On 19th August, Limerick ended 45 years of hurt as their inspirational centre-back Declan Hannon lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup for the Treatymen for the first time since 1973 amid euphoric, emotional scenes following their victory over defending champions Galway. As the people of Limerick celebrated their win with The Cranberries blaring out of the PA system in Croke Park, it was everything you’ve come to expect from one of the highlights of the Irish sporting calendar.
What is supposed to be another equally important highlight turned out to be anything but on the 2nd September. The almost-mocking rendition of ‘Molly Malone’ that rang out in Croke Park, in the aftermath of Dublin’s six-point hammering of Tyrone, to complete an awesome four-in-a-row of All-Ireland titles, almost certainly grated on the nerves of some people. The familiar tune has been a ubiquitous sound following Dublin final wins for many years now in Croke Park. However, after four years of Dublin dominance, the style in which the Dubs coasted to a sixth All-Ireland SFC title in eight years has left many people feeling aggrieved at the state of the game. The inter-county hurling championship may be in fine fettle, but the same cannot be said when it comes to Gaelic football.
The thrilling nature of this year’s hurling championship can be attributed to a number of reasons, the foremost of which is perhaps the new championship format which was adopted for the 2018 season. It is clear that the new round robin format in the Munster and Leinster provincial championships gave the competition that extra edge, producing some titanic contests throughout what was a breathless, epic hurling championship. From the get-go, top performances were demanded from counties wanting to stay in contention and have a chance of qualifying for the All-Ireland Series. It proved to be cutthroat stuff, with last year’s runners-up, Waterford and Tipperary, who were All Ireland champions only two years ago, failing to make it out of Munster. Meanwhile a very competitive Dublin side that had pushed Kilkenny, Wexford and Galway all the way, failed to get out of Leinster. Overall, the new format and structure benefitted the hurling championship as a whole, combining excitement and surprise in an irresistible cocktail of Irish sport.
Indeed, it seems the GAA has figured out a championship structure which gets the best out of all counties in hurling while still providing scope for improvement and progression. Aside from the top tier where the MacCarthy Cup is the ultimate prize, there are four tiers in the senior inter-county hurling championship below this. In order, they are the Joe McDonagh Cup, the Christy Ring Cup, the Nicky Rackard Cup and the Lory Meagher Cup. It is disappointing in a sense that there are only ten counties in Ireland that are capable of playing hurling at the highest level but on the other hand the GAA deserve credit for recognising this and have now created a hurling championship which allows all 32 counties on the island of Ireland (as well as teams representing London, Warwickshire and Lancashire) to compete in the senior inter-county hurling championship, something which cannot be said of its Gaelic football counterpart.
The structure of the inter-county Gaelic football championship leaves a lot to be desired in terms of competitiveness. Looking at the provincial championship format, it is starting to look more and more outdated as each year goes by. In Leinster, Dublin won their eighth Delaney Cup in a row, culminating in a facile 18-point win over Laois. In Munster, Kerry were also head and shoulders above the rest as they defeated their neighbours Cork by 17 points, inspired by the phenomenal David Clifford. Connacht and Ulster were competitive this year but this is only papering over the cracks in terms of the health of the provincial championships.
Ultimately, there are only a handful of teams that are capable of competing for the Sam Maguire Cup. While it may hurt the pride of some smaller football counties, Gaelic football is crying out for a restructuring in the senior inter-county championship. Not every county realistically hopes to have a chance of making it to Croke Park for the Super 8s and emulating the likes of Monaghan and Roscommon. Some creative thinking from GAA HQ is needed to establish some kind of tiered structure to eliminate these patent flaws.
Understandably, a lot of talk throughout the winter will centre around GAA funding and the financial luxuries which some teams enjoy. Dublin have received millions in games development funding over the course of the last decade. Although funding does need to be rebalanced in order to try and level the playing field somewhat, much of the funding allocated to Dublin is justified. A large proportion of the population live in our capital and thus Dublin GAA requires greater funding to ensure adequate infrastructure can be provided to meet the needs of such numbers.
But at the end of the day, to say Dublin’s All-Ireland success is largely down to financial investment would be an erroneous claim to say the least. Gaelic football may not be at the start of a perceived golden age as hurling might be, but ultimately, would all of the money in the GAA world really help the already well-funded and financed contenders to Dublin’s crown in 2019? It’s doubtful anybody involved with the inter-county setups in Tyrone, Monaghan, Galway, Kerry, Mayo or Donegal would think so. Dublin are clearly in the middle of a golden generation of footballers that Jim Gavin and his backroom team are getting the best out of, something many are reluctant to give them credit for. The Gaelic football championship may not come close to eclipsing the hurling championship in terms of entertainment for some time to come, but there is not much that can be done when we are living in the era of one of the greatest Gaelic football teams of all time.