Success brings many things; joy, fulfilment, a thirst for more success. It also brings a fair amount of scrutiny. Once your name is up in lights a few times, people really begin to take notice, they really begin to want to know why you’re so successful, what you’re doing right, what makes you tick.
They also may begin to explore the possibility of fairness, whether there’s some type of competitive advantage at play. Because if the same team wins all the time, there’s a lot less for people to talk about.
Dublin have borne the brunt of this type scrutiny over the past couple of years, and rightly so too, but in Páirc Uí Rinn on Sunday, we will see a version of it in miniature in the form of the culmination of the ‘little All-Ireland’ when Glen Rovers take on the three-in-a-row chasing Imokilly.
It’s a clash of two sides who’ve shared the last four titles between them equally and a clash that poses deep philosophical questions about the very essence of the GAA; the club. The fact that most neutral observers would probably prefer to see a victory for the Glen tells its own story, as they’re hardly minnows of the Cork hurling world, with twenty-seven titles to their name.
The truth of the matter is, however, that those same observers see Imokilly’s embarrassment of riches – Colm Spillane’s likely absence, for example, won’t be as important as it should be – as fundamentally unfair. The Glen is a club whereas Imokilly is a barony, stretching from Glanmire to Youghal and from Watergrasshill to Shanagarry.
The notion of divisions isn’t unique to Cork, but the notion of them isn’t properly discussed here in Cork until they have the gumption to start winning, as nobody really likes to see a club team losing out to a conglomeration.
In the history of the championship, a division has come out on top on eight occasions with half of those coming during the ‘90’s. Imokilly have won it four times, Avondhu three and Carbery just the once. UCC have also won it twice but their participation (and that of CIT) is a different type of existential question altogether.
An occasional divisional victory can be tolerated, even ignored but when there’s a threat of domination, well, that leads to serious scrutiny and motions at convention for the removal of the divisions from senior competitions. Just like the Glen’s one last December.
The mid-nineties were the last time that the divisional question was really in vogue as Carbery claimed the title in ’94, Avondhu did the same in ’96 before Imokilly put back-to-back titles together in ’97 and ’98.
Much like today, that Imokilly team was something else, with an incredible pool of talent. They boasted the cream of the emerging talent in Cork that won All-Ireland U-21 titles in the same years. Dónal Óg Cusack was in goal with Diarmuid O’Sullivan in front of him, as usual.
Timmy McCarthy, Brendan Coleman and Derek Barrett operated around the middle while Seán O’Farrell and Eoin Fitzgerald provided a bit of stardust up front. Throw in seasoned campaigners like Mark Landers, Ronan Dwane, Seán Barrett and Brian O’Driscoll and you have a team that no club team could realistically deal with, even if Sars and Blackrock were competitive in both finals.
And yet those two titles were their quota. They had lost a final to Avondhu already and managed to make it to another final in 2001, losing to Blackrock even though they had Joe Deane at their disposal, but until 2017, they couldn’t make it back to the final.
What happened? Well, a rising tide does indeed raise all boats. Cloyne won the IHC in 1997, depriving Imokilly of Cusack, O’Sullivan, Maurice Cahill and Philip Cahill. Imokilly were able to absorb the loss of one club, with Bernard Rochford’s replacement of Cusack an acute example of their strength and depth at the time.
However, Castlelyons followed Cloyne up to the senior ranks in 1998 and that was the end of Timmy McCarthy, Eoin Fitzgerald and Barry Fitzgerald. And east Cork clubs just kept getting promoted; Killeagh in 2001, Bride Rovers in 2003, St Catherine’s in 2004 and Carrigtwohill in 2007.
Change also came on the side-line, with the great Seánie O’Leary departing to become a key member of JBM’s backroom team that won the 1999 All-Ireland and later had the same role with Donál O’Grady.
The barony was weakened, and the reduced chance of winning must surely have had an impact on interest out east.
However, standards in the rest of the county went up too. Blackrock won three county titles, a little club from Newtownshandrum went senior in 1996 and won four while Erin’s Own, Na Piarsaigh, Sars and Midleton all tasted glory too.
Which all brings us neatly back to the present, with Imokilly and the Glen vying to match Sars’ three titles in this decade. All dominance is fleeting, as the Glen can attest to, and this current Imokilly team’s moment will pass too, it might even be this Sunday.
They’ll certainly be weakened in 2020 after Fr O’Neill’s victory in the PIHC last weekend while the re-jigging of the grades means they’ll have no Cloyne players available either. Castlelyons, Youghal, Aghada and Watergrasshill can all have realistic ambitions of following O’Neill’s up too. And who knows what Fergal Condon’s plans are after this year?
Other clubs will raise their standards also. Sars and Midleton have enjoyed enough recent success at underage level to be optimistic about their futures, the city clubs are rejuvenating while there’s sure to be other pretenders to add to the equation. There’s also hope that the new championship format would breed a stronger club scene in general.
As already mentioned, the re-jigging of the grades is reducing the number of clubs available to the divisions. It should probably go further and limit their pick to junior and possibly lower grade intermediate players as the idea of a junior player getting the chance to play senior hurling has a romantic notion to it.
However, maybe there are enough other opportunities to challenge yourself in the modern hurling world. After all, it was in UCC that Seamus Harnedy began to blossom.
There’s always the argument for their abolishment. It’s a fair one too, but not all the divisions are like Imokilly and Duhallow. The idea of senior players from other counties playing for the colleges seems far more unfair, but we said we’d stay away from that question.
A few club victories would ensure that all aspects of the divisional question would fade away again for a spell, but it will never really go away. For now, however, the only way to deal with it is on the pitch.