapter’s ‘Final Miscellany’.

Down's legendary All-Ireland Senior Football Championship-winning team of 1960
Down's legendary All-Ireland Senior Football Championship-winning team of 1960 Down's legendary All-Ireland Senior Football Championship-winning team of 1960

For the 1960 Final a Tyrone man placed an advertisement in the Armagh Observer, seeking 10 match tickets – in exchange for a three-and-a-half acre farm.

Helpfully for the players, or at least most of them, that was also the first year of an allocation of complimentary tickets.

The last final covered, 1977, seems like a lifetime ago, although perhaps not all that much has changed in the time since. That was the first year that the Church of Ireland was represented at an All-Ireland Final, with the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh, Dr Victor Griffin, among the GAA’s VIP guests.

The power of his prayers didn’t help the Orchard County avoid a heavy defeat by, yes, Dublin, who retained ‘Sam’ after dethroning, yes, Kerry in the previous year’s decider.

Although the Kingdom roared back to the top in the following years, hopefully Reilly and Keys are already working on Volume 2, completing the century of winners of ‘Sam’ in time for publication in 2027.

The likelihood of any new winners by then is vanishingly thin; even anyone different from Dublin or Kerry is against the odds.

Even so, the tales from the second half-century of ‘Sam’ would bring back happiness for the likes of Armagh, Cork, Derry, Down, and Offaly among others.