Life in Munster's hurling counties will always be tough for lower-profile footballers
Seeding the football draw is tough on the players but hurling actually beats them before Cork or Kerry do
George Hannigan of Tipperary tackles Limerick’s Cian Sheehan during the Munster senior championship quarter-final at Gaelic Grounds. Photograph: Inpho.
Limerick’s John Quane takes Kerry on Munster football final replay Kin 2004. Photograph: Inpho.
The action as far as most people in those counties were concerned was in Thurles on Sunday. You’d be hard pushed to find too many people who went to both. Maybe a few of the players went along to Semple the next day but otherwise you’re in real die-hard territory.
Tipperary and Limerick are hurling counties. Same with Waterford and Clare. I know it seems obvious enough to point this out but with the controversy around the Munster Council’s decision to seed Kerry and Cork in the football championship, I thought it might be no harm to say it again. There are pockets of football in each of them but there’s no point being mealy-mouthed about it. Hurling is their sport.
Plight of footballersThere is lots of sympathy for the footballers from each of these counties but do you ever notice how most of that sympathy comes from other parts of the country? The plain truth of it is that these are players who first and foremost aren’t given the respect they’re due by the GAA people within their own county. The rest of us can cry all the tears we like for them but, until their own people take them seriously, they’re going nowhere.
The plight of the footballers in these counties always reminds me of the story about the Kerry hurlers years back. They wanted to make a right shape at it this one year and if they were going to do that, they needed more hurleys. So they put it to the county board, asking that their dispensation for the year be upped and they be given an improved budget for buying hurleys.
Word came back from the county board chairman himself, the great Dr Jim Brosnan. No problem, he said. Ye can have the extra hurleys. But ye’d want to go easy on them – if ye break them, there’s no more to go along with them.
It wasn’t fair then and what’s happening to the Tipperary, Limerick, Clare and Waterford footballers probably isn’t overly fair now either. But Kerry is a football county because that’s what the people want. And those are hurling counties for the same reason. Fighting your corner in the other sports is a brave battle to undertake but there’s no point pretending it will ever be anything other than just that, a battle.
Best adversaryNobody’s saying they don’t have good players. Of course they do. I played against Limerick midfielder John Quane for years and eventually played with him for Munster. You can be damn sure I enjoyed the Munster games more than the Kerry games. He was pound for pound probably the best adversary I ever had.
John was such a good footballer that he made you have to play outside the rules to get the better of him. You’d have to be at him, trying different things to put him off. You’d probably have to leave a late tackle on him here and there and maybe give him the odd clip. And he was well fit for that too. If you wanted a fight, he’d oblige you.
John Quane was an exceptional player and he went through his whole career without getting half of the recognition he should have. And on a purely personal level, that’s totally unfair. But what can ever change?
Seeding Cork and Kerry in the Munster championship makes it just about impossible for any of the other counties to win a title. That’s a reality. But the reality behind the decision is that the Munster Council chairman is from Clare. This came in under his authority. They can’t say they were under-represented.
And on a certain level, I can see the reasoning behind it. The Munster Council have a responsibility for their own patch and for their own sources of income.
When Cork and Kerry met in the final in Killarney last year, there were 36,000 people at the game. The previous year’s final between Cork and Clare only brought 9,000 to Limerick.
Now if you’re in charge of the Munster Council, those sort of figures only point you in one direction.
If your championship is only going to have one big day a year that people are going to turn out for, then it’s only understandable that you’d want it to be the final. It might mean a bit of disrespect towards the small pockets of football people in the other counties but I’d say the powers that be probably take the view that they’re well used to it.
Big dealYears ago, when I was just coming on to the Kerry team back in the early ’90s, one of the first matches I was called up for was a game against Tipperary. This was a big deal for me and I was probably getting a few notions about it. I remember calling in to P Sé to let him know my big news.
“Good man, good man,” he said. “And who are ye playing?”
“Tipperary,” I said proudly, laying it out there like the big man I now was.
“Tipperary, is it?” said Páidí, seeing his chance to take me down a peg or two. “Sure we used beat those fellas over the phone.”
Páidí’s thinking there wouldn’t so much have been about blackguarding Tipperary. It would have been about making sure I didn’t get a big ego now that I was playing for Kerry. But in its own way, it just tells you what the mindset is. These counties get very little respect.
It’s tough on them. They go through the same rigmarole as everybody else. They plough away for their whole careers and nothing comes their way because they don’t have the backing. Every cent spent on them is seen as a cent lost to the hurlers. And when it’s all over, they have very little to show for it.
Last weekend, I was in Manhattan with a group of former Kerry players at a fundraiser. I was there with a rake of the old greats – Bomber, Spillane, Ger O’Keeffe and all the rest.
We’re all old guys now, long retired and distant memories at this stage. And yet there we were, still knocking a weekend in New York out of it long after anybody should be giving a curse about us.
The Limerick and Tipperary players didn’t put any less effort in over the years but they’re not swanning around Manhattan on the back of it.
At one stage over the weekend, we all had to look through the biographies they had done up for us when we were introduced. One of the group – I’ll not name him, protect his innocence – was in like a shot.
Apparently his bio had him down for one fewer Munster medal than he’d actually won, as well as one fewer county medals. First world problems.
The players from those other counties spend all those years covering the same ground as the rest of us. They have to devote the same hours to it but without the rewards
All through my career, everybody who knew me knew that playing for Kerry came first. It wasn’t up for debate. I was able to turn to my wife, to my family, to my friends, even to my work colleagues and say, “No, I can’t help you there, I have training”. Or I had a match or a meeting or any number of things that had to be done for Kerry.
PrestigeThat’s all very well when you’re winning All-Irelands and Munster titles. When there’s a prestige to it and when it’s what the overwhelming percentage of people around you are devoted to. In Kerry, playing football for the county is the be all and end all.
People in Kerry find themselves in Waterville and they go and point out Mick O’Dwyer’s house. They go out onto Valentia and know where Mick O’Connell’s house is. They know that Tralee is Mikey Sheehy’s town, that Killarney is the Gooch’s. Wearing the jersey buys you some amount of patience from the people you impact upon.
I can’t imagine it was the same for the John Quanes and the Derry Foleys. Playing for the Clare football team or the Waterford football team doesn’t make you a big shot. If anything, you have people in those counties wondering are you half mad. Play football for Tipperary? Who does that?
The reality of it is that the biggest enemy of Tipperary football isn’t the Munster council and nor is it people from Kerry and Cork looking down their noses. No, the biggest enemy of Tipperary football is Tipperary hurling. Same with Clare football, Waterford football and Limerick football. Hurling beats them long before they come up against a Kerry or a Cork.
There’s no point looking outside the county for help or even sympathy. It suits us in Kerry for Limerick and Tipperary to be weak at football and good at hurling. It suits us for Clare to be All-Ireland champions and for Waterford to have a good young team on the up. More power to them, we say.
That might sound heartless but that’s what it is. Clare and Waterford are playing on Saturday night and what sort of crowd are you going to get for it?
Vast majorityWe can wring our hands all we like but the truth of it is that the vast majority of GAA people in these counts are happy with the way things are. Just as the vast majority of people in Kerry and Cork are happy with the way things are. Nothing will change because nobody wants change. Nobody apart from a small handful of footballers in counties where hurlers are the heroes.
You’d have to feel for them because it’s only an accident of birth that has them in this situation. But what else there say only, “That’s life”?