Malachy Clerkin: Playing for your county deserves admiration, not derision

Sitting on the sideline spitting jibes is the easy thing for club players like Eugene Branagan

Kilcoo’s Eugene Branagan in action. Photograph: Ken Sutton/Inpho

Entry #37,287 into the annals of Random GAA Weirdo Stuff was last week’s press call to honour the 2021-22 club players of the year. This would be the club season that ended a full three months ago.

Quick, no Googling – name the four finalists who played in Croke Park on February 12th. Anyone who said Kilcoo, Kilmacud, Ballyhale and Ballygunner inside five seconds gets a fur-lined TG4 snood for next winter and access to a Club Chat Hotline (Joe Brolly’s mobile number) for the summer.

Whatever about the timing, there was no quibbling with the winners. Dessie Hutchinson took the hurling award for his monstrous campaign with Ballygunner. And Eugene Branagan of Kilcoo was a shoo-in for the football gong after a series of bravura displays at wing back for the Down club.

It's a bit rich for a club player who has never kicked a minute of intercounty football to be so blithely disparaging

The two lads came to Croke Park and got their statues and ordinarily that would have been that. A bit baffling to have it wedged into the middle of a jam-packed championship week but there you go. The GAA is decadent and depraved sometimes. If you’re around it long enough, you learn to make your peace with it.


The last thing anyone was expecting out of it was a headline. But lo and behold, the bould Branagan had some things to say. His county’s hammering by Monaghan the previous weekend was always bound to come up but rather than passing off a few empty bromides about it being a tough time for Down football, Branagan loaded up his paintball gun and set off on a splatter spree.

No, he has no ambition to play for Down. Yes, some Kilcoo players had gone in to join the squad but they'd got nothing but abuse for it. Maybe, if there was a change of manager, someone like his club-mate Conor Laverty, maybe then... well, you get the gist of it. Most brutal of all though was his summary dismissal of the players on the Down squad.

“I think there’s a core of players who don’t know how to win,” Branagan said. “They haven’t the winning mentality. I think that’s why a lot of Kilcoo boys don’t want to be involved – they’re just there but I don’t think they’re there to win. That’s the difference between Kilcoo and the county.”

Cork’s Kevin O’Donovan, Ian Maguire, Sean Powter and Rory Maguire tackle Diarmuid O’Connor of Kerry. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

On the face of it, of course, it’s hard to argue with Branagan’s thesis here. Down have won just three of 16 games in league and championship since the Covid break in 2020. By the time they play in the Tailteann Cup – assuming they do – they’ll have gone a full calendar year since their last victory of any sort. They’re nobody’s idea of a juggernaut.

Still though. It’s a bit rich for a club player who has never kicked a minute of intercounty football to be so blithely disparaging of a group who, for all their struggles, are still suiting up and putting themselves in the way of public judgement at the highest level of the sport. The Kilcoo odyssey is one of the great stories of the GAA club scene but Branagan wouldn’t want to be getting too high on his own supply either. Walk easy when the jug is full, as they say.

Part of this is the fetishisation of the club game, the endless touting of it as The Real GAA, the oddly withering attitude towards anyone who doesn't take in a county league game on a Friday night

But there’s a broader point too. Only in the GAA would it not seem odd for someone playing in the lower orders of the game to openly sneer at a team toiling in its biggest competition. An equivalent player in soccer or rugby presuming to pronounce upon the ills of a team at the top level would be laughed out of the room, regardless of what a disaster zone they were. Yet Branagan’s comments caused a kerfuffle last week precisely because they were deemed to carry some weight.

Part of this is the fetishisation of the club game, the endless touting of it as The Real GAA, the oddly withering attitude towards anyone who doesn’t take in a county league game on a Friday night before coaching the under-12s on a Saturday. You can give a GAA fan no bigger compliment than to call her a great clubwoman. You can level no greater insult than to tut that he probably isn’t even in a club.

But part of it too is the creeping sense that broad swathes of the GAA public won’t be happy until the intercounty game is put in its place. It is there in every major conversation the GAA has about itself these days. Every GPA story is shot through the prism of them getting too big for their boots. Every bit of structural reform is aimed at shaving more time off the intercounty season.

Even the bits that remain find themselves squeezed and shoved into corners. With the deliberate removal of jeopardy from the hurling league over the past few seasons, there are now just 10 weekends in the whole year where the big counties face off against each other in genuinely competitive games. Yet last Sunday, the fixture planners managed to schedule Galway v Kilkenny and Clare v Cork for the same time. Madness.

Why do we put up with this? Intercounty GAA is one of the miracles of modern sport. It’s organic and ancient and messy and ours. It has so much wrong with it in terms of population disparity and financial unfairness and all the rest of it and yet it endures. It is something in Irish life that is good, something that people love. The players who sustain it are unimaginable in other societies. We lose sight of that all too easily. We don’t make nearly enough of it.

On Saturday night, the Cork team who six weeks ago were only just clawing their way past Down to avoid a Tailteann summer themselves matched Kerry stride-for-stride for 50 minutes. Very few sports teams in Ireland get more derision and less love from their people than the Cork footballers yet they turned up and dug in and fought the good fight until they had no fight left in them. There was something quietly admirable about them, for all that they were outclassed down the stretch.

Playing championship for your county takes guts and talent and discipline. And yeah, believe it or not, it takes a winning mentality to tog out for the big show in the first place. All the more so when you know you’re overmatched and the set-up is a joke and your team is going nowhere. That’s the hard thing to do.

Sitting on the sideline spitting jibes is the easy thing. Much like being a club player, anyone can do it.