That rarest of things. A delighted reaction to a football championship match. Stranger still, a game that managed to relegate the hurling clash that followed to the shade.
The necessary components were all there. Atmosphere, meaning, skill, controversy, reaction. It may not go down as a bona fide classic, but it was certainly a very fine game. For twenty years, Killarney has not seen a Kerry defeat in a game of consequence. On Sunday, they were nearly felled by the old enemy. They probably should have been. If Cork’s nickname has come to be seen as something of an irony in recent years, Sunday’s rebellion brought meaning to that title again. Their response to a relentless critique of their worth was rebellious, skilled and exciting.
The discussions conjured by the championship of 2015 have so far been dominated by an appetite for revamp. That shouldn’t change after Sunday’s excellent occasion, and the recent probe for suggestions by the GAA itself means that it most likely won’t. The game did however provide the most compelling and contemporary argument yet for maintaining the provincial championships as part of any makeover that now looks inevitable to take place.
Cork and Kerry have won over a century’s worth of provincial titles between them, leading many to suggest that regional competition is of little value to either of them. Sunday’s game represented a boisterous rebuttal of that claim, perhaps best expressed by its last meaningful action. Fionn Fitzgerald’s wondrous equalizer was not greeted with indifference by the Kingdom’s supporters. Martin Carney theorized that courage, bottle and balls were the ingredients required for such a kick, but the absence of will to rescue a draw would have left all his baking in shite. Less attractive was the panicked dive of Brian O’Driscoll to meet the ball, but all the same attributes could be credited to Cork’s half back. Some of his counterparts even dropped to the turf in Killarney in response to the final whistle. This was an occasion that mattered.
Many, myself included, have recently advocated the introduction of a Champions League system, with the provincial championships cut adrift from the search for Sam. I might just have been wrong. A further clobbering for the provincial championships, institutions in their own right, would be regressive rather than progressive. We need a meaningful second tier, we need a revamp, but we also need provincial competitions of worth. The reaction by Cork supporters to Sunday’s penalty decision tells us that these championships retain relevance.
The Jim McGuinness proposal suggested a sixteen team championship made up of the top eleven league teams, the ‘tier two’ winners and the four provincial champions was the most well intended yet. But it isn’t perfect. In the highly likely event of the provincial championships being won by teams already qualified through their league form, McGuinness suggests that the final four invitations should also be administered through league placing. It’s hard enough to imagine a Division Two team winning a provincial championship, let alone a lowly soldier of Division Four. The provincial competitions have already diminished in terms of net worth, but they retain considerable value. Certainly enough to sustain them.
The McGuinness proposal, though certainly touching on the correct tuning, would be fatal to the four crowns. Perhaps awarding championship qualification points based on both league and regional form would be enough to sustain the provincial championships while boosting the league’s merit. McGuinness came close, but his lungs needn’t fear any cigar.
A complete scrapping of the provincial championships wouldn’t deny us the genius of the irrepressible of Colm O’Neill, the constant threat from Dublin’s lineup, or the clinical game plans dreamt up by the malevolent minds in Donegal. What it would perturb is the nearannual dance between Kerry and Cork in the grassy ballrooms of Killarney and the Páirc. It would kill the passion conjured by each and every game in the Ulster Championship. We’d have never had the agony of Louth supporters robbed of the 2010 Delaney Cup, or the eulogizing by Leitrim fans of their team of ‘94. The provincial championship are not without fault, but they’re not without soul. The summer would be never be as colourful again.