In the GAA there are four Counties who wear Green and Gold for their County jerseys. One is the most successful team in the history of the GAA. Kerry won their 37th All-Ireland Title yesterday. The victory was something that seemed unlikely at the start of the summer. The retirement of several experienced players and a terrible injury to their talismanic forward Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper had dampened expectations even in the Kingdom. The Kerry team led by Eamonn Fitzmaurice persevered and as the evening light lengthened so did their confidence and belief. Yesterday they were also in the happy position that they were not favourites going into an All-Ireland final. Ever since Donegal strangled the life out of the ‘invincible’ Dubs, the sons of Conall seemed to have had their name already etched on the Sam Maguire Cup. In the semi-final Donegal dictated the terms on which the game was to be played and Dublin couldn’t deal with this dictatorship. Kerry is a different proposition and Donegal simply couldn’t impose their will on the Kingdom yesterday. People say Donegal looked laboured, lacked the usual intensity or aggression but maybe when they analyse the game they will see that for long periods Kerry simply dominated them, holding on to the ball, tackling hard, forcing errors and turnovers, taking their chances when they came. It was not a great spectacle of a game for a neutral but it was intriguing all the same.
This week also saw change in another County that wears the Green and Gold. Shane Ward, a Donegal native, was appointed Manager of the Leitrim Senior team. I’m not sure that many people other than the die-hard anoraks would even have noticed this managerial announcement. If Kerry is the most successful County in GAA then Leitrim occupy the complete opposite end of that spectrum. Leitrim’s paltry two Provincial Titles pales into insignificance compared to Kerry’s seventy six Munster Titles. Leitrim have never won an All- Ireland Senior Championship and never managed to even grace a final day. Leitrim have had three little ‘Golden Periods’ since they first entered the Championship in 1907. In the mid-1920s they were a match for any in Connacht. In 1924 they drew with Mayo and then refused to play in the replay. One Connacht Championship in 1927 was scant reward for this group of players. They had the beating of Kerry in the semi-final, going down by two points in the All-Ireland semi-final. Within a year or two the team had been broken up by mass emigration. It would be sixty seven years before Leitrim would win another Connacht Title.
Perhaps the best Leitrim team of all was that of the late 1950’s led by the mercurial Packy McGarty. They lost four Connacht finals to Galway 1957-60 and without the crucial breakthrough this team too began to break up. In the early 1980’s I also saw some promising teams fail to get the rub of the green. In 1982, ’83 and ’87 they were unlucky against Galway and Mayo. By 1989 though things were pretty bleak again with the County’s finest young men more interested in winning Donnelly Visas than Connacht medals.
Then along came a Cavan man called P. J Carroll and he took no prisoners. He demanded honesty of endeavour and didn’t countenance inferiority. Soon performances in the pitch began to improve but alas a championship breakthrough proved elusive. By 1993 Carroll was gone, replaced by John Maughan. Beating Galway in Tuam was a huge turning point. The following year Leitrim won a Provincial Title beating Roscommon, Galway and Mayo on the way. They under-performed against the Dubs in the Semi and should have won another Title. In the twenty years since that famous victory in Hyde Park there have been few highlights. The back door system which was designed ostensibly to give weaker counties more games has not worked out for Leitrim. They have an abysmal record in fact and have shipped some very heavy defeats. Their most recent manager Sean Hagan was perplexed by how dis-interested the Leitrim players were in the Qualifiers. Maybe it is because the player’s ambition is to win a Connacht Title and you can’t do that via the Qualifiers.
Leitrim and Kerry operate in two completely different spheres. If anything the gulf is widening. There are only a handful of the thirty three teams that start the year capable of winning the All-Ireland. Making the breakthrough is nearly impossible and behind the scenes it requires incredible resources. Up until recent years, and despite Leitrim’s paltry return of silverware, one always felt that they could compete with any of the Connacht counties and occasionally cause a shock. Over the years these shock wins sustained the County’s supporters and inspired the young. Nowadays the wins are even rarer, resources scarcer and initiatives like the County Centre of Excellence still awaiting completion.
The Garth Brooks debacle and the disquiet over moving the Mayo-Kerry replay to Limerick has further widened the gap between the modern corporate aware GAA and its grassroots followers. The GAA is at a crossroads and it must decide if its future lies in promoting the elite and aspiring to some sort of a global brand or in trying to build a more equitable organisation. It does not seem possible to achieve both. Perhaps the strict adherence of both the administration and the fans to the County and provincial systems means the GAA was hobbled from the start. The primacy of a knockout completion over the league format is also an anomaly in modern TV driven sport. The GAA was founded in ‘Hayes Hotel’ one hundred and thirty years ago. The famous Hotel was sold at an Allsop Auction this week. It is time for us all to realise that even in the history of our beloved national games, everything ultimately has a price commercially irrespective of sentiment.