Thoughts on a county final


County finals make you feel old. It's at least 25 years since we were first encouraged along to shout for the seniors and see what we might be if only we had talent and application. I don't know the year precisely. Early 1970s anyway, because Bobby Doyle had locks that could have been independent nation states. Vincent's were in the final, but back then Vincent's were always in the final. We slouched along to watch Mullins and Keaveney and Hanahoe and the boys and we smoked loose Major which we hid in the cupped palms of our hands because we were so smart.

Not many summers afterwards two things happened. Kevin Heffernan came into our dressing-room one day after a match and told us that some of us would make good `B' players for the club. We were affronted, but Heffo was right on the money. As usual. And UCD started winning county championships.

County finals make you feel young, too. On Saturday in Parnell Park the winning team were captained by Mick Galvin, one of the great and enduring heroes of Dublin football. Mick is old enough to remember stuff like the recession and the Inter Cert and Charlie Haughey's dignity, and looking at him, knowing that I'm of an age with him, I thought that, yeah, if only I'd had talent and application and fewer loose Major I could still have been doing that. Consoling thought somehow.

We need what skinny consolation we can get. These are gloomy enough times for Dublin GAA. The senior hurlers and footballers departed meekly enough during the summer, while the promising minor footballers left it behind them against Westmeath. Slightly better news in minor hurling, but in the under-21 grades the county waits and waits. County finals usually give us a chance to make notes and take stock, but this summer the county has been cowering in fear. UCD are back, buttressed by a scholarship system and an economy that means students don't have to go away for the summer. Na Fianna just about dealt with a weakened college team in the football championship, while the under-21 students advanced to the county final in the curtain-raiser in Parnell Park on Saturday. Scary.

The UCD hurlers (without any Dublin players at all) whipped everyone including a fine Vincent's team in the county final. The prospect of no county medals actually staying in the county for the foreseeable future as talented 21-year-old culchies pillage the place has people bristling with outrage. Naturally, none of this is UCD's fault. The college system is both invaluable and shows the way forward, but Dublin GAA either has to take a few years and learn to live with it or to introduce a quota of Dublin-reared players to all teams playing in future county championships. If the county championship is not to turn into a localised version of the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups, a quota may be the way forward.

I remember years ago, for the club's 50th anniversary, St Vincent's sent a player to college on a club scholarship. Surely in these sunny times more clubs should be doing just that, aggressively placing more of their own in a place where they'll get good hurling or football educations as well as advanced reading and writing. Otherwise the big clubs are just going to start devouring the little clubs' better players. Back in the real world. This year's final was (as usual it seems) between Na Fianna and Kilmacud Crokes. Northside against Southside.

It used to be that if you heard that Na Fianna and Kilmacud Crokes were contesting a county final you made the assumption that it must be the county final of the Museum Archivists and Reading Room Monitors League. They were so soft, so famously soft, much softer than luxury toilet tissue in fact, so wonderfully, girlishly soft that even I liked playing against them. You were as likely to be tickled by lightning as struck by a player from either club.

They've grown up, though. On Saturday the game was blood-feud sour and they went at each other like two farmers brawling over a briary ditch. There was one sending-off, more bookings than auditors could keep track of, and the tackles were arriving so late that several are still pending as you read this. Na Fianna won for the second year in succession, and the long-term nature of their ambitions was made clear by the repeated inquiries after the game as to how Crossmaglen had got on against Castleblayney up north. Word that the mighty Cross' had come apart like a cheap suit will make the winter training a little easier. In Parnell Park, the going was tough and interesting, but apart from Darren Magee of Crokes, who got sent off, there were very few of the younger players who looked like future Dubs.

The class of the field was Jason Sherlock, who looked to be two ideas and three paces ahead of everyone else all afternoon. Somebody should analyse how few losing teams Sherlock has played for since he was a kid. For all the abuse and sniping he suffers, hardly anyone realises how much he likes to win and how much he hates to lose.

During the All-Ireland winning summer of 1995, when Jayomania swept the universe, he struck up a fast friendship with Galvin, and although Mick is 13 years older, they both profited from knowing the other. When things went bad at Plunketts, Galvin and Senan Connell switched clubs and joined Sherlock at Na Fianna. Since then they've been a threat. On Saturday afternoon the understanding between Sherlock and Galvin was to be seen virtually every time either one of them got the ball. The game's excitement was compressed into five first-half minutes when three goals arrived in a little avalanche triggered by the best pass of the game. Jason took possession out on the right and clipped one of his no-look passes 20 yards inside to Mick who drove it home as confidently as a chauffeur might, um, drive something home.

Na Fianna didn't play well on Saturday, but they have enough class spread throughout their team to get them back to Croke Park next March. Maybe we'll hear another speech from Galvin before he gets the free travel. At the end we all ambled onto the pitch and shook hands as if we were outside the church at a funeral for the county championship gone by. It had been poorly at the end, we said, but we'll miss it now it's gone.