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Ciarán Murphy: Club finals do romance better than most – no matter the date

Playing club finals in January at least grants them the audience’s undivided attention

Paddy's Day. How many clubs, in how many counties, have spoken wonderingly of it. It was a beautifully evocative idea, that you'd be able to decamp to Croke Park on your national holiday and fight it out for an All-Ireland title.

That day of pageantry, the rather more sedate alternative in Dublin city centre to the parade and the hedonism that usually follows, has gone the way of the dodo, a necessary victim of the grand restructuring of the GAA year.

It was absolutely the right decision, but the romance of ‘Paddy’s Day’ as a concept is hard to replicate. In 2020, that first move to January was a godsend - as by the time March 17th came around, Covid had arrived, had got its feet under the table, and was intent on sticking around for a while.

Those 2020 finals, between Corofin and last weekend's football winners Kilcoo, and Ballyhale Shamrocks and Borris-Ileigh, were played on January 19th, and it'll be another January final to aim towards for this year's county final winners.

Giving the culchies another reason to come to Dublin on December 8th for All-Ireland final day (as well as the few bits from Guineys) would be fun

I saw over the weekend a texter to Off the Ball suggesting that given St Brigid’s Day will now be a national holiday from next year, that maybe the club finals would find a new ecclesiastical home on that day.

And it would be nice to be able to try and replicate Paddy’s Day, to find another permanent home for them, but given the 2022 All-Ireland club hurling semi-finals are fixed for the first weekend in December, and the football semi-finals for the weekend after, it would mean delaying finals for seven or eight weeks. It just doesn’t make sense.

Giving the culchies another reason to come to Dublin on December 8th for All-Ireland final day (as well as the few bits from Guineys) would be fun, but since it’s only an ‘unofficial’ national holiday in the eyes of your country cousins, I fear it wouldn’t have much chance of catching on - even if we came to realise the split season meant playing the finals off by the second week of December might actually be achievable.

The attendance last Saturday was just over 17,000, but the 2020 finals saw a healthy crowd of over 25,000, and while even that was just shy of the average for the first two decades of this century - 27,500 - there isn’t enough evidence there yet to suggest that the move from Paddy’s Day will permanently hit attendance levels.

One thing that March 17th always had going for it was that most of the time it was the only show in town that day, particularly if Paddy's Day landed in the middle of the week. There might have been a clash with Cheltenham, but nothing like the sort of attention for eye-balls that the Six Nations demanded last weekend.

The second or third Sunday of January (and the Sunday element is important too when considering last weekend’s attendance) would see the club championships not only free of any clash with major Irish rugby internationals, but also free of any clash with the national hurling and football leagues, which is another major factor.

Like FA Cup final day, any suggestion that the club finals double-header ‘always delivers’ should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt.

This year’s hurling final always looked likely to be absorbing, but given it had been a distinctly non-vintage year in the club football championship, where none of the provincial finals or All-Ireland semi-finals really caught fire at all, I was unsure as to how much drama they were going to provide.

To see Ballyhale 'out-Ballyhaled' as their manager James O'Connor put it, was extraordinary

Nevertheless anyone double-screening the Six Nations games and the club finals were richly rewarded for their dedication. They weren’t exactly great games, but to have two late goals decide two games of such magnitude, on the same day, means it’ll go down in as one of the most memorable celebrations of club life in these competitions’ history.

The last-minute pointed winner is one thing, but the mere fact that if the chance is missed, all it means is extra-time or a replay automatically reduces the jeopardy somewhat.

The Tao of the late goal is necessarily far more chaotic. If you’re two points clear, you feel that you’ve surely proven yourself a deserving winner. You’ve put some distance between you and disaster.

To see Ballyhale "out-Ballyhaled" as their manager James O'Connor put it, was extraordinary - a run to an All-Ireland final that included two last-second goals to keep them in the competition, ends with them losing out to one, an extraordinary run and finish from substitute Harry Ruddle.

And Kilcoo rode their luck plenty too, but Jerome Johnston’s last-minute finish into the same goal, two and a half hours later, was a victory for perseverance and for doggedness.

Johnston and Ruddle might well have spent the last few days in a happy haze, but when the mist clears, what joy it will be for them to realise that they have done something club players barely even allow themselves to dream of - to win it all for their club with one swing of the boot or the hurley.

It was more proof that these competitions don’t need Paddy’s Day, or even proximity to Valentine’s Day, to do romance better than most.