The Senior Club Championships in Donegal and Kerry face serious scrutiny regardless of this year’s success, writes Shane Kenny.
There certainly isn’t a Kerry nor Donegal man alive today, outside of their respective camps, that could have envisaged being seventy minutes away from landing Sam Maguire at the start of the Football Championship.
Both sides have doggedly and deservedly weaved their way to the ultimate decider by means of an unforgiving and undulating championship course, where last year’s contestants were swept away by greater desire, hunger and no shortage of tactical supremacy. Eamonn Fitzmaurice, Jim McGuinness and indeed all of their respective backroom teams deserve huge credit for their vital contributions to what has already been a memorable and enthralling journey.
An All Ireland Final appearance is the very least that these parties of players, who had to lick their wounds over the winter after very different climaxes in 2013, are entitled to. One can only imagine, certainly since public training sessions became a thing of the past, what blood, sweat and tears were shed on the grass of Fitzgerald Stadium and MacCumhail Park over the intervening period which has lead to this circumstance.
Amateur, as Kieran McGeeney once suggested vividly, is an insulting term used to describe an elite intercounty GAA player. Professional Amateurs, this writer believes, is paradoxically a more suitable description.
Indeed, far from this writer to suggest that this relative professionalism does not exist at club level, need only examine the facilities and successes created by men from Crossmaglen, Nemo Rangers, St. Bridgits and St. Vincents, to name but a few.
In contrast, it can be highlighted that at administration level, these players which make up the vast majority of GAA members in the country, have been subjected to highly insulting and frankly amateur treatment. None of which will be questioned if either Kerry or Donegal manage to land the ultimate prize on the third Sunday in September.
To begin with my own county, it only took a crisis of competitiveness in the senior club championship to realize that the system needed an overhaul. Not to undermine the incredible juggernaut that is Dr. Crokes, who only had to lose three finals before completing a four-in-a-row last year, but their dominance was only exacerbated by a variety of mitigating factors.
Since Croke Park opened its doors to the Intermediate and Junior All Ireland Club finals in 2006, it has been every clubman’s dream to represent their own parish on the hallowed turf. This has been confirmed by Kerry clubs’ dominance at these levels since, where seven clubs have reached the junior showcase, and five clubs contesting the intermediate final. This has had a detrimental impact on divisional sides in a county where the Senior County Championship allows all players, regardless of their own club’s grade, to participate in the most prestigious competition.
Yet winning the Intermediate title in Kerry, as with all other counties, means moving up to the senior ranks, and subsequently, becoming ineligible to line out for their divisional side, who in turn lose an entire club selection. The catch 22 scenario then exists where, due to this eventuality, these club sides struggle to compete on their own in the Senior Championship. Subsequently, the clubs scrape to survive at the top level every year, while the divisional side struggle to advance further in the competition. The sense in this method doesn’t add up.
Not to mention the scheduling of fixtures by the county board, which depend entirely on the progress of the inter-county team. This inevitably means very little game time over the summer for club players, in a county which expects to be in the decider every single September. Momentum created by divisional sides early in April can be completely disrupted once the competition resumes in October.
Being an ordinary club player in Kerry during the summer, it’s no wonder why increasingly frustrated numbers are heading on J1’s abroad seeking work and entertainment during such a desolate period. Nine Kerins O’Rahilly’s players, excluding their inaccessible intercounty contingent, left the squad this summer, meaning almost an entirely different team had to be scrambled together to fulfill their sporadic and sparse fixture list. They would be regarded as one of the top senior club sides in the Kingdom. Inevitably, they struggled badly.
They are only one such worrying example which is staring the Kerry County Board and indeed the GAA right in the face. However, behind the veil of their marvelous journey, alarm bells must be ringing amongst Donegal supporters at the state of their senior championship this year – which has yet to even begin!
There was palpable disquiet at the beginning of the year when it was suggested that senior club players would not experience a single minute of championship action until Donegal exited the Championship. Whereas the Kerry County Board succeeded in fulfilling the early rounds of their Senior Championship before July, the first round of fixtures in Donegal will now not be played, barring a replay, until the 28th of September.
Malin’s Pat McLaughlin summed up the general discontent amongst all club teams:
“This is running the GAA into the ground. We are sacrificing 39 clubs for the sake of 30-odd players. Jesus, we are going backwards here.”
A scenario is destined to arise again, similiar to their last All Ireland triumph in 2012, where county champions St. Eunan’s were given no hope of defeating Crossmaglen Rangers in the Ulster Club Championship, merely a week after their own success.
For any club player to be denied an opportunity to land greater prizes in club football, which is difficult enough to achieve as it is, due to a hurried fixture list, is nothing short of scandalous.
Shane Kenny, Pundit Arena.