Column: Not even the David Clifford-factor can create excitement around Kerry SFC final
Should we be concerned about the lack of excitement for the Kerry SFC?
The Kerry SFC final, the blue riband event in the Kerry sporting calendar, takes place on Sunday. Not that you’d know it.
There has been a palpable lack of excitement around the county ahead of the match-up between David Clifford’s East Kerry and rivals Mid Kerry.
Part of this is due to the two sides involved – this will be the third final between the pair in four years and it is also a repeat of last year’s final.
The biggest factor behind the apathy, however, is that the two sides involved are divisional teams.
Kerry SFC final isn’t capturing the imagination.
With the best will in the world, no one, beyond friends and family of the players involved, is going to wake up Monday morning unduly concerned by their district team losing.
The unique ties of family and community that bind clubs together are just not there when it comes to divisional teams.
How could they be? Having lived in the heart of East Kerry the last few months, the lack of flags, bunting, or indeed excitement, is striking.
Kerry have only eight Senior clubs. Every year one club is relegated to Intermediate and one promoted to Senior.
That means that a huge club could be at risk of the drop on the back of one bad season.
Worth his weight in Gold!
David Clifford of East Kerry signs autographs for young supporters after the Kerry County Senior Football Championship Final v Mid Kerry in Tralee in October.
One of the Sportsfile Images of the Year by @sportsfilebren!
— sportsfile (@sportsfile) December 10, 2022
This has led to the frankly farcical situation where two of the biggest names in Kerry football, Kerins O’Rahillys and Austin Stacks, will play in the Intermediate grade in 2024.
Rahillys were Munster Club SFC champions in 2022. Stacks beat Rahillys in the Kerry SFC final in 2021.
What is the reason behind the cut-throat nature of the Kerry championship? The need to incorporate eight divisional teams in the Kerry SFC.
There are essentially two county championships for the senior clubs. The Kerry Club SFC amongst the eight clubs themselves – they are divided into two groups of four with the top two in each group advancing to the semi-finals.
And the Kerry SFC involving those same eight clubs along with the eight divisional sides – they are divided into four groups of four with the top two in each group advancing to the quarter-finals.
The competitions are run off one after the other due to the split-season. Dingle beat Kenmare in the Club SFC final in September and two weeks later had to face into the beginning of the Kerry SFC.
Kerry SFC faces questions.
The divisional or district sides are based on geography and only players from Junior, Premier Junior, and Intermediate clubs in that district are eligible to represent them.
If a club is promoted from Intermediate to Senior, players from that club cannot represent the divisional side the following season.
For example, Rathmore won the Intermediate title in 2022 while some of their players were a key part of the East Kerry side which won the SFC that same year.
This year Rathmore were in the SFC themselves by virtue of their promotion and in fact ended up facing their former East Kerry teammates in the semi-final.
🏐 2023 Garvey's SuperValu Kerry GAA County Senior Football Championship Final – East Kerry v Mid Kerry.
— Kerry GAA (@Kerry_Official) November 1, 2023
Kerins O’Rahillys’ relegation to Intermediate was confirmed last weekend when they narrowly lost the Club SFC relegation play-off to Tralee rivals Na Gaeil. Victorious Na Gaeil boss Paul Fitzmaurice did not mince his words about the divisional teams after the game:
“O’Rahillys are in a position nobody wants to be in but they can’t come out and say this because they might be deemed sore losers.
“But I think it’s an absolute disgrace that after that performance today, that effort, everything they invested in not just this year but every year, that [O’Rahillys] are gone from the county championship, an established club.
“And there are districts that won no game in the county championship this year, and one district gathered points from a walkover from another [district] and that all those teams can play uncontested, unquestioned in a county championship next year, that is wrong.”
Fitzmaurice’s anger is justifiable, four of the district teams finished pointless in the group stages. Yet their places in the SFC are guaranteed regardless.
Rahillys, for their part, came out on Thursday and called for the number of Senior clubs to be increased to 16 and the divisional teams to be put in the Intermediate grade. This seems needlessly convoluted.
The simplest solution would appear to be to remove the divisional sides from the equation entirely.
The reasons divisional sides were introduced in the first place were noble enough. They gave players from smaller clubs, those who would have no realistic chance of ever being Senior clubs, the chance to play at the highest level of the game in Kerry.
It was a way of ensuring that no brilliant players would slip through the cracks.
Future of Kerry’s divisional teams.
Is it fit for purpose in 2023, however? With county development squads all the way up underage, highly competitive second-level schools competitions, and third-level football, any players who are good enough or could be good enough to play for Kerry have been identified and tracked.
The divisional teams could still have a role to play at underage level.
Removing the divisional sides would remove the need for two senior championship competitions. Eight clubs from Intermediate could make the jump up to Senior.
Based on 2023 this would mean clubs like Austin Stacks, Legion, Fossa, and Milltown-Castlemaine all making the jump up. Rahillys would stay Senior as well.
As former GAA President Seán Kelly said last week, it doesn’t make any sense that a county like Kerry would only have eight Senior clubs.
Removing the divisional teams would have three key benefits:
1) It would streamline the running of the club championships across all grades in Kerry. Run them all off at the same time and thus decrease the number of games being played by the elite players, reducing the risk of burnout and injuries.
2) It would create space for the Kerry SHC to be played around the same time. The SHC final was played back on August 6th. That means the county’s elite hurlers will go almost six months without any top-level competitive hurling until Kerry’s inter-county campaign recommences in 2024, how will that help improve the standard of the game in the county?
3) It would reduce supporter fatigue. The split-season has meant the need to play these two competitions back-to-back. No more than players, fans can only invest so much of their time.
The dominance Kerry enjoy in the Intermediate and Junior Club championships at Munster and national level would undoubtedly suffer, given Kerry’s Intermediate winners would be the 17th best club team in the county rather than the 9th, but that would be a small price to pay.
The one thing the Kerry County Board cannot afford is apathy. There was a genuine buzz around the county during the club championships in August and September.
When Fossa beat Austin Stacks on penalties in the Intermediate semi-final it was the talk of the county for a week afterward. Likewise, the Kerry Club SFC final between Dingle and Kenmare.
Fossa sensationally beat Austin Stacks in Kerry IFC semi-final as David Clifford scores 0-13 https://t.co/QeDhIDEH5z
— Irish Examiner Sport (@ExaminerSport) September 10, 2023
The Kerry SFC, by contrast, has barely moved the needle. Crowds have been poor, atmospheres noticeably quiet. The lack of jeopardy around the divisional sides, they cannot be relegated, is undoubtedly a factor here.
This Sunday’s game will be live on TG4, David Clifford will draw people in from around the country just to watch him alone, and East Kerry will likely win their fourth title in five years. But the winds of change are howling.
Apathy cannot be allowed to continue unabated. It’s time for some radical thinking.