Pat Spillane: Triumph of Kerry sides proves GAA needs to overhaul club championships

David Clifford of Fossa in action against Dylan Elhatton, left, and Kyran Robinson of Stewartstown Harps. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Fossa captain Paudie Clifford celebrates victory in the All-Ireland club JFC Final. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Kerry goalkeeper Shane Ryan scored 1-3 for Rathmore where he lined out as a forward. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

14 January 2023; Liam Lavin of Tooreen shoots to score his side's first goal during the AIB GAA Hurling All-Ireland Intermediate Championship Final match between Monaleen of Limerick and Tooreen of Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

15 January 2023; Stewartstown Harps players Cumhai O'Neill, left, and Jason Park tussle with David Clifford of Fossa during the AIB GAA Football All-Ireland Junior Championship Final match between Fossa of Kerry and Stewartstown Harps of Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Pat SpillaneSunday World

NATURALLY I was rooting for Fossa and Rathmore last Sunday. But to be perfectly honest, I felt the outcomes were a foregone conclusion. I will explain why later.

For me, the story of the weekend was the presence in the All-Ireland Intermediate and Junior Club Hurling finals of Easkey and Tooreen – two clubs battling to keep hurling alive in the football-mad counties of Sligo and Mayo.

Even though neither won, their stories encapsulate the spirit of the GAA – and how it is so rooted in the community.

Adrian ‘Twink’ Freeman played with Tooreen and Mayo before moving to Australia, where he was tragically killed in a car accident in 2010. He was just 24.

But he was remembered in a very special way in last weekend’s Intermediate decider when the Tooreen players sported a wristband with the word ‘Twink’ ingraved on it.

What about the Easkey manager Michael Gordon? He works full-time in Oxford in the UK, but flies home at weekends to manage the team.

On the flip side, the fiasco which turned the O’Byrne Cup tournament into a shambles was an example of the cynical side of the GAA.

Louth, Kildare, Carlow and Offaly pulled out of their scheduled matches in the pre-season tournament.

Meanwhile, Dublin also made a mockery of the competition by fielding a third-strength team. And the Leinster Council were powerless to punish any of them.

What puzzles me is that counties have been travelling all over the country to play challenge matches since before Christmas.

Mayo, for example, beat Westmeath in a challenge game in Multyfarnham last Saturday before their FBD semi-final against Galway.

It smacks of team managers simply wielding their power again.

I have a rule of thumb when watching matches on TV – once I’m distracted enough to start reading a newspaper I know the match is disappointing.

The Rathmore v Galbally Intermediate final fell into this category.

It was a boring, possession-based game, with too much emphasis on defensive play.

Fossa captain Paudie Clifford celebrates victory in the All-Ireland club JFC Final. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

There were 25 kicked passes in the first half, only 25 shots on goal in total, and the Tyrone side scored just three points from play. I’m not sure how they planned to win the game.

In any other county but Kerry, Rathmore would be a senior club.

Being perfectly honest, I would back then to beat Kerins O’Rahillys who contested the All-Ireland Senior club semi-final if they met next week.

I’m sure Jack O’Connor will have noted the performance of Kerry’s All-Star goalkeeper Shane Ryan (inset left) who scored 1-3 and was Man of the Match in a different role for Rathmore.

Moving him up front for Kerry would be an interesting left-field move by Jack.

Meanwhile, Shane’s brother Mark has the potential to be in the mix for a place in the Kerry midfield this season.

The Junior final was a better game – the first half, in particular, was very good.

I have long run out of superlatives to describe David Clifford. At times he was marked by five defenders, yet he was unstoppable – scoring 11 points from 21 possession.

Is Clifford the greatest player of all time? Perhaps, in time, he will be.

I find it virtually impossible to compare the merits of players from different eras.

However, in my lifetime I have never seen a player in any sport being so dominant and so far ahead of his contemporaries. He reminds me of Tiger Wood in his prime.

My big worry is that we are ‘flogging him to death’. He needs a decent break from football now.

Sadly, the game will be remembered for all the nastiness at the end.

Kerry goalkeeper Shane Ryan scored 1-3 for Rathmore where he lined out as a forward. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Stewartstown Harps can talk all day about pride and bravado, but the harsh truth is their indiscipline possibly cost them an All-Ireland title.

There was a nasty undercurrent to their performance and the behaviour of some of their team mentors/officials after the final whistle did not reflect well on the club.

A friend of mine told me the sledging the Cliffords were subjected to during the game was the worst they ever experienced.

I felt sorry for the referee. The game descended into near-anarchy in the closing stages, making it virtually impossible to officiate.

For the record, he got all six red cards right and Fossa’s Paddy Sheehan can count himself lucky that he didn’t get a red card as well.

Despite the exploits of David Clifford, the game left a sour taste – demonstrating that the macho/bully boy culture is still alive in the GAA.

As for the after-match-speeches, I think it is a case of ‘he without sin cast the first stone’.

Let’s be charitable and say that if GAA President Larry McCarthy or Fossa captain Paudie Clifford ever reflect on what they said, they won’t be happy.

I have gone on record as saying all speeches during the presentation of trophies after games should be banned. They are a joke and add nothing to the occasion.

I wonder, though, was Clifford concussed at the time? Moments earlier he was the victim of one of the worst and most cowardly belts I have ever seen thrown in Croke Park.

Had a similar incident happened in rugby the victim would have been taken off immediately due to their HIA (Head Injury Assessment) protocols.

While the GAA have their own protocols for dealing with suspected concussion cases I have never seen them used.

Finally, the pitch looked in rag order – which was surprising because Croke Park sets such a high standard.

Now, let me explain why I expected the two Kerry clubs to win last weekend.

There is a major structural flaw in the Intermediate and Junior Championships.

Kerry clubs have been involved in nine of the 19 All-Ireland Intermediate finals played – winning seven – while in the Junior series Kerry clubs have played in 14 of the 21 finals, winning 11 titles.

The dominance of the Kerry clubs is even more pronounced in Munster. Kerry clubs have won 14 of the 18 finals in the Intermediate grade and won all but two of the Junior titles.

This year we have a ludicrous situation: Austin Stacks, who recently recruited ex-Limerick manager Billy Lee as their new boss, will be playing their games in the Intermediate Championship.

Even though they were relegated from Senior status in Kerry last year they are still one of the top-three teams in Kerry football.

All this stems from the fact that there are only eight Senior clubs in Kerry.

Kerry are entitled to organise their competitions whatever way they see fit. However, the GAA need to create a more equitable format to give all the county champions a fair crack of the whip.

They have tweaked the hurling format to achieve this. The Kerry hurling champions, for example, play in the Munster Intermediate Hurling Championship.

It was one of Sean Kelly’s best idea to create these competitions, but it is now time for some structural changes.

Last year’s pain can drive Kilmacud Crokes to the pinnacle in All-Ireland club final

AIB All-Ireland SFC Club final

Kilmacud Crokes (Dublin) v Glen (Derry),

Croke Park, Today 3.30, Live TG4

What a fairy-tale season it has been for Watty Graham’s Glen.

Having made the breakthrough in Derry in 2021 this season they retained the county title, won their first-ever Ulster and feature in their first All-Ireland final today.

And they did it the hard way, by coming through what was by far the most competitive of the provincial, which included a victory in the final over defending All-Ireland champions Kilcoo.

Malachy O’Rourke has them very well organised, particularly in defence. All their players are very comfortable on the ball – and their counter-attacking game is very effective.

Their centrefield pairing of All-Star Conor Glass and Emmett Bradley are the best partnership in the club series.

Though they never looked like losing against Moycullen in the semi-final, it wasn’t a five-star performance.

They went 14 minutes without any score and their conversation rate was just over 50 per cent.

I’m sure Kilmacud Crokes will have noticed that when Moycullen finally pressed up on Glen’s restarts in the closing stages, the Derry side struggled badly to work the ball out of their defence.

What annoys me about Kilmacud Crokes is their inability to put teams away when they are on top.

It cost them the All-Ireland last year, when they tried to run down the clock against Kilcoo and got caught with a sucker-punch goal near the end.

We saw it again against The Downs in the Leinster final and against Kerins O’Rahillys in the semi-final. They are content to play within themselves.

They were at least ten points the better team, but they allowed the Kerry champions to get within touching distance of them, and had to survive a nervy finish.

They were criticised for the amount of cynical fouling they engaged in against O’Rahillys – the free count was 8-3 against them. Though some of the fouls were cynical, others were just cheap frees.

Not for the first time in big games in Croke Park their goalkeeper Conor Ferris made a couple of errors.

Despite those reservations I expect them to win. The hurt from last year’s agonising loss will spur them on – and they will have learned lessons from it.

Unlike Glen, they have a lot of experience of playing in Croke Park. They are superbly organised, comfort on the ball, have a wide range of scorers and a very formidable bench.

All-Star Shane Walsh will not be as ineffective as he was in the semi-final and there is a possibility of Paul Mannion making an appearance.

Verdict: Kilmacud Crokes

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