Second tier heroes get big day out with Tailteann Cup as important to these players as the Sam Maguire

Cavan’s Mickey Graham, Westmeath’s Jack Cooney, Offaly’s John Maughan and Sligo’s Tony McEntee. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Colm O'Rourke

It is neither patronising nor an exaggeration to say that this is one of the biggest days in the whole championship year.

The Tailteann Cup semi-finals, with four smaller counties — Cavan (though they might not agree), Sligo, Westmeath and Offaly — playing in Croke Park may not amount to a hill of beans in many people’s eyes, but this is more than a little different. First of all, they are playing their fifth championship match so there is a body of work under the bonnet that has rarely, if ever, been completed before.

I’m not into stats much, but I wonder did any of these, apart from possibly Cavan, ever play five championship matches in one year? And the winners today will play six. Maybe Cavan did it back in the 1940s or ’50s, when the Breffni men looked at the date of the Ulster final and just wondered who they would be playing in it. Nothing lasts forever.

Cavan could easily have turned their royal noses up at the Tailteann Cup and decided it was beneath their station. After all, they were Ulster champions less than two years ago and now they are thrown into the secondary competition. Yet that was not their attitude at all. No illusions of grandeur, they merely decided to muck in. This is a real compliment to Mickey Graham, his management team, the county board and most importantly, the players.

My big fear at the start of this competition was that many of the students, who seem to make up a large proportion of county teams, might decide to jump ship in May and head for the States. Who could blame them? It is happening in every club. Young men have been locked up for a few years and a rite of passage is a summer in some place like Boston, New York, Chicago or some other big city in the (Dis)United States of America.

The best will get their fare paid and a place to put their feet up, along with about 20 others in the same apartment. The kind of money supposedly paid is generally greatly exaggerated. Normally that can be cut in half and then subtract 25 per cent.

Even without any benefits, this is part of a young person’s education. The football is still taken very seriously but the living is easy and you don’t have to be long in New York to be classified as a barman, or a painter in Boston, or a chippie in Chicago.

So there has been sacrifice for some to hang around for the summer, even if those who lose today may still avail of the last flights. It’s not exactly like the last planes out of Saigon when the Americans left, but it is a chance for new experiences. And with most club championships not starting until August, there is an opportunity to get away from the treadmill of training, game, training, rush, rush, rush.

You can gather from this that I am a fan of the Tailteann Cup. I always compare it to clubs playing intermediate or junior championship. It is just as important to them as a senior championship and rightly so. In the Socialist Republic of the GAA, championships of all descriptions should be equal. Now it might be pushing it a bit to put Sam Maguire and the Tailteann Cup on the same level but Rome was not built in a day.

This afternoon, then, is big. Especially for the players. Growing up, we all had the dream of playing in Croke Park. When I played there first for the Meath minors I thought it was the experience of a lifetime and fortunately, because we are in Leinster, it was repeated on a regular basis, maybe 50 times or more. Those who laboured just as hard in other provinces did not get the unique thrill of playing in that great field. That was wrong.

Today is not about righting the wrongs of the past, but it is a statement of intent that there won’t be the same level of discrimination against those who happen to be born on the wrong side of some line on a map. It’s hardly on the same scale as the abolition of slavery, but it’s important nonetheless that the GAA as a national force is going to treat every county as equal partners.

Hopefully these games will be great occasions for all and will be hard fought with another big day beckoning for the winners. There has to be losers too, and disappointment, with the worst part being that it will be many months before county teams assemble again and momentum may be lost. Clubs deserve their time too. Today will see effort and commitment to compare with any game. Maybe Cavan and Westmeath will still be standing at the long whistle.

Last weekend tidied up all the loose ends for the All-Ireland quarter-finals. There was ecstasy in Clare, especially in the manner of their victory, and there will be a lot of regrets in Roscommon and Kildare. I know myself that a loss like that was a guarantee of many sleepless nights and I’m sure the modern players are no different.

You can use all the words you like about Clare — brave, wholehearted, passionate — and all seem bound together with a brilliant attitude. The sense of calmness comes from Colm Collins and Clare seem to play in the same way whether in front or behind. Yet for all that, Roscommon must wonder how in the name of the good Lord above they managed to lose a match they were in complete control of — five points up and only seven or eight minutes to go.

In many respects the leaking of 1-3 without reply in the last few minutes summed up their team. They could score easily, but were always liable to concede a big score too. Matches with Roscommon turn into shoot-outs with big scores on both sides. To progress further Roscommon need to discover or develop a few backs who can mind the house. Clare, though, march on without any fear. Derry should not be fooled into thinking that they have got an easy quarter-final.

The springer in the market from last week was Armagh. Not only have they propelled themselves into the race as serious contenders, but they also finished Donegal in their present form. Donegal now have plenty of time to reflect and rebuild and change their style either slightly or greatly. Their three big driving forces for the last decade, Michael Murphy, Paddy McBrearty and Ryan McHugh are not the players they once were and there is a need for some willing horses to come along and pull their share of the load.

Yet for all that, Donegal probably played their best football for years in the first 20 minutes of this game. That first half was a wonderful contest and as good a game as anyone could wish to see. For Armagh to weather the storm is testimony to their resilience, belief and ability, even if some big wins turn on individual events.

Without doubt the penalty and black card to Donegal goalkeeper Shaun Patton changed the whole mood of the game, even if Armagh were slowly taking control at that stage. The tide turned and Armagh were ruthless in their execution. In two Sundays Armagh have tamed two big dogs. There is a tide behind them that won’t be easily stopped.

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