The late Eugene McGee was a man of many talents, but pulling punches was never one of them.
Eighteen years after guiding Offaly to the most famous SFC All-Ireland victory of all time, McGee had the pleasure of hailing his native Longford for winning the O’Byrne Cup in 2000, all after a famous derby fiery local with Westmeath.
But that did not prevent the Irish Independent columnist to let rip. “These days,” wrote McGee, “most of the so-called ‘big’ Leinster counties treat this competition like dirt. They insult the whole logic of the O’Byrne Cup by fielding skeleton teams when the decent thing for them would be to say they don’t care about injured Leinster players because they themselves can afford to s take care of their own wounded.
“But for Leinster’s Third World football counties such as Wexford, Carlow, Kilkenny, Westmeath and Longford, the O’Byrne Cup has real meaning because it gives them the chance to win something.
“The last time Longford won a trophy was when they won the Senior Championship from Leinster in 1968. It’s no wonder that at the end of yesterday’s game Cusack Park in Mullingar looked like Croke Park in the good old days of Sam Maguire presentations when it was still politically correct for fans to congregate outside the presentation area.
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Opponents regard the O’Byrne Cup and its provincial counterparts – the McKenna, McGrath and FBD tournaments – as Gaelic football’s version of post-Yuletide purgatory, a masochistic punishment for highly trained players and frozen fans to endure after all indulgences. Christmas and out of season.
Ditto with their hurling equivalents in Leinster and Munster.
But others really care. When Longford toppled Westmeath 22 years ago, 9,231 people were in Mullingar to witness their finest hour. As for the gory details? Well, it was a stormy affair played out in a storm; one player from each side was sent off, including current Westmeath boss Jack Cooney; while then County Manager Brendan Lowry was banished to the dugout and given a lengthy suspension which was later overturned on appeal.
When Meath inflicted a similar result on Westmeath in 2004, 14,612 flocked to the same venue, drawn not just by that simmering rivalry of the early 2000s, but also by the arrival of a new water-walking messiah from Lake County, Páidí Ó Sé, another legend no longer with us.
Weeks earlier, after a semi-final win over Carlow, Ó Sé had justified the Westmeath scattergun shootout as “the time of year to blow the dirty petrol”.
It was classic Páidí, but that phrase also summed up the erratic appeal of those January getaways. We know football/hurling is often strenuous. According to the weather gods, it can also be low; although playing indoors in the Connacht Air Dome this month changed everything.
But as McGee lamented all those years ago, do today’s big counties even care?
Here comes the fascinating part. In recent weeks Dublin have used 10 of the players who started their All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo last August, while Kerry have used 12 from the side that succumbed to Tyrone a fortnight later. So much for January’s shadow boxing. Dublin beat Offaly, Louth and Longford by a combined 31 points to reach the O’Byrne Cup final this afternoon against Laois, at Netwatch Cullen Park (3.0).
Meanwhile, Kerry pulverized Limerick by 23 points and Tipperary by 21 to advance to the McGrath Cup decider against old foe Cork (2.0). Thursday night, with a cap of 5,000 spectators at Fitzgerald Stadium, it was nearly sold out. The release of an additional 3,000 tickets last night, after Covid restrictions were lifted, indicated the level of demand.
They may have ulterior motives that have nothing to do with lifting a canister in the dead of winter, but Dessie Farrell and Jack O’Connor messed up enough to put some game time in Brian Fenton’s legs, Seán O’Shea and many more of their kind marquee.
This is all a far cry from the last three years of the Jim Gavin era, when the bathing suit bib passed to Paul Clarke who would select a team of young (and sometimes not so young) Sky Blue contenders.
With their heroes from all over Ireland in cold storage (as they recovered from their last team vacation), Dublin used the event purely as a development tool. Not without some success: A team uncharitably portrayed as third string won the O’Byrne Cup in 2017, when Niall Scully’s stellar form cemented his place in Gavin’s long-term plans.
Two years prior, when Dublin had also prevailed, Dean Rock had blazed a prolific path in January to establish himself as Gavin’s first free-taker.
So the competition can have real social benefits – even if doubters were to question the value of making 23 substitutions when they narrowly lost to Longford in 2020.
It was Farrell’s managerial baptism and he left with a rolling team made up almost entirely of rookies. While this year, against the backdrop of the implosion of six consecutive champions against Mayo, he mixed and matched team leaders with rookies, many of whom came from former U-20 teams.
He used 39 players in three group matches; their only current All-Star, Ciarán Kilkenny, has started twice and has already gone 0-8. After last Saturday’s 11-point win at Longford, Farrell described it as a two-way approach to seeing which new players are “able to step up” while improving the sharpness of his key players ahead of the league.
Next up for the Dubs is Laois, who overcame a worrying start – conceding six goals at Wexford a fortnight ago – to reach the final via a dramatic penalty shootout against Kildare on Wednesday night.
After several depressing fallow years, Laois fans and their new manager, Billy Sheehan, would surely relish a morale-boosting victory. . . but they will have to earn it the hard way.
Likewise Cork today under Keith Ricken, given that his counterpart relied on so many Kerry beacons. Jack O’Connor gave the McGrath Cup minutes to 29 players, including the county’s three current All-Stars: Tom O’Sullivan and Paudie Clifford started both games, while David Clifford drew 1-4 in his cameo in the first half against Limerick.
So often Munster monopolists Kerry haven’t won the McGrath Cup since 2017. They didn’t enter for the next two seasons. For the 2020 competition, with the senior squad vacationing in Thailand, Peter Keane handed over to U-20s boss John Sugrue, whose draw selection was crushed by Cork, 6-19 to 2-9.
This year, it’s conceivable that O’Connor would have put blood on several other new panelists, but for the fact that they were linked to the club.
Against this, the veteran boss sent plenty of criticism (including a scathing rebuke from Westmeath’s Ray Connellan) for bringing Tony Brosnan and Jack Savage late against Tipp after the duo played Sigerson Cup football earlier in the season. daytime.
It was only last November that these sporadically popular competitions were given a stay of execution by the Central Council. With a new SFC model seemingly set to be given the green light, it remains to be seen if room will be found in next year’s schedule.
For Farrell and O’Connor, however, 2023 can wait. If winning today helps them win in July, they won’t complain.