Seán Moran: Hurling counts its winners as football ponders its disappearing audience

Sense of unease as All-Ireland football series opens to underwhelming crowds while Munster hurling attendances continue to soar

How has it been for you: happy, apprehensive, dejected?

Obviously, that will depend on how the county is doing, as it’s hard to knit common experiences from the lot of say, a Tipperary hurling follower and Donegal football supporter. But what about your general feelings on how things are going overall?

This weekend we will arrive at the halfway point of this year’s championship. Already, the All-Ireland football is up and running. Hurling has completed the first part of its season – the busy part – with the provinces wrapped up if that’s not too strange a thing to say when the Munster and Leinster finals haven’t yet been played.

It is difficult not to be hit by the sense of unease in football country – most apparent in relation to the precipitous decline in spectator interest.

Connacht and Ulster have kept the provincial championships afloat between the buzz currently surrounding Donegal and the re-emergence of an old school Galway v Mayo final in the west.

Leinster was particularly badly affected with pitiful crowds attending both the football semi-finals and final and the weekend brought further bad news with Wexford narrowly failing to reach the hurling final, which would have had their eager supporters flooding up the M11.

Instead, the provincial council will have to make do with the more prosaic box-office appeal of a Kilkenny (for the seventh year running) and Dublin final, which 10 years ago, with Dublin defending the Leinster title, drew 32,527 to Croke Park. Wexford’s most recent final, five years ago, was watched by more than 50,000.

The All-Ireland football round robins have most of the country agog with apathy. Dublin footballers had an ultimately resounding win over Roscommon, who took a point off them last year, in front of crowd so small the GAA decided to keep it a secret.

Hurling has been an entirely different experience, especially in Munster, with crowds climbing all the time and this year certain to create another aggregate attendance record.

After another triumphant closing weekend in the provincial championships, with only Kilkenny of the eight competing counties already assured of progression going into it, it would be easy to lose sight of how random the adoption of the hugely successful championship structure was.

When football was embarking on its round-robin All-Ireland quarter-finals, a 2012 proposal to run the provincial hurling championships on the same basis was dusted down as an afterthought and has proved a stroke of genius.

Winners so far have been Limerick, Cork, Dublin and to an extent Wexford, who have turned around an initially dire season to book their ticket for the All-Ireland stages.

Limerick survived a poor opening performance, largely because of Clare’s charity, but they have escaped from Munster looking to emulate the last two years by shooting upwards as they head for Croke Park. They are now at large.

Cork had to survive genuine jeopardy at the weekend and the cards fell their way. There has been some reconsideration of their inevitable rise, which broke out after they defeated Limerick in that thrilling encounter, in the context of the champions’ indestructible metamorphosis back into leading contenders.

The attractions, however, of Croke Park’s hard track are as appealing to Cork as to Limerick and the All-Ireland stages may well see them resuming the rivalry.

If that sounds like faint praise for Kilkenny and Clare, their provincial campaigns have been hindered to an extent by injuries but they survive to go into the finals in Leinster and Munster.

Clare don’t look quite as powerful as in the past two years and had real battles on their hands in the wins over Cork, Waterford and Tipperary but they would probably have taken that given the lack of Tony Kelly’s full engagement in Munster while rehabbing.

Kilkenny appeared set fair when drawing with Galway in Salthill despite travelling without four key players but uninspiring displays followed in a draw against Carlow and narrow wins over Dublin and Wexford.

It might appear unfair that Kilkenny aren’t numbered among the winners given that they beat two of the counties who are included but so far they have raised more questions than answers

Dublin have had an outstanding year to date. Under Micheál Donoghue, the panel has been overhauled. He took over as a dozen players either retired or opted out and, since then, only Chris Crummey has returned.

“He’s a colossal man and it’s not just his hurling,” said his manager after the Galway win. “Over the last few weeks since he came back from Australia, he’s been a leader in the group and he’s leading by his actions, which is great.”

Crummey’s impact has been immense in recent matches, marauding forward from wing back and scoring 0-7 against Kilkenny and Galway, winning him the GAA.ie Hurler of the Week award.

Effectively Dónal Burke is another returning player after the long-term injury that wrecked last year for him and in the last two matches he has posted 1-24, between great free-taking and 1-8 from play.

Losers have been obvious and it’s ironic that Tipperary and Galway, whose epic All-Ireland matches in the last decade were such a feature of those summers, have fallen away so drastically this season. Their championships at an end, both face rebuilding. After two years, Liam Cahill sounded confident that he would be steering Tipp in that direction.

In Galway after the Dublin defeat, Henry Shefflin didn’t sound so certain about his future. Five years ago, a similar result signalled the end of Micheál Donoghue’s All-Ireland-winning reign in Galway. Has he now triggered the same fate for one of his successors?

email: sean.moran@irishtimes.com

Read More

Recommended