SUNDAY sees the culmination of the second year of group stages in the Co-op SuperStores Cork PSHC.
Sarsfields and Midleton are guaranteed their places in the knockout section before they take to the field in Páirc Uí Rinn, meaning that the other two sides in that group, Carrigtwohill and Na Piarsaigh, cannot progress. Similarly, regardless of how they do against Erin’s Own, Charleville won’t advance, but otherwise there is still a lot to play for.
The general reaction from players seems to be a satisfaction with the equitable nature of the round-robin system as well as with the clarity surrounding fixture-setting, something which was never possible in the old knockout system, when club action had to fit in around the inter-county programme.
Of course, for those organising fixtures, the equation that needs balancing is the provision of games for players against the gate receipts that such fixtures will yield. With the love of knockout action deeply embedded in the GAA man or woman’s psyche, the early-stage matches are regarded with a ‘phony war’ suspicion and tend to attract little more than the club die-hards. That there are so many matches on means that there are few neutrals in attendance as their own clubs are likely to be in action while the larger fixture list means more venues and match officials must be found.
Last year was the first running of the new system, though obviously a proper analysis of the popularity among supporters is impossible given that numbers were limited and some games were officially behind closed doors – we’ll plead the fifth amendment as to whether we spotted anyone climbing ditches or walls to see their teams.
It’s likely that the coming weekend will see an increase in the crowds as some of the matches are de-facto knockout encounters. Overall, there is a sense that the format, in some shape, is here to stay and a reversion back to a knockout system with a back door would be retrograde.
Certainly, the change has been more of a success than the last time a mini-league system was experimented with, from 1978-80.
In the 1970s, Cork were on top of the tree, winning an All-Ireland three-in-a-row from 1976-78 inclusive, while the All-Ireland club was shared between Blackrock, Glen Rovers and St Finbarr’s from 1971-81. However, there were concerns about the disparity between the elite and the rest – in 1977, the closest quarter-final was Bandon’s three-point win over Seandún, with the West Cork club then losing by 12 in their semi-final against the Glen.
A committee was established to examine if there could be a better way and what was proposed was a three-layer senior championship.
By 1980, the last year, this was arranged by the five highest-ranked sides playing a round-robin that would provide four of the quarter-finalists, with three more coming from a separate section, while the last spot went to a divisional side (UCC, incidentally, were in the second club tier rather than with the divisions).
Blackrock were the form side during the summer of 1980, winning their four SHC games, with the Glen and the Barrs drawing with each other to finish tied for second while Midleton came fourth as Youghal lost all of their games.
In the second stratum, Éire Óg recorded four wins (including an incredible 9-3 to 5-13 scoreline against Na Piarsaigh) and a draw to finish top while Sarsfields were second and Nemo Rangers – receiving a walkover in their final match from a winless UCC, who couldn’t field – taking the other quarter-final spot. Bandon, Na Piarsaigh and UCC finished fourth, fifth and sixth respectively.
Muskerry came through the divisional section and put up the strongest showing in the seeded quarter-finals, losing by four points to Midleton, meaning that the four qualifiers from the top level made the semis.
On October 7, a crowd of more than 15,000 came to Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the southside-northside final between St Finbarr’s and the Glen – just the second time since 1972 that the Rockies weren’t in the showpiece occasion.
The Barrs won by 1-9 to 2-4 and would repeat the trick in the 1981 decider against the Glen but by then the knockout system was back, following a vote at the annual county board convention.
A key factor in the change was the lack of championship atmosphere. GAA past president Con Murphy said that it was obvious that the championship attitude had died, what was needed was a combination of all-out performance and public patronage. However, Sarsfields’ Denis Hurley said that the groups had benefited teams like his club, Midleton and Erin’s Own in being involved up until August. Ultimately, revenue was a factor – Frank Murphy reminded convention that the senior championships essentially subsidised the rest.