It is in the middle of July. Under normal circumstances, the Super Eights in the All-Ireland Football Championship would be starting to heat up. There would be just four teams left standing in the All-Ireland Hurling Championship. However, 2020 has been different. Instead after four months due to the COVID 19 pandemic, GAA action finally returns. A sprinkling of Club Championships begins this weekend. On paper, the GAA seems to be ticking all the boxes, timetabling the Club game before the Inter-County game. There is a catch though and the Club player is still being overlooked. Something had to give this year and unfortunately, it is the Provincial and All-Ireland Club series. Over 90% of the GAA members won’t be given access to have their sole chance to play in Croke Park and win an All-Ireland. The greed of the Inter-County Football and Hurling triumphs again.
This news would have hit Intermediate and Junior clubs the hardest. Winning their respective County Championship and moving up to a higher grade will always be the number one priority. This will still have the prospect to compete for that status this year. However, what comes next after winning an Intermediate or Junior County title, is an-once in a lifetime adventure. The experience of participating in a Provincial competition and the possibilities of gaining national attention. A journey that can lead to an All-Ireland Semi-Final appearance and putting these small clubs on the map. Knowing your only sixty minutes away from Croke Park, a potential Celtic Cross medal and fulfilling a childhood dream. We won’t see any of these unsung heroes in GAA HQ this year or early next year. There won’t be any fairy-tale stories and little parishes going to places that there never been before.
For the first time, certain clubs could start questioning the benefit of winning a County title this year. Teams who believe they are good enough to go all the way to Croke Park could be tempted to wait until 2021. In Hurling, Cork and Kilkenny’s sides have dominated the Intermediate and Junior stage in recent years. Between both grades, four of the last eight deciders, have been Cork vs Kilkenny match ups. Kerry has ruled the roost in both second and third-tier club Football, claiming seven All-Irelands since 2015. Ulster had a representative in the last three Intermediate showpiece events. Clubs in the Counties/Province named above know they have the quality to be climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand. A player will be looking at those stats and thinking maybe it’s not worth it this year. Recent history indicates there is more silverware to be won.
It is not just clubs in Cork, Kerry, and Kilkenny who will have this mentality. In my own County Roscommon, St. Faithleach’s were relegated to the Intermediate Championship last year. Despite this, they still won the Senior League. They contain some of the best Footballers in the county and country with the Murtagh’s brothers (Brian, Ciaran, and Diarmuid). They would have been strong favourites to win a Connacht title and a possible once-off All-Ireland. The thoughts of spending another in the second-tier of Roscommon Football could appeal more attractive. I’m sure there are more examples similar to St. Faithleach’s throughout Ireland in both Football and Hurling. After winning an Intermediate or Junior County title, no squad wants to win another. This means suffering the heartbreak of relegation. Players approach the Provincial/All-Ireland campaign with the mindset this will be their only one.
This decision by the GAA could have a significant impact on the Galway Senior Football and Kilkenny Senior Hurling Championship. Corofin doesn’t have to worry about defending their Connacht and All-Ireland Football crowns. The same story applies for Ballyhale Shamrocks in Hurling and retaining Leinster and All-Ireland honours. The exploits of the last few years will have taken a lot out of both teams. Starting a Championship campaign in May and not finishing until the following January/March. Corofin and Ballyhale know taking a step back and dropping the intensity levels may be required.
With no threat to losing the silverware they hold outside their counties; this is the perfect year. We could see very open Championships this year as a result. The challengers will know this is their best chance to shift the peaking order and claim the spotlight. Tuam Stars, Mountbellow/Moylough, and Salthill Knocknacarra will be optimistic about landing the holy grail in Galway Football. Clara, Erin’s Own and James Stephen’s will be eying up the main accolade in Kilkenny Hurling.
The status of being the number one side in Ireland is still intact. Being County Champions is always a great distinction and the first goal of any year. However, sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture. Securing the Andy Merrigan Cup for the fourth time in a row is Corofin’s main ambition. Ballyhale are chasing a third Tommy Moore Cup in succession and that is their most prized procession. Neither side will want to squander an opening to win their respective Championship. Going into 2021 fresh, recharged bodies and less mileage on the legs is more important. The reigning All-Ireland champions in both codes don’t want to have any concerns in their pursuit to be celebrating on Jones’ Road again.
It is not just Club players missing out on All-Ireland glory. For a lot of Inter-County players, their best chance of winning a Celtic Cross medal is through the grassroots. Last year Club series provided a few examples. Kerry Footballer Jack Barry won the Junior All-Ireland with Na Gaeil. For Barry, this was his first All-Ireland medal. Time is still very much on his sides to win one with Kerry. Liam Silke and Ian Burke have both established themselves as top Inter-County players. They have four All-Ireland medals with Corofin and still awaiting their first with Galway. Brothers, Ryan and Jerome Johnston have been key players for Down over the past few years. Six months ago, they appeared in a maiden All-Ireland Final with Kilcoo. Their best chance of reaching another All-Ireland Final is with Kilcoo again, and not Down. Inter-County players are missing out on something special too.
As stated in my opening paragraph, the GAA had to pull the plug on something this year. I believe they have sacrificed the wrong competition. With everything that has been going on in the World this year, the community has become more meaningful. This was the GAA’s chance to show how much community means to them and in my opinion, they have failed. A Club team might only get one chance to punch above its weight. An Inter-County team will have numerous opportunities to reach the peak of their powers.