Of all the football results over the weekend, the score that Cork amassed against Tipperary in Thurles lit up before me. In a strange way, I felt it was connected to the overall future of the provincial championship structures.
For quite some time now, there has been a mood for change and an impatient dismissal of the provincial structure as outmoded and predictable. My belief is it would be counter-productive to end just for the sake of change. But I do think its future is vulnerable. Leinster has become Dublin's fiefdom. Kerry are going for six-in-a-row in Munster. If both those teams continue to dominate their respective provinces, then it will become more difficult to argue for the worth of the old structures. That's why a revitalised and ambitious Cork team is so important.
I saw the Dublin team named during the week and wondered about the bookies setting the score spread because you just knew it was going to be a big margin. Jim Gavin fielded a very strong team and I almost had a sense of dread because John Evans sets his teams up to go toe-to-toe, which is brave but high-risk.
Dublin duly had 4-13 registered at half-time, a score that would be impressive over 70 minutes. They looked fit, strong, clinical, well-schooled and ran really good lines. Their dominance of Leinster goes unabated. They have been Leinster champions since 2005 – with the exception of 2010 – and have won four of the last five All-Ireland finals. And, with no pretenders to their crown, the Leinster championship becomes more facile by the year. Who would bet against them winning another 10 in a row?
This is not to dismiss the other games in Leinster over the weekend.
Carlow had a brilliant result against Kildare and looked very fit and well-organised and were blazing with self-belief. I remember Seán Murphy last year against Dublin and he was exceptional: so fast and determined and he carried that into this game. So they were absolute value for their victory. It was no ambush.
Huge strides forward
The same is true of Longford in putting Meath to the sword. Both those wins represent huge strides forward by those teams. But the results also mean you have these two major powers, Kildare and Meath, who have dwindled to the point that on the very same day they get a very sobering appraisal of where they sit right now in the greater scheme of things. And while the achievement was fantastic for Longford and Carlow, they won’t be able to compete with Dublin for the Leinster title. In fact, it is inconceivable any other county will win Leinster in the short to medium future.
All of that is by way of background to Cork’s role in Munster. The reason the scoreline caught my eye is because it was familiar. Going back through the decades, that would have been a routine final score between Tipperary and Cork. And it got me thinking about Cork and how vital a role they play in football’s eco-system. They may live in the shadow of the hurlers but, nonetheless, they are a big football county.
When we played them in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final, it was one of the best games I was ever involved in because they were just a top, top quality team
When I was playing for Donegal, you knew playing Cork would be a tough assignment. They were All-Ireland champions the year I was appointed Donegal manager. I remember being in Croke Park watching them lift the Sam Maguire and being struck by their presence – their power, their size at midfield, an array of classy forwards. They seemed to be in a very strong position to have a say in the championship over the coming years.
But what hit me on Saturday night was the number of people at the game. 3,339 people turning up in Thurles for a championship match. When you dig a bit deeper into that, Cork have 260 clubs. It’s more than any other county in Ireland. Divide that into the total and take away the 1,500 people that came to support Tipp and it is a very small return from the Cork football heartland.
When we started our management task with Donegal we trawled the clubs from Division One to Division Four on the basis there is almost always one really good player in every club team. So Cork has a huge base to pick from. It stands to reason that there is an abundance of good players in Cork.
When we played them in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final, it was one of the best games I was ever involved in because they were just a top, top quality team. They were still the benchmark nationally then. And that is not so long ago. If you look at the bigger picture, they have a brand new 45,000-seat stadium. They have a population base of 540,000 people. So they are ahead of Dublin in terms of clubs. They are the second largest population base in the country and have a seven-figure sponsorship sum over three years.
They were Under-21 All-Ireland champions in 2007 and 2009 and were runners-up in 2013 and 2016. Kerry won that title in 2008; before that it was 1998. So how can Kerry be so dominant in Munster if Cork has had the better underage teams?
People will talk about this trilogy of Kerry minor teams. That's fine. But there is probably the potential of a higher return of senior recruits from under-21 teams. That's where Dublin, Galway and Donegal, in my time, drew from. That should be happening for Cork. When you weigh it up, they have a lot going for them. Cork's football base gives you the opportunity to almost pick whatever kind of player you want. It seemed to me, for instance, Conor Counihan decided he was going to go with big, strong athletic players who could play ball. And they were a handful in every single line.
So the question is what has gone so wrong for them in the years since 2010?
Aren’t Cork better placed than Kerry to actually challenge against the advantages Dublin have in terms of population and finance? And if they fail to re-emerge as national contenders, where does that leave the game in general?
If Cork can consistently challenge Kerry and if Tipperary and Clare continue to make impressive strides, then Munster can become as competitive as it has ever been
I feel there is a lot riding on Cork. Ulster and Connacht remain competitive and have had a healthy turnover of counties winning the titles. But Cork's health is vital for the future of Munster as a viable championship. They are a sleeping giant and there seems to be a strange acceptance about their failure to compete in recent years. Nobody is vociferous in their opinion about it, which I find strange.
You look at the team that played on Saturday night and it is filled with good players: Colm O'Neill, Aidan Walsh, Luke Connolly, Brian Hurley, Ian Maguire.
The gap between themselves and Dublin is massive and yet they have the potential to bridge it more quickly than the vast majority of other counties. But they had almost fallen out of relevance before their weekend result.
So was Saturday night the beginning of a resurgence or was it just a flash in the pan? Can they go in to the Munster final, compete heavily with Kerry and force their way into the Super 8s? If Cork can begin to consistently challenge Kerry and if Tipperary and Clare continue to make the impressive strides they have taken in recent seasons, then Munster can become as competitive as it has ever been. Both Ulster and Connacht are also fairly open, competitive championships just now. So you could almost live with Dublin’s monopoly in Leinster and hope that the GAA would take steps to re-establish a degree of competitiveness there if you had three vibrant provincial contests. But if Cork aren’t able to re-establish themselves as a reliable Munster adversary to Kerry, then you are left with two of the four provincial championships looking lopsided. And it would seem almost unfair, then, to ask the counties in Ulster and Connacht to continue with intense provincial competitions when the big two in the other provinces are strolling to the Super 8.
So it seems like a critical summer for the future of the provinces. Maybe they will go regardless. My belief is that once something is gone, it stays gone. And it is only after it has disappeared that you realise what you had. The provincial championships have set the rhythm of the GAA championships for a century. If you get rid of them, you suddenly have just one cup that can be won in a season rather than five.
The biggest problem in the game at the moment is lack of hope: you multiply that four-fold if you ditch the provincial structure and the cups and medals that come with it. So I feel that a good, fiery establishment Munster final between Cork and (assuming they get past Clare) Kerry could breathe life into that theatre and remind everyone that there is a history to this: that it’s not suddenly just about the Super 8s.