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MacKenna On Monday: Club Game The Soul Of The Sport

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Last weekend, a tiny sliver of a story was predictably buried beneath so much quantity.

It was from no more than the Limerick Junior A hurling final as tiny Tournafulla made the half-hour journey to Dromcollogher to win what they never had before. This was life rather than merely a game, and was captured superbly by Stephen Barr in the Irish Examiner.

The smallest club in the county, so many left from what is purported to be Ireland’s longest single-street village that throw-in had to be put back.

By the time it was over, the presentation and speeches were streamed live to Australia where many of the sons and daughters of the place had left for, after the purge conducted by upper-class Ireland a handful of years ago.

Captain Stephen Cahill spoke later about how his bag was already packed as this was his final act, one now carved in granite, before leaving for Down Under too. And then there was a quote from Seamus O’Sullivan, the club secretary, whose son Eoin scored the only goal.

“I’m stone delighted,” he enthused. “It’s a fantastic day for the club, a brilliant day for the parish. We’ve lost our shop, we’ve lost our post office, we’ve lost our garda station, and the only thing that’s keeping rural Ireland in places like Tournafulla alive is the bit of hurling.”

That was a diamond lost to many under the weight of so much coal, yet nothing from the Champions League to the World Series could mean as much or should mean as much. For this is the essence of sport. The very soul of sport.

And this was a form of much-needed salvation.

This sector of the year is as good as it gets in Gaelic games or indeed any and all Irish sport. The problem is much of it has been smothered despite the fact that intercounty is a rouse.

In football it’s about no more than witnessing Dublin smug their way across summer and, while intercounty hurling has brought some redemption, you are still left with the feeling that due to a tiered system it is the beautiful child carted out for viewing while the ugly kids are locked in the basement. Besides, a sense of identity there has largely disappeared via money and entitlement.

Contrast that with the club element of the association. The authenticity that no amount of fan experience and slick media production and diabolical public relations could ever come close to recreating. It’s accessible as the top-table drifts off into the distance.

And crucially it’s ordinary. When so much else has to be louder and cheaper and more obnoxious in an attempt to gain attention, nullifying the real meaning of extraordinary, there’s a glorious solace in that.

It’s a sporting reminder that the hostel is more interesting and fun than the hotel because it’s real. In essence, this has remained earthy despite every urge and trend all around it.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems. Rural depopulation is lurking and looming over so many places like Tournafulla and is something a sporting association can’t do anything about. Superclubs and payment to managers are ills the GAA can do something about.

Then there is the violence – representative of an angry, idiotic time – which the ruling body must do something about.

They should be priorities as there’s much to lose given this is the only throwback to a better era that is left.

And then there are the constant attacks from above, within a system akin to the church where all makes its way up to those best off. Intercounty used to be the proud and caring big brother, now it’s the bully when it comes to the club game, always asking for more, always giving back less in return as those clubs get their best players taken away for longer while fixture confusion gets greater.

Fans have their heroes traded for ghosts, media have characters and their wonderful stories swapped for press-conference drivel.

That’s not what this was supposed to be about.

One county team in the season gone hit a high mark of €5,000 as a cost for a single training session with €3,000 the average. Who do you think pays? In Kerry club members spoken to are furious at the €10 hikes on All Ireland tickets and raised club championship prices to pay for their centre of excellence.

It’s based in Currans yet, despite the €8m bill, the area has only one coach. In Tyrone, they in recent times have been short of pitches for clubs to play on, with major games moved to Armagh yet those same clubs and their members continue to pay for their £6.7m centre of excellence. They are far from alone but what do these clubs get for their payment?

This season preparing for a club championship match with a county reserve keeper listed out the field due to his talent, that county’s manager rang the club manager and told him the player had to be given the number one shirt. “End of,” he bullied. One player spoken to with an elite county quit as, on the bench, “I wasn’t even allowed play with my mates in the club”.

That is replicated up and down the country with the sort of arrogance that sees the best of the GAA bundled into this pokey little corner at the end of the calendar. And still it thrives, because it’s so damn good.

Of course, the club championships mightiest strength, namely their parochial nature, is also their downfall as it means they can never be bigger than intercounty. And that’s fine, as just because it’s smaller doesn’t mean it’s not more important and that phrase that the club is the cornerstone needs to be more than lipservice.

That’s because the competition is more diverse, more engrossing, offers a better contrast of styles and a better set of backgrounds.

Growing up, the grandfather, a Carlow man, took endless pride in seeing Éire Óg win five provincial titles in the 1990s, and then that pride went further when the club of his youth O’Hanrahans went and won one.

Now in an era of elitism and monopolisation of the major titles, this still offers everyone a chance and thus a care. Don’t underestimate that.

A couple of years back the sight of the Aran Islands and Achill Island coming together in a Connacht duel was everything that makes the GAA special. And that wasn’t a one-off. Right now people in Longford know they’ll never get their hands on intercounty silverware, beyond some meaningless Division Three league trophy handed out on a cold and hollow Saturday night in a deserted Croker, yet Mullinaghta are rightly eyeing up Leinster and have a real shot.

In saying that, each of the other seven left including Rhode who they face next would fancy taking them. As will Moorefield who as champions look better again despite not a single blue-chip player. That is what team is all about and that says so much.

In Munster senior club hurling there’ve been six different winners from all five competing counties in the last 10 years, ranging from the city dynasty of Na Piarsaigh to historical behemoths like Thurles Sarsfields to what was a speck before their team put Ballyea on the map.

In Leinster, there’ve been seven from five counties including Cuala and Mount Leinster Rangers. Portaferry and Slaughtneil have told us that it’s not a one-horse town up north. And the unpredictability of Galway has seen them give over six different All Ireland series clubs.

In Leinster football where many dreams long ago died, Kildare, Westmeath and Laois all provided winners in that past decade too, along with Dublin sides as different in where they come from and what they represent as Ballymun Kickhams and Kilmacud Crokes. Limerick, Clare and Tipp sides all have broken the spine of the big two in Munster too.

This decade alone in football, there’ve been 16 different provincial winners from 11 counties. In hurling, 22 clubs from 13 different counties have been to an All Ireland semi-final, three more counties there than can actually win a provincial title in intercounty.

And that’s only the best, when this is a sphere where the rest actually matter and aren’t relegated to the outhouse.

As president, Seán Kelly brought about the junior and intermediate club All Irelands and his opening of headquarters to those title games was a greater if less pronounced legacy than the opening of those same doors to soccer and rugby.

For there, clubs from Monaghan and Fermanagh and Kildare and Carlow and Antrim have all climbed the steps and been champions.

That variation continues as look at the plotlines we had entering this weekend alone.

Ennistymon contested a first senior final since 1943. Doon went for a first-ever win, albeit falling short. Bennettsbridge, a junior side just four years ago, ran into Henry Shefflin walking the line in a senior decider.

Indeed on Saturday, St Finians who are as close as it gets to a rural club in the capital came across Amsterdam in the Leinster junior ranks, a group happy to have an excuse to fly home and to catch up far beyond sport.

How can that not make you smile? In fact, it’s up there with the photos that wonderfully emerged of the Portlaoise and O’Dempseys panels drinking together on the Monday after the Laois senior showpiece.

Perhaps that surmised it best as it still gives every place and every player and every fan the chance to appreciate Gaelic games for what they were always meant to be. Before. During. And after.

Dark, cold and miserable it may be, yet this is still the most wonderful time of the year.

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Author: Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.