This week marks the 48th anniversary of the first official All-Ireland club championship final. The inaugural football title went to East Kerry, a win that proved especially historic as it would be the only victory for a divisional side in the championship's history.
That 1971 success led swiftly to divisional teams being excluded from provincial and All-Ireland championships but the system remains established, principally in Cork and Kerry.
The status of divisional teams – essentially an amalgamation of players from junior and intermediate clubs within the different divisions or administrative districts in the counties – has been in the news recently with the three-in-a-row hurling achievement of the East Cork division Imokilly and the first county football championship in 20 years for a David Clifford-inspired East Kerry.
Whereas there’s a long tradition of acceptance of the divisions in Kerry, there have been signs of disgruntlement in Cork. A year ago, Glen Rovers – second on the county’s roll of honour and who coincidentally played Imokilly in this year’s county final – took a motion to convention to remove divisional and college teams from the county championship.
Their proposals were rejected.
County chair Tracey Kennedy, a former Imokilly divisional secretary, says that there are arguments on both sides.
“From what I had heard on the ground I was surprised that it didn’t get more support,” she says of the Glen Rovers’ motion.
“There’s maybe a nostalgic commitment to the divisions but the big attraction is that it allows players to play senior who would not otherwise get a chance. That’s something that players value. Colleges provide that outlet for a certain cohort but not everyone goes to college.
"We have seen players come to prominence going back to Conor Counihan in the 1980s and right up to Séamus Harnedy – who would also have played for the college but is very much identified with the Imokilly division.
“The negatives are scheduling because we can’t have clubs playing the same weekend as the division and that you have clubs going out in provincial championships, who haven’t won the senior championship in their county and that’s unsatisfactory.”
That point was amplified at the weekend when Austin Stacks, winners of the Kerry club competition to determine the county's representatives in Munster in the event of a divisional team becoming champions, took an 18-point walloping from Cork football champions Nemo Rangers.
Stacks had to dust down the cobwebs, having won the club competition back in April but their fixture with Nemo was only confirmed when East Kerry beat Dr Crokes a week previously in the county final. In the past when the fixtures calendar was a looser structure there was time to run off a competition for clubs after any county championship won by a divisional team.
There remains support in Kerry support for the divisional structure, which is both traditional and practical, according to former county secretary Tony O’Keeffe, an All-Ireland club medallist with Austin Stacks in 1977.
“One of the major things in rural Kerry is the declining population numbers. That’s why the divisional system is so welcomed by smaller, rural clubs. In Tralee and Killarney there are plenty of people around the towns and so clubs are quite strong.
“It’s very important for the county team that good players from small clubs get the opportunity to play senior county championship.”
Does he feel that the divisional teams should again be allowed to compete outside the county?
“Not really. Once the decision was taken in the 1970s to block divisional teams, I think it was accepted that the system wasn’t widespread enough. If you had these amalgamations inn other counties the landscape might be a lot different.
“They have been part of the Kerry championship for over 100 years so there is support for them. An interesting thing though is that in the 1920s Tralee had a divisional team and the county board broke it up after they had won a three-in-a-row but the three clubs, Stacks, Kerins O’Rahilly’s and John Mitchels on their own won the next six county titles between them.”
It is almost a self-regulating feature of divisional teams that when successful their constituent clubs often rise as well and once having attained senior status their players are no longer available to the divisions.
Tracey Kennedy points out that the divisions don’t have a great strike rate in Cork – 17 football championships and nine in hurling.
“Imokilly are in the spotlight because they’ve just done a three-in-a-row but you can count on your fingers the number of wins they [divisional teams] have overall.”
Croke Park have no plans to review the situation, nationally.
“The reality is that more or less 30 counties compete on the basis of a single club participation,” according to one spokesperson, “but two who operate on a different basis. I don’t think there’s any mood to revisit the current arrangements.”