Seán Moran: Slim prospect of surprise contenders in the All-Ireland championships

Both hurling and football currently under the rule of particularly dominant teams

Greg Blaney celebrates Down’s  All-Ireland victory in 1991. I’m opting for that Down All-Ireland 30 years ago as the best example of a team emerging almost overnight. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Greg Blaney celebrates Down’s All-Ireland victory in 1991. I’m opting for that Down All-Ireland 30 years ago as the best example of a team emerging almost overnight. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Exhalations of relief all around, as the return to intercounty training has now commenced without any further compromising photographs of consenting adults appearing in the Irish Independent.

With the starting line in sight, what are the prospects of surprise contenders in the All-Ireland championships? Unfortunately both football and hurling are under the rule of particularly dominant teams and little variety appears to be on the horizon.

This is complicated by the format. Until last year, the past two decades have been taken up with All-Ireland qualifiers or round-robin quarter-finals, making it very difficult for teams to spring a shock by eliminating more fancied opponents, as strong teams were always capable of surviving a single shot.

This year, like last, that safety net is gone but in football Dublin haven’t needed it for their past seven All-Irelands.

Underage success is an obvious predictor but if a county has no track record of success, is that as compelling a factor as it looks?

Friends in the early years of legal practice used to inform me that it was a bad idea if up in court on a traffic charge to tell the judge that the other vehicle, “had come out of nowhere”.

What are the credentials of surprise champions?

Martin Storey: played a huge role in Wexford’s surprising All-Ireland victory in 1996 when they defeated Limerick in the final. Photograph: Tom Honan/Inpho
Martin Storey: played a huge role in Wexford’s surprising All-Ireland victory in 1996 when they defeated Limerick in the final. Photograph: Tom Honan/Inpho

Wexford hurlers in 1996 were exceptionally long shots but they had previously lost a three-match epic league final in 1993 to a Cork team with All-Ireland medals, albeit behind them, but later that year Wexford took Ollie Walsh’s Kilkenny, then in the middle of retaining the All-Ireland, to a replay before losing.

They had something but could just as easily have ended their careers empty-handed.

A year earlier, Clare topped off a glorious summer by beating champions Offaly. The interesting thing about Ger Loughnane’s and Anthony Daly’s team was that they were primarily interested in winning a first Munster in 63 years. After that, it was bonus territory.

They had lost that year’s league final against Kilkenny and had the scars from the two previous years’ provincial finals. That they got over all of this with a team that grew stronger in adversity was extraordinary – particularly with such a long history of disappointment.

For good measure they added a second All-Ireland two years later when they were just straightforwardly formidable.

No guarantees

Limerick’s first All-Ireland win since 1973 three years ago was extensively crewed by members of the two under-21 winning sides of 2015 and ’17. In retrospect it looks inevitable but Limerick of all counties would know that this isn’t the case. Their three-in-a-row team in the same grade between 2000 and 2002 became the only such team not to add senior All-Irelands.

In the last decade, Clare won the 2013 All-Ireland in the middle of a sequence that saw four under-21 titles lifted in six years. In retrospect it’s strange that they didn’t get close to winning another.

Underage success is an obvious predictor but if a county has no track record of success, is that as compelling a factor as it looks?

Tyrone under Mickey Harte won back-to-back All-Ireland under-21 titles 20 years ago but there were no guarantees. For me the day that sealed it was an early league throw-in against Kerry in Killarney in March 2003 when the home side struggled with the pace and pressure of the visitors’ game.

There is also the influence of example. Armagh had won the All-Ireland in 2002, beating Kerry. This was more of the triumph of experience. The county had reached two successive semi-finals and a final qualifier in Croke Park. On each occasion they were beaten by the eventual champions Meath, Kerry after a replay and Galway.

I’m opting for that Down All-Ireland 30 years ago as the best example of a team emerging almost overnight

When Armagh broke through, Tyrone who had been keen competitors knew that they were close.

There was a similar effect in the early 1990s. Down’s All-Ireland in 1991 fired the imagination of Donegal and Derry, conscious that once the desert had been irrigated they all might benefit

Galway in 1998, like Down, bridged a lengthy gap back to not alone their previous All-Ireland but the entire province’s. They had seen Mayo get one hand on the trophy only to lose out so that when the counties met that May, it was a summit meeting.

Perhaps John O’Mahony’s team benefited from the changing of the guard that year and the emergence of an inexperienced Kildare side to contest the All-Ireland but if so, they made up for it in 2001, ploughing through the first qualifiers to take down a Meath team high on eviscerating champions Kerry in the semi-final.

Self-belief

I’m opting for that Down All-Ireland 30 years ago as the best example of a team emerging almost overnight. Yes they had a few players on the 1987 minor winning team, including big influences like James McCartan and Conor Deegan but that’s not in the same league as multiple under-21 successes.

True, they had competed well against Meath in the 1990 league final but in the previous decade only two spring finalists had even made it out of the province in the ensuing championship.

They did have the ability to hothouse self-belief and form, which got them in their own heads from also-rans to contenders in the space of a few weeks. Their spotless All-Ireland record gave them confidence.

I remember DJ Kane saying that in the 1994 final against Dublin he looked up at the Sam Maguire and shuddered at the thought that he might be the first captain from the county not to lift it after an All-Ireland final.

Oddly though, that sense of mission was almost at its most impressive the year that they lost their 100 per cent All-Ireland record.

In 2010 they were within a fisted ball of beating a Cork side, seasoned by two All-Ireland final defeats and countless semi-finals. Had Down won, the search for the team from nowhere would be over.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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