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milestone Why the All-Ireland 'Club' championship deserves to take its rightful place in GAA’s roll of honour

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Ballymun Kickhams players celebrate after the Dublin County Senior 1 Football Championship Final

Ballymun Kickhams players celebrate after the Dublin County Senior 1 Football Championship Final

Ballymun Kickhams players celebrate after the Dublin County Senior 1 Football Championship Final

EVEN though new GAA President Larry McCarthy is only settling into his new role, he has already achieved a milestone: He is the first GAA President to have won an All-Ireland club medal. 

The Cork native was the substitute goalkeeper on the Thomond College team which won the Andy Merrigan Cup in 1978.

The Spillane brothers, Pat and Mick, Galway star and future Dublin selector Brian Talty as well as the late Richie Bell from Mayo all featured on the side which beat St John’s from Antrim in the decider.

Even though he didn’t feature on the field, McCarthy was a key figure behind the scenes, acting as club secretary and chief organiser of the project.

The competition was only in its infancy back then, having been officially recognised just seven years earlier. An unofficial All-Ireland club tournament had been played from the mid-sixties.

Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 competition and the prospects for the 2021 championship taking place on schedule hangs by a thread.

However, in a post pandemic Ireland, the club football series and its hurling counterpart will finally take their rightful place on the calendar.

The split season had the potential to revolutionise the club game with increased media coverage likely to raise its profile.

Granted, it will never be on par with the inter-county championship. Yet any footballer who has tasted glory in both, will acknowledge that winning the club pennant gives them more personal satisfaction than securing the Sam Maguire Cup.

Twenty-seven different clubs have won the Andy Merrigan Cup with Munster leading the way on two counts. Nine different clubs from three counties, Kerry, Cork, and Limerick have tasted glory, while Cork giants Nemo Rangers lead the roll of honour with seven triumphs.

Uniquely, Billy Morgan has won All-Ireland medals with both Cork and Nemo Rangers as well as managing both teams to All-Ireland glory.

Statistically there is a better spread of winners in the club series compared to the All-Ireland championship. Only 19 different counties have won the championship since its inception in 1887.

According to statistics compiled by Padraic Farrelly, Kerry have produced more winners than any other county with East Kerry (1), Austin Stacks 1), Castleisland Desmonds (1) Laune Rangers (1) and Dr Crokes (2) all winning. After East Kerry's win in the inaugural 1971 competition divisional teams were barred from competing.

Four Dublin clubs St Vincent’s (3), Kilmacud Crokes (2), UCD (2) and Ballyboden St Enda’s (1) have their names on the trophy.

It’s a shame that the competition was abandoned last year because the Ballymun Kickhams side which features Dublin players, James McCarthy, Dean Rock, the Small brothers, John, and Paddy as well as Philip McMahon and sub goalkeeper Evan Comerford, would have been the front runners to win after their emphatic win in Dublin.

They are one of the most high-profile club sides not to have won, though the Gaeltacht club from West Kerry - which featured a host of Kerry All-Ireland winners including the O Sé brothers, Darragh, Tomas and Marc as well as Dara O Cinneide and Aodan MacGearailt failed at the final hurdle in 2004.

For the record, the other provincial front runners are Crossmaglen Rangers (6) of Ulster, Corofin (5) of Galway and St Vincent’s (3), Leinster.

The club championship gives players in the weaker counties a more realistic shot at winning an All-Ireland medal, as proven by the fact that St Gall’s (Antrim), Portlaoise (Laois), St Brigid’s (Roscommon) and perhaps most famously of all, Baltinglass (Wicklow), have all been winners.

On the other hand, some of the counties who feature regularly in the race for Sam have never produced an All-Ireland club winner.

Tyrone is the prime example. Even though they produced three Sam Maguire-winning sides between 2003 and 2008, no Tyrone club has ever featured in an All-Ireland club final.

It is the only senior honour which eluded the legendary Peter Canavan – his Errigal Ciarán side won Ulster titles in 1993 and 2002 but were beaten in the All-Ireland semi-final by eventual winners Nemo Rangers on both occasions.

Donegal clubs have a woeful record not just in the All-Ireland but in the Ulster championship. In 1975 St Joseph’s, an amalgamated team from Bundoran-Ballyshannon spearheaded by Brian McEniff, won the provincial title but they had to wait until 2018 for their next winners, Gaoth Dobhair.

Finally, spare a thought for Roscommon side Clann na nGael, the competition’s perennial bridesmaids. They contested five finals, including four-in-a-row between 1987 and 1990, but lost them all.

Overall, the best may be yet to come. Once the pandemic is over, stand by for the All-Ireland club championship to take its rightful elevated place in the association’s roll of honour.

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