It's strange to have St Patrick's Day without the GAA club showpiece

It's strange to have St Patrick's Day without the GAA club showpiece
TJ Reid of Ballyhale Shamrocks in action against Kevin Maher of Borris-Ileigh during the AIB GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Club Championship Final between Ballyhale Shamrocks and Borris-Ileigh at Croke Park. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

IF THE GAA wanted a poster All-Ireland club finals afternoon for the ‘New, or earlier, St Patrick’s Day’ back in January, they got it.

Borris-Ileigh staged a storming second-half comeback, with Ballyhale Shamrocks needing to stop a 25-metre free with the last play to prevent the game from going to extra-time.

Corofin won a historic third All-Ireland club football title in-a-row, but only after extra-time.

It was the best All-Ireland club finals double-header since 2001, when Athenry edged out Graigue Ballycallan after extra-time, and Crossmolina Deel Rangers beat Nemo Rangers by one point.

That hurling decider was the first time a club final had gone to extra-time on the first day but the game needed to be played because the foot-and-mouth disease had pushed the club finals out to April that year.

The 2013 All-Ireland club finals provided good contests in horrendous conditions, with both matches going to the wire, but the All-Ireland club finals day had become flat.

That was mostly down to the continued disappointment of the hurling final — of the previous 24 All-Ireland finals, 19 were poor games.

In 10 of those 19 finals, the margin of victory was by 10 points or more.

The best club hurling final of the last 30 years was the Cuala-Na Piarsaigh replay in 2018.

The drawn game was also a really good match but it only ignited in the second half of normal time, which continued into extra-time.

It was bitterly cold in Croke Park that afternoon, while Ireland’s Grand Slam game against England in Twickenham at the same time also contributed to the small crowd of just over 10,000.

The football final had become the highlight of the club finals day, primarily because it invariably produced a good game — between 1995-2017, there had been 18 really good football finals.

Eleven of those matches had been decided by no more than one score.

Yet despite an excellent hurling final in 2018, the football decider was a total let-down, with Corofin routing Nemo Rangers.

Last year’s finals-day though, was almost a nadir — the aggregate margin of Corofin and Ballyhale’s victories over Dr Crokes and St Thomas’ was 29 points, with Corofin winning by 12, and Ballyhale hammering St Thomas’ by 17 points.

The disappointment was all the more acute again, especially for the losing teams, considering the long wait to play those finals.

The Galway champions don’t have a provincial championship so St Thomas’ effectively played two matches in four months.

Cost was another factor. After beating Ballycran in the Ulster club final, Ruari Óg Cushendall had to wait 98 days to play their All-Ireland semi-final against St Thomas.

Along with renting out floodlit pitches, bus trips, hotel stays, hydration, physiotherapy and medical costs, Terrence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton recently outlined how the outlay worked out at an astonishing £357 (€408.66) per day. “I know it cost my club £35,000 (€40,064.50) to play one match last year,” said McNaughton.

Fergus McCambridge of Ruairí Óg in action against Brendan Farrell of St Thomas. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Fergus McCambridge of Ruairí Óg in action against Brendan Farrell of St Thomas. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Switching the All-Ireland club finals to January was a squeeze, especially with the semi-finals fixed for the first weekend of the New Year, but it made sense in so many ways.

The recent coronavirus crisis has changed everything for everybody but, hoping normality will return as soon as possible, what will the flipside be to removing a modern tradition on March 17th?

The Railway Cup had previously occupied that slot. During the 1950s, the Railway Cup double-header in Croke Park had consistently drawn crowds in excess of 40,000, peaking at more than 49,000 in 1954.

The Railway Cup finals had a 50-year residency in Croke Park, which eventually ceased in the 1970s and, while the competition had lost its magnetism, the GAA still knew that there was an appetite for GAA matches on March 17.

The All-Ireland club championship reached a nadir in 1984 when they ran it off like a blitz — the All-Ireland semi-finals on a Saturday were followed by the final on the Sunday. When Ballyhale and Gort drew in the final on April 15, the replay didn’t take place until June 3.

The following year, the hurling final was staged in Croke Park while the GAA settled on a club final double-header at Headquarters for the first time in 1986.

Giving the finals a permanent home in Croke Park enhanced the prestige of those competitions, while the GAA re-established a meaningful presence for Gaelic games on the national holiday.

When the decision was made last year to take that presence away, the next question was where would that crowd go on St Patrick’s Day?

The clubs involved obviously make up the majority of the attendance anyway but there was always a significant number of day-trippers on the national holiday.

For tourists in town, the club finals were also the ideal representation of Irish-ness after the parade on O’Connell Street.

With the club finals gone back to January, how would the GAA fill that slot to express itself on the national holiday?

The league hurling semi-finals was mentioned but that was never going to attract a crowd to Dublin, or have any real meaning for those outside the competing counties.

The GAA eventually settled on the U20 football All-Ireland semi-finals.

That would have been a huge day for the young players involved today but would it have captured the public’s imagination on our national holiday? No.

Nothing will be played anyway today in Croke Park.

But finding that right fixture for Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day is likely to be a rolling debate for the GAA in the coming years.

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