Although motion 19 didn’t succeed, there will be change in next year’s championship. It comes in the shape of the Tailteann Cup to be contested by Division Three and Four counties – who don’t get to a provincial final – and is the latest iteration of a tiered championship.
Kevin O’Brien knows more about these competitions than most. He captained Wicklow to win the 1992 All-Ireland B title, an unpromising sounding competition but one which had great status 30 years ago when won in successive years by Leitrim and Clare, both of whom added provincial titles within a couple of years.
Wicklow’s defeat of Antrim didn’t foreshadow a breakthrough like that but it was recognition for the county at a time of achievement, coming less than two years after O’Brien’s club Baltinglass had become the first from the county to win the All-Ireland club championship.
The same year he became Wicklow’s first All Star and travelled with Ireland to Australia as part of Eugene McGee’s international rules panel for a series they won by two Tests to one.
“I always remember the All-Ireland B,” he says. “That was fairly significant at the time. We were the third winners after Leitrim and Clare and it certainly made an impact on their fortunes going forward. For our final, I remember Antrim arriving in suits! That’s how serious it was. It was a very bad day and the match could have gone any way and it was great to win it.”
The final in Navan was ill-starred. Rain was torrential and made conditions challenging and at the presentation afterwards, one of the handles fell off the cup but the sense of achievement and future promise was genuine.
Fifteen years later, O’Brien was one of Mick O’Dwyer’s selectors when Wicklow again beat Antrim, this time in the Tommy Murphy Cup final. One of the competition’s selling points was staging the final in Croke Park. Unfortunately that was offset in 2007 by a noon throw-in time.
"We had the Croke Park final but it was played at midday and there was no one there, which kind of knocked the stuffing out of it even though it was brilliant for Wicklow and great for young supporters to be there. It went to extra-time and in the end Tommy Gill scored a goal to win it for us but we were there on our own – the seagulls and ourselves!"
Worse was to follow. He tried to organise the players to take a lap of honour to show the silverware to their supporters.
“After extra-time there were two [All-Ireland] quarter-finals to come. I wanted the Wicklow players to be able to do a lap of honour – with a trophy at Croke Park. One of the stewards just grabbed our captain and shoved him off down the tunnel. I was trying to get him back.
“I thought that for those guys, being able to do the lap of honour it might give them something because they weren’t going to be there every week, let alone doing laps of honour. Let them walk around Croke Park and let the young people of Wicklow see them with the Murphy Cup and hopefully it would be a stepping stone to bigger things.
“I know there was a schedule but we weren’t there that often and we would have sprinted it!”
He has his reservations about the Tailteann Cup.
“I’d be concerned about it. It needs to be marketed and it needs status. Otherwise I’d be worried about it from the players’ point of view, especially after their [players had supported motion 19] being rejected last week. The players made a big statement about that.
“I think they should be playing at their own level and if they improve and deserve the right to go up, they should be able to go up.
“They can’t just fit it in like the other secondary competitions. If they play the final with the Sam Maguire final, that would be an incentive. That would give players their moment as well as hope that they can achieve and go up the ladder. There should be holidays for the finalists because those counties often can’t afford trips for players.”
O’Brien was also a supporter of motion 19, the league-based championship format, because he says that it addressed the one consideration vital for all counties in that aspiring category, the need for a schedule of guaranteed matches.
“I honestly think in weaker counties all anyone is trying to do is build momentum and it can be impossible at times but if you can get it, you almost think you’re invincible. To win two or three matches, imagine what that does for teams in Division Three or Four. Imagine what that does for supporters!”