Dublin football’s dominance threatens to become oppressive
Fate of smaller counties could befall bigger fish over next few years
Declan D’Arcy celebrates Leitrim’s storied Connacht final win in 1994. Photograph: Tom Honan/Inpho
The Leitrim footballers have a big championship game this afternoon. You’d be forgiven for not knowing this. It’s not as if the GAA has commandeered acres of billboard space to highlight that Leitrim are meeting Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final. It’s a junior semi-final and has thus been afforded the airy treatment that anything “junior” receives from the association. The game has been pencilled into the Gaelic Grounds for a Saturday afternoon while 80,000 people will make their way to Croke Park to hear Bono sing about mountains, maybe, and everyone can pretend its 1987 all over again.
Leitrim-Kerry is a novel kind of championship pairing but it has been lost in the big noise emanating from the re-opening of the all-singing, all-dancing Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the hurling quarter-finals and two big qualifier football matches. In GAA lore, it is strictly undercard stuff. Leitrim-Kerry is one of those GAA fixtures that just stops short of placing “house private” after the throw-in time.
Word is that Leitrim are struggling: they will be shorn eight players from their Connacht final win over Mayo, including Wayne McKeon and Gary Plunkett, all rendered illegible because of their participation in Leitrim’s customarily brief and passionate tryst with the All-Ireland senior football championship.
There’s something of a black joke in there; another small, vital example of fixed rules which mean nothing to big counties but which can wreck a small county’s ambitions. Leitrim are doing well to produce one Wayne McKeon. They do not have two. Leitrim takes pride of place in that hardy constellation known as the GAA’s “smaller counties”.
Anyone who knows anything about the place knows it’s the second-best kept secret in Ireland: geographically stunning, as chilled as Tibet, and with a knack for the kind of horticultural adventure that would keep Geoffrey Lebowski smiling for weeks on end. It is part old Ireland, part new-age escapism and both worlds fit side by side. And it has a club football tradition as fierce and storied as any other county in Ireland, with its kingpins, its towny teams and its perennial underdogs.
Its county team has scrapped away in the lower regions of the national football league since Leitrim took its most radical trip of all time – no roll-ups required – when John O’Mahony led them to the Connacht championship and on to an All-Ireland semi-final place against Dublin. In Croke Park. In 1994. It was a sort of homecoming for Declan Darcy, the Dublin-born forward who elected to play for his father’s county in a choice that was down to a genuine attachment to place rather than any sense of noblesse oblige. Dublin won, of course, and later Darcy relocated to Dublin and that was that. Time kept shoving on and now the remnants of that team, of that summer, are to be found in the photographs in bars around Carrick and Drumshanbo and beyond.
Will Leitrim and Dublin ever meet in an All-Ireland senior semi-final again? Even in 1994, it was a dreamlike scenario but one which served to substantiate the limitless imagination of the All-Ireland championship concept: that it is possible for the smaller county to enjoy its day in the sun. There have been similar breakout moments – Fermanagh went supernova in 2004 and Carlow hung around for longer than was expected this summer. But Leitrim ’94 stands as proof to defenders of the realm that the All-Ireland football championship values equality in that people from all counties are entitled to dream big.
The counties met again, improbably, in the All-Ireland qualifiers of 2004 when the Dubs visited Carrick-on-Shannon on one of their rare detours out of Croke Park. That day (it finished 1-13 to 0-4) was a vivid snapshot of the possibilities of a bolder championship structure which would devise scenarios in which the big counties would end up going off grid – to Carrick or Enniskillen or Belfast or Ennis (Mayo-Clare remains one of the best moments of this year’s contest).
And the big counties would possibly win all of the time and would certainly win almost all of the time but that’s not the point. It would help to make the embattled counties, those who will always struggle for population and finance, not to compete with the newly-minted Super Eight (a conceit if ever there was one: there’s a Super Two and the rest will fluctuate) because they haven’t a hope but just to compete with the teams within their own realm.
Of course, when the Dubs visited Carrick that afternoon, their football team was locked into a style-over-substance culture and the chief concern within the GAA corridors of power was how to kick start a city tradition that seemed in danger of falling dormant. There was an acknowledgement then that it was time the GAA got the big house in order.
The harnessing of Dublin’s limitless potential is just a decade old and already the outcome has caused consternation. The Leinster championship is sad. Kerry’s win in the league was treated like some kind of stand against “The Man”. The standard set by a hugely committed group of footballers has been undermined by the general grievance at the money invested in Dublin by the GAA rather than in Leitrim and the aforementioned smaller counties. The most heated debate revolves around whether this is a golden era for Dublin football or merely the beginning of the new dispensation.
And that’s a possibility that the GAA hierarchy don’t want to contemplate. Because right now, the Empire is striking back. Kerry have arguably its second best ever manager over a team going full throttle to stop Dublin’s three in a row. Tyrone have the uncanny football brain of Mickey Harte. Mayo still believe in their group. This weekend, we can all buy into the illusion that this is an intriguing championship.
This, right now, may be as good as it gets for future hopes of an open championship. If Dublin win it in September, then it will merely confirm their all-time status. But what if they win the next three as well? It’s not all that far-fetched a thought. They will almost certainly be favourites in each of those seasons to come. What will that do to the morale and self-belief of the so-called “Super Eight?”
Right now, the belief system on which the championship is based is fractured and close to fragmenting completely. Because the bigger counties will not be as stoic or uncomplaining as Leitrim. The GAA has never had to acknowledge the level of suspended disbelief required from Leitrim supporters through the many decades knowing that their team, their county, hadn’t any real hope of winning anything because the system is hopelessly stacked against them. They keep on going, making the best of it. What’s the alternative?
So the usual customers will make their way south this morning to support the county. Not every day you get to see Leitrim play Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final, to see those colours swirl.
And there’ll be no problem with parking.