Kerry continue winning titles and Kilkenny grab their four-in-a-row, but can provincial championships survive the next 125 years, ponders Martin Scanlon
So Kilkenny and Kerry are victorious once more. The fact that in its 125th year, the GAA’s two marquee teams in both senior codes won All-Irelands again came as no real surprise. However, the recurrent trend of champions in both football and hurling in the first decade of the twenty-first century does leave question marks over both the continual development of Gaelic games and the structure of the Championships.
The Celtic Tiger era was kind to the GAA. The problem of hoards of young men emigrating was temporarily stymied, and the organisation’s finances have swelled due to increased attendances, greater commercialization and the leasing of Croke Park. This money has genuinely filtered down and made an impact at all levels of the organisation.
Funding for the development of the games has risen massively, with the appointment of development officers in all corners of the country – but why have so few counties failed to make a significant breakthrough at senior level this decade?
Kilkenny, along with Cork and Tipperary, have traditionally held a firm grip on the Liam McCarthy Cup and this decade has proved no different with all ten titles going to one of the ‘Big Three’. Undoubtedly their success is partially contributable to the paucity of competition in a championship with only twelve contenders on an annual basis, of which only half in any year could have genuine aspirations of playing in Croke Park come September. But why have the breakthroughs of the mid-1990s – when Offaly, Clare and Wexford climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand – not been repeated?
Kerry’s thirty-sixth title is arguably an even greater achievement than the four-in-a-row of Kilkenny when one considers the increased depth of competition in the football championship. Kerry’s record over the last ten years of five championships, three final losses and two semi-final defeats is unrivalled. The ferocity of Tyrone and Armagh has been only a stumbling block for the Kingdom.
Their successes must, in part, be attributed to the wonderful generation of players with which both counties have been blessed. However, this is not just a freak of nature. From the earliest ages, both counties emphasize heavily the basic skills, the bread and butter of the game – striking and fielding, often the difference in tight contests.
This was highlighted in the football final where Cork’s forwards missed chance after chance, while Kerry wing-back Tomás Ó Sé effortlessly stroked his two attempts straight over the bar. More must be done in other counties to emulate these playing skills that are often sacrificed at an early stage for the more immediate reward of stamina training.
However, playing ability alone is seldom enough. Whereas in other counties, locals and players hope and pray for successful Septembers, in Kilkenny and Kerry, they expect this success. It is this insatiable demand that spurs the players on year after year.
Defeat, even in the final, is often considered an embarrassment. Such expectation would be detrimental to most other counties, but familiarity with these “annual” occasions helps counter any potential nerves. The sight of the green and gold, or the black and amber, exposes inferiority complexes in otherwise confident opponents.
The current provincial structure definitely benefits both. Kilkenny qualified for their semi-final after two victories, whereas the Munster football championship normally serves as a pre-season for the greater challenges of August and September. If by some geographic miracle, Kerry were transplanted to the Ulster Championship, this decade probably would not be remembered as a golden age in Kerry football. Likewise, if the Leinster Hurling Championship matched the intensity of Munster, the Cats would not be able to time their best performances for later in the summer.
Modern amendments in the structure of both championships have favoured the stronger counties. With the introduction of the qualifier system into the football series, provincial championships are nearly universally acknowledged to have lost their importance. Some believe that losing early and coming through the back door can be much better preparation. A kind, early draw allows management regular competition to prepare their team and also avoids the unprofitably long rest periods of provincial finalists.
It can even be said that Galway’s introduction to the Leinster Championship gave Kilkenny a sufficient challenge to prepare them for Tipperary’s onslaught in the final.
The time has come to once and for all abandon the provincial championships in both hurling and football. An open draw should be made of all the teams, which can then either be placed in an early Champions League-style group phase followed by knock-out from the quarter-finals onward, or a straight knock-out tournament. Such a move will inevitably displease traditionalists, but will go a long way to ensure a balanced playing field.