Seán Moran: After 30 years the club championships are still on track
It was 1987 when Croke Park on St Patrick's Day was finally closed to the Railway Cup
Colm Cooper will be hoping to win an elusive All-Ireland senior club football medal with Dr Crokes from Killarney. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
It has slightly crept up on us but this Friday marks an interesting turning point for the GAA.
In a couple of days the All-Ireland club finals will celebrate the 30th anniversary of their permanent relocation to St Patrick’s Day in Croke Park. This was a conscious decision to abandon any hopes of resurrecting the Railway Cups’ old date in the calendar and venue.
It’s fair to say that there weren’t great expectations.
The inter-club finals are important events in their own right,” wrote Paddy Downey on these pages in 1987, “but their attraction is more or less confined to the supporters of the teams involved; they will never capture interest on the national scale which regularly, for a long time, drew crowds of more than 40,000 to the finals of Railway Cups.”
Still and even though the average crowd on St Patrick’s Day hovers between 25,000 and 30,000 – and that is the projection for Friday – there is occasionally sufficiently broader interest and in 1999, the combination of St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield and Rathnure in the hurling and Crossmaglen and Ballina in football confounded the early misgivings by drawing 40,106 down Jones’s Road.
It was fitting in a way that the clubs took over St Patrick’s Day because their new championship, formally accepted at the 1970 congress, was probably one of the influences in hastening the decline of the Railway Cup. Club competition gave a great opportunity to players whose counties were never going to win All-Irelands much in the same way as the interprovincials did.
Other factors were the advent of RTÉ in 1962, allowing the best players to be seen by everyone in broadcasts of the All-Ireland series, and the introduction of the All Stars, which facilitated recognition of individual players.
It’s a little ironic that as the club finals celebrate 30 years in the old Railway Cup slot of St Patrick’s Day in Croke Park, momentum is gathering to restructure the championships on a calendar-year basis.
There is a similar – although obviously not as lengthily established – sense of attachment to the now traditional date as there has been to the September All-Ireland finals at inter-county level and there will be similar protests that change would throw away a big promotional day in the GAA schedules.
Strong as the sentiment is, it is not equal to the potential improvement in the lot of clubs and their players of rationalising the current unwieldy season, which demands between two and three additional months on top of provincial campaigns – depending on whether a club wins its All-Ireland semi-final.
The club championships have regardless of these parallel considerations been one of the great initiatives taken by the association over the years. In their slipstream, thanks to former president Seán Kelly, have come the graded club championships at junior and intermediate, which have given tremendous days out for a variety of localities and counties.
It’s also a very democratic range of championships. Although the junior and intermediate versions are scarcely more than a decade old, between them and the seniors 32 counties have been to an All-Ireland club final. That includes London and Lancashire and Lancashire/Warwickshire, leaving just Longford, Leitrim and Sligo in Ireland waiting to join the list.
This year brings the usual variety. It mightn’t be a four-province line-up like last year but there are distinctive stories.
Slaughtneil have already caught the public imagination with their extraordinary achievement of three Derry and Ulster titles, all drawn from 300 families. Already the camogie All-Ireland has been won and the club are in a second football final in three years hoping to apply the lessons of the Corofin defeat.
The Dr Crokes narrative is of a club which has – unlike the other three – already been successful on St Patrick’s Day but in a different generation. They bring to Croke Park Colm Cooper who through a high-profile marketing campaign has spelled out his desire to add the one missing piece in his career jigsaw and who was a mascot when the club won the All-Ireland in 1992.
Hurling brings together two clubs who have built on youthful promise but from very different bases. Ballyea was founded in 1934 but 10 years ago discovered a rich seam of talent, which went to national Féile before losing to eventual winners Castleknock who had Ciarán Kilkenny on board.
Tony Kelly is one of the brightest presences in the game and three-and-a-half years after he consolidated his claim as the youngest Hurler of the Year in the All-Ireland victory over Cork he is back lining out in Croke Park – weirdly for the first time since then.
Like in the Féile 10 years ago, Dublin opposition stand in the way – the first time the county has featured in the club hurling final. Cuala are based in the heartland of the coastal south county. On the days of rugby internationals you mightn’t get a seat on the Dart by the time it reaches Dalkey. This Friday Cuala are commandeering two trains of their own for the march on Croke Park to see if an actual All-Ireland senior title is coming back to the borough.
If that isn’t enough drama, there are actually two brothers on opposing panels in the hurling final. Niall Keane from Ballyea won an under-21 All-Ireland with Clare and having moved to Dublin joined Cuala before this season. His younger brother Aonghus is still hurling at home.
Whatever the outcome, there will be hopes that the hurling final can shake free of its desperately uncompetitive precedents. Only once (allowing that the 2001 final went to extra time) in the past 20 years has there been less than three points between the finalists and the average margin in the meantime has been nearly nine points.