The Christy O'Connor column: Imokilly's dominance means the divisional debate is certain to return

The Christy O'Connor column: Imokilly's dominance means the divisional debate is certain to return
Michael Russell, Imokilly, getting this ball away under pressure from Glen Rovers' Simon Kennefick. Picture: Dan Linehan

AT last year’s Cork County Convention in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Imokilly president Willie Ring stood up before a packed auditorium and expressed his disappointment at the bid to suppress Imokilly and other divisions in the boardroom.

A motion to end the involvement of divisional teams in the Cork senior championships had been on the table but Ring vehemently argued against it.

“This is not the way to do it,” he said. “It should be done in manly combat, do it by beating them on the field of play and no other way.”

The loudest voices in the room against the divisional sides had come from Glen Rovers, who had brought the proposal to the convention. Their club secretary Jude O’Callaghan spoke of wanting a level playing field for club players.

“The club player has the option of playing in one championship, those representing divisions have the luxury of playing in two championships,” said O’Callaghan.

“Surely this must be addressed.”

It wasn’t because, when put to the floor, the motion was overwhelmingly rejected. In that context, it was almost ironic that Imokilly and Glen Rovers met in Sunday’s county final.

Ring’s contention last December that the best way of settling this debate — on the field — was surely a serious motivating factor for the Glen beforehand.

The Glen pushed their opponents all the way, but this debate will only gain more momentum now that Imokilly secured the three-in-a-row (the first side to do so in 37 years), and that they will be favourites to win the title again next year.

The debate is all the more topical again this week given that Duhallow have reached successive county senior football finals.

Duhallow haven’t won a Cork senior title in 28 years, but they were equally as strong as Imokilly on the topic last December.

“We are not having an undue effect on the senior championships,” said Duhallow board secretary Tony McAulliffe.

“We have players from very small clubs who can never aspire to play senior with their own clubs due to their size, and they commit themselves to the divisional teams.”

In the history of the Cork county championships, the only divisional teams who ever threatened to dominate were Beara in the 1930s, Imokilly in the 1990s, and Imokilly now.

Beara won three-in-a-row, this Imokilly has also managed the same feat, and also nearly pulled it off in 1999.

After winning successive titles in 1997 and 1998, Imokilly had lost eight players, from Cloyne and Castlelyons, by the time 1999 rolled around, but they continued to remain ultra-competitive; they lost the 1999 semi-final to a last-minute Joe Deane goal against UCC; Imokilly lost the 2000 semi-final to Erin’s Own after a replay; they lost the 2001 final to Blackrock.

Imokilly will lose at least four players next year, from Fr O’Neills and Cloyne, but, similar to the late 1990s and early 2000s, Imokilly won’t be going anywhere. Colm Spillane, who missed the whole year with injury, will return.

So will Barry Lawton, who was also injured, while Niall O’Leary, who played for UCC this season, will also be back.

What’s more, that unique sense of professionalism and elite organisation within the set-up — which most divisional sides could only aspire to — has made the Imokilly brand stronger and more appealing than ever before.

There was a time when the appeal was in the city, where the city clubs often effectively operated like a strong divisional team, where players from smaller clubs migrated to the big three in the city.

Travel and accessibility are far different now and, while that same level of migration from smaller clubs is no longer as robust, Imokilly’s success in particular has given players from smaller clubs a goal and a realistic chance to win at senior level.

Imokilly have also produced a standard that has created a genuine pathway for lads to go on to inter-county. They have set the bar so high that clubs will have to try and reach their level if they are to beat them.

Apart from their success at senior level, the last 15 years has been a golden age for the Imokilly division. Sarsfields, Carrigtwohill, Midleton and Erins’s Own won senior titles. Cloyne and Bride Rovers contested senior finals. Killeagh are senior at the moment, while Youghal, Castlelyons and St Catherine’s were also senior over the last 15 years. Those numbers are freakish for East Cork.

Cloyne, which contested three finals in a row between 2004-06, had their greatest team. Fr O’Neill’s currently have the strongest team in their history.

The strength of that culture has been reflected through Imokilly’s dominance. Eleven clubs were represented on Sunday’s starting team so, even though they will lose players next year, Imokilly could go on and dominate like no other division has before.

Their current level of domination is even more unique considering that divisional sides have only won 10 senior hurling championships, and Imokilly have won three of those in the last three seasons.

Although a divisional side hasn’t won a football title since 2004, 36 divisional teams have reached county football finals, with 17 teams winning titles.

The only time a football divisional side had the same iron grip on the championship that Imokilly have now was between 1932-34, when Beara also won three-in-a-row.

Beara won another title in 1940, but it was 18 years before a divisional side even reached another football final.

When Avondhu made the breakthrough in 1961, it was the first title won by a divisional team in 21 years.

It’s taken Duhallow the guts of three decades to return with a side similar to the one which won successive titles in 1990-91, which further underlines how fleeting the success of divisional sides can be.

The manner in how last year’s motion to convention was emphatically defeated provided proof that there is no real desire to remove the divisional sides from the championship any time soon. Yet another title for Imokilly means that this debate isn’t going away any time soon either.

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