Kevin McStay: Maybe a knockout All-Ireland Championship is the long-term solution?
Last weekend’s thrilling results could prove to be an old-school blueprint for the future
Cavan celebrate their Ulster final win over Donegal. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The day of the underdog is the best day that the GAA can give the country. And on a special weekend, when the teams and events of a hundred years ago came alive again, we were reminded of the vital, unbeatable thrill of the knock-out championship. It was discarded as a relic of the past but the heroics of Tipperary and Cavan on Sunday makes me seriously wonder if it isn’t also the solution for the future.
There is a GAA slogan or hashtag: nothing beats being there. It is ironic in a winter when we are all under house arrest. But I think I realised this weekend how privileged I am to be covering these games. Even the cross-country excursions are a treat. I got a letter from Croke Park which gave me clearance to travel and cites me as ‘an essential worker”. Which is, of course, fanciful given the extraordinary commitment of people who have toiled through this pandemic in our hospitals and shops. I immediately showed the letter to Verona….we both agreed it was the first time I was ever deemed essential in my life!
And I got to thinking about the players who don’t make their squad and can’t be in the stadium. As Conor Sweeney alluded to in his wonderful captain’s speech, those Tipp panel players were just as much a part of that day as the players on the field. And yet they could not be present. So I will add my voice to the growing opinion that those or 12 or 13 guys be allowed to travel with their teams.
But is has been a special and strange championship. And sitting up in the Hogan stand with one of those golden tickets on Saturday night for the Leinster final felt like a unique moment. I was very moved by the 1920 commemoration. I had been listening to Michael Foley’s marvellous podcast, the Bloodied Field, so I was prepared for this. The atmosphere was amazing: there was nobody in the stadium and yet there was a really intense mood there. Once they blacked out the floodlights, it was a rare moment: intimate and solemn.
And I sat in the darkness to the left of the commentary position and wondered what it was like to be here a hundred years ago. Knowing a small bit about gunfire, you think about the terror and chaos and fear. About the savage murders that morning and then those terrible reprisals in Croke Park. They had Michael Hogan’s corner of the ground illuminated in shade and shadow and it looked very powerful. Then the reading by Brendan Gleeson was a perfect fit. Can you imagine players lying on their bellies trying to crawl to safety through indiscriminate and deliberate machine gun, rifle and revolver fire. The detail of the sod getting cut up with the fired bullets got to me and I tried to imagine the scenes.
Then, I was thinking of Stephen Cluxton when he trotted out with his team. And I thought of Johnny McDonnell, the 1920 goalkeeper for Dublin. And I wondered about how their morning preparations went. You know, Cluxton would be all foam rollers and bands and dynamic stretches. Johnny McDonnell, however, was an IRA volunteer who had been recruited for the morning’s murdering. It was a very different world. And Saturday night’s ceremony was a very dignified and simple to that time. The GAA got it just right.
Ceased to be a rivalry
And then we were into a Leinster final. There is not a lot to be said except that Dublin are timing their run with ominous perfection and are now odds-on to collect their sixth All-Ireland title in a row. We believed and hoped that Meath were evolving into a side that could make this game a contest. Dublin had seven changes from the 2019 match but still: it was all over by the water break. And the scary thing is that Brian Howard and Paul Mannion are not getting their game just now.
This has clearly ceased to be a rivalry. The legacy of those riveting Meath-Dublin fixtures is fading. And it is not nice to be on the end of these hammerings. I was that soldier so I can concede: it is soul destroying.
The championship does that: conversation just breaks out
So the Leinster championship is broken and it needs urgent redress. Nothing will stop Dublin from continuing to dominate in the immediate term. But at least, the Leinster Council could stop fixating on revenue and make all games, including the final, home and away fixtures based on rotation or coin toss. If they persist with bringing teams to Croke Park as sacrificial lambs then very soon, nobody will turn up to watch it. Even the Dubs won’t show up. Ciaran Whelan said on television that as a spectacle, it was boring to see a repeat of these humiliations. And he was right.
And I headed for Armagh on Sunday morning expecting another procession. I bumped into a major checkpoint and I was rooting about the car for this essential letter. And it turned out it was a Meath garda and he just wanted to talk about the match. I wasn’t sure if he was more bothered by how good Dublin were or how poor Meath had been. Both realities were adding to his misery as the line of cars built up behind us. But we had a good chat. The championship does that: conversation just breaks out.
And in the Athletics Grounds in Armagh, there was no sense of a shock. I spoke with Cavan officials and stewards and even one of their backroom team before the game and the hope was they would keep it competitive. In fact, a lot of the talk had shifted to the sense that Donegal would be under huge pressure because of how good Dublin had been on Saturday night.
And then you looked at the soft pitch and the underfoot conditions. And I have this notion that non-six counties Ulster finals are less feral. That absolute bite isn’t there. And it was cold and crisp and getting dark. And I thought: well maybe Cavan could do something. Just as quickly, I put it out of my head. Then came the opening quarter and there were Smiths and Bradys flying around the place and going full Hezbollah on the idea that they hadn’t a hope.
They didn’t give a s**t for 14-1 on and their attitude was good luck Donegal if ye think this is what this is. They were ravenous. And Donegal were rattled. They were unnerved by the first water break. Cavan got in their faces. Welcome to war. They got to half-time two down and going into the final quarter they were only a point down. And they had the game exactly where they wanted it to be.
They had to stay tough and aggressive and hunt in packs and they had to stay smart. And Cavan did all those things. They tightened up a small bit but they had so much adrenaline and enthusiasm for chasing the victory that they were not to be denied. And then Conor Madden’ s goal broke the evening open and the impossible day of both Tipp’ and Cavan playing in Croke Park had come true.
And you know, it was a beautiful evening in mid Ulster. I drove home via Clones and Cavan town. And I hoped Tony Holahan wasn’t about. There were hundreds of people readying themselves to greet their heroes. You were just happy to see people happy. I got caught up in it like an eejit and was tooting my horn and then remembered how comprehensively I had dismissed Cavan’s chances on television a few hours earlier. So I kept the head down then! People were heading for a floodlit drive-by in Breffni Park. The team would be on a ramp and the cars could go by and salute them. It was the best they could do in this crazy year.
I know Donegal will be crestfallen by this. Donegal were going for three Ulster titles in a row and that may have burdened them more than we know. But they got what they deserved. Sometimes the championship has a way of giving you a slap and putting you back in place. And now, all kinds of questions hang over them. This is maybe a reflection of us all having the concentration level of a gnat. But I felt they were definitely progressing and were a genuine contender.
But the day reminded us all that there is nothing like the thrill of the unexpected knockout
And now this happens and I see where Michael Murphy is on his career arc and Neil McGee still the linchpin of the Donegal defence at age 35 and you wonder about Donegal without them. All of a sudden the Donegal project looks different. Defeats change perception. Are they in a bit of flux? They have fallen short in critical games. Is their brilliant future behind them? Not necessarily. But this goes down as a lost season for them.
But the day reminded us all that there is nothing like the thrill of the unexpected knockout. We have had four already this year and they have made the championship. And it got me thinking that maybe the solution to the tired procession of quarter-finals and super eights is a return to the electrifying bolt of the old, brutal knockout championship.
Because we have to ask ourselves: what is this thing, the All-Ireland championship? Is this some kind of money spinning entertainment or is it still what it was originally conceived as: a national cup competition in which the best team emerges. Do we want this long drawn out, endlessly marketed competition? Would the All-Ireland be diminished if it was run off as it was this winter: in a compact time period with a series of riveting games? Maybe the league should be recalibrated into a competition where we get to see teams on a consistent basis. And the All-Ireland, then, as a traditional Old Bible knockout contest, like the old FA Cup: everything on the day.
Because the truth is: if a team is good enough, then they will eventually win. They may get caught out in a knockout season- as Donegal were on Sunday. But ultimately, if they have All-Ireland winning qualities, those will come to the fore. If not, then it doesn’t matter whether they keep going in the qualifiers. They are just delaying the inevitable. Ultimately, the best teams still emerge.
I accept it is a brutal sting, losing those knockout games. But maybe it deepens the importance of these wonderful championship days too. Aren’t they the essence of what we hold dear about this country?