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Romance is not dead and buried in the GAA – it is still alive in the club championship

Regrettably there is no romance left the All-Ireland series these days.

Crossmaglen’s Dara O'Callaghan and Eoin McKearney of Ballybay battle on the Ulster stage© ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Sean McGoldrickSunday World

THERE was a time when the FA Cup mattered.

The romance of the Cup slogan still resonates even if I can’t remember who won the trophy last season.

Maybe, it has something to do with the aging process because I have vivid memories of earlier FA Cup finals stretching back to the 1971 decider between Arsenal and Liverpool.

I didn’t even have to look up the date. May 8, 1971. It was the fair day in my local town Manorhamilton.

I was up before dawn to help my father bring cattle to the fair which included a long seven-mile walk.

But my abiding memory of the day was listening to the BBC commentary on the game in my cousin’s car.

Arsenal won 2-1 with all the goals coming in extra time. Steve Heighway put Liverpool in front before the irrepressible Charlie George scored two to give the Gunners a victory.

Watching the FA Cup final became a ritual every May afterwards. Often the game failed to live up to the pre-match hype. Still, a few – particularly the upsets – linger in the memory bank.

Sunderland beating Leeds United in 1973 when the underdogs’ goalkeeper Jim Montgomery emerged as the hero; Southampton shocking Manchester United in 1976 and Ipswich Town doing likewise to Arsenal in 1978.

Incredibly, there were six Irishmen in the Arsenal side, Pat Jennings, Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson, David O’Leary, Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton.

The 1979 final was a classic. Back in their second consecutive final, Arsenal - with the same six Irishmen on board - strolled into a 2-0 lead against Manchester United.

But in a sensational finish, United scored goals in the 86th and 88th minutes before Alan Sunderland scored the winner for Arsenal in the final minute after Gary Bailey, the United keeper flapped at a cross.

And finally there was Ricky Villa’s famous solo winning goal for Spurs in the 1981 replay against Manchester City.

All those memories came flooding back while recently watching a BBC News report about non-league team Brackwell Town preparing for a first round FA tie against Ipswich Town.

This was the classic David v Goliath encounter with the ‘butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker’ taking on the pros. Alas, there was no fairy-tale ending. Ipswich won 3-0.

Regrettably there is no romance left the All-Ireland series these days.

However, romance is not dead and buried in the GAA. It is still alive in the club championship.

I couple of weeks ago I hit the road to watch Crossmaglen Rangers play Ballybay in the preliminary round of the Ulster club football championship at the Athletic Grounds.

A routine night at the office I assumed - as Crossmaglen were raging hot favourites.

After all they have won six All-Ireland, 11 provincial and 22 county titles since 1996. They had household names such as Aaron Kernan, who has won 17 Armagh championship medals, Jamie Clarke and current Armagh star Rian O’Neill.

In contrast, Ballybay were appearing in the series for the first time in a decade after beating favourites Scotstown in the Monaghan final.

But inspired by 39-year-old Paul Finlay, the Monaghan champions played out of their skins; they scored 1-7 and conceded 0-1 in the first 23 minutes of the second half.

So, it was a case of game, set and match to the underdogs. The result demonstrated that there is still a hint of romance in football.

The ‘minnows’ of the sporting world rarely manage to pull off back-to-back shock wins.

Ballybay got a reality check last Sunday when the defending Ulster and All-Ireland champions Kilcoo dismantled them in the quarter-final.

But everybody associated with the club will talk about what happened in the Athletic Grounds for a long, long time.

Likewise, Naas achieved a historic breakthrough last Saturday when they became the first Kildare hurling club in 46 years to reach the Leinster semi-final.

This has been a slow-burning story. They won the Feile naGael U-14 Division 2 title in 2014 and again in 2018.

They won the 2021 All-Ireland Intermediate club title earlier this year. Having retained the Kildare senior crown, they made made a stunning debut in the senior interprovincial club series last Saturday hammering first-time Offaly champions Shinrone.

Granted their fairy tale is likely to end next weekend when they face Kilkenny kingpins Ballyhale Shamrocks.

But as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote ‘to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour’.

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