The Back Door and All That Lark
Tipperary G.A.A. Yearbook 1998, pp 51-53
The meeting of Clare and Tipperary in the 1997 All-Ireland senior hurling final has caused frantic flutterings in the dovecotes of the traditionalists. It's not right that two teams from the same province should contest the All-Ireland. It's not acceptable that a team beaten in the championship should have a second crack at winning it! And, it's definitely not fair to the Munster champions to have to beat in the All-Ireland the same team they put away in the Munster final!
All very true no doubt and a far cry from the traditional knock-out championship. And, we're not going to finish with it this year: It is an experiment and it's going to run for another year. The aim and intention behind it was twofold: it is an attempt to increase the number of hurling games available in the championship and to take into consideration the state of the game in Ulster and Connacht.
In the latter case Galway have traditionally had a direct entree to the All-Ireland semi-final in spite of the best intentions of the Roscommons and the Londons. In Ulster, there are two teams but, with only two exceptions in over a century, neither Antrim or Down is a realistic contender for All-Ireland honours. By allowing in the beaten finalists of Munster and Leinster, Central Council was trying to ensure that the best hurling teams in the country qualified for the All-Ireland semi-finals.
THE BACK DOOR
One of the worst aspersions cast at the new system is the way it allows teams back into the championship by the back door! The term is intended to be properly derogatory and suggests that no right-minded team with respectable credentials would demean itself by using this mode of entry. The manly man with his chest out will walk up to the front door while the sleeveen with the servile mentality will sneak around to the back entrance. There is a definite implication that he has no right to be there. So, should Tipperary snuffle away to the undergrowth and get lost? No! I hardly think so.
In fact, we're very familiar with the back door in the county. Ever since 1977, when the open draw for the county senior hurling championship was abolished, we have been living with the back door entry into the championship and no one has ever taken a blind bit of notice. Even worse, with divisions we have many variations of this kind of entry. There's the losers group in some divisions, a league-championship system in others and they all facilitate teams which get beaten.
This system has a long ancestry. At the North convention in Nenagh on 8th March, 1953, the chairman stated that 'the senior hurling championship (of 1952) was carried out under a new scheme and he and everyone else thought that the 'Lorrha scheme' worked well. He called it the 'Lorrha scheme' because it was moved by Rev. Fr. O'Meara of the Lorrha club and carried at the last convention.' According to this motion the senior championship was played on a knockout system with teams beaten in the first round forming a group for play-off among themselves with the winning team being given a place in the semi-finals of the championship proper. So, are we to blame Lorrha for the whole back door policy? Over forty years later the system still obtains in the North championship.
THE COUNTY FOLLOWS
The County Board put an end to the straight knock-out system of running the county championship in 1960. At convention in that year it was decided that two teams would come forward from each division, with the winners meeting the losers from another division and the losers meeting the winners. The four winners in the quarter-finals were put into an open draw for the semi-finals and resulted in repeats of the Mid and the North finals. Toomevara defeated Kilruane MacDonaghs as they had done in the North final and Thurles Sarsfields beat Holycross/Ballycahill in a repeat of the Mid final. In the county final Toomevara defeated Sarsfields and stopped them winning six-in-a-row.
There was a change in 1961. The number of teams contesting the county championship was reduced to six, two quarter-finals. The runners-up in the North and the Mid played the winners of the South and the West, parallelling the system in operation for the All-Ireland championship this year. This system continued to operate until 1966 when it was decided that two teams from each division would contest the county championship, and this remained the case until the introduction of the open draw in 1969. During the period 1961 -'65 when there were two quarter-finals, the runners-up North and the Mid were successful every occasion bar one. That was in 1965 when South winners, Carrick Davins, beat North runners-up, Lorrha by a point. The winners went on to qualify for the final, drew with Thurles Sarsfields and lost the replay. They were to be winners in 1966 and 1967.
It's interesting to identify who were the backdoor champions during this period. When Sarsfields won their tenth county final in 11 years in 1965 they did so through the back door: they were beaten by Moycarkey/Borris in the final. Moycarkey did the same thing in 1984 when they became centenary champions. Does anyone think any less of them because they were beaten by Drom/lnch in the Mid final? One of the most celebrated examples is Borrisoleigh in 1986. League winners in the North, they beat the championship runners-up, qualified for the county championship, beat the North champions in the county final and went on to win a. club All-Ireland! And there are even more back door champions in the nineties. Toomevara used this route in 1992 and 1993, Nenagh in 1995 Boherlahan in 1996!
And, it didn't happen only in Tipperary. There is a very obvious example of the back door in the history of the Munster championship. We all look back with a feeling of hurt and a sense of aggrievement at what happened in 1941. That was the year of the foot and mouth and the curtailment of G.A.A. activity in parts of Munster, particularly County Tipperary. As a result, the county was prevented playing the Munster championship and Cork were nominated to play in the All-Ireland series. And, because they were beaten later by Tipperary in the Munster final, it could be said they got into the All-Ireland retrospectively through the back. To make matters worse, from a Tipp point of view, they not only won the All-Ireland but went on to win four-in-a-row!
There is another aspect of this whole development that is causing consternation among the traditionalists and that is idea of two teams from the same province playing the All-Ireland final. Sure, it's not right at all! I suppose it won't be any consolation to them to point out that the county final in Tipperary was fought out on at least 10 occasions since 1970 by teams from the same division.
Without delving too deeply into hisory it is worth pointing out that the first All-Ireland in 1887 was played under an open draw system. Initially 12 teams enterred and there was a completely open draw. Eventually, only five teams participated, Tipperary, Galway, Wexford, Clare and Kilkenny. As we areare Tipperary played Galway in the All-Ireland but it could have as easily been Clare had the draws gone differently. So, it has taken all those years in meantime for us to meet them in the Ireland.
BIZARRE AND UNBELIEVABLE
One of the most bizarre and unbelievable episodes in the history of All-Ireland finals occurred in the 1925 football All-Ireland. It's the last occasion, as far as I know, when two teams from the same province contested an All-Ireland I. The two teams were Galway and Mayo. The record books will show you the result of the Connacht final as Galway 1-5, Mayo 1-3. Then if you go to the
All-Ireland semi-finals they will show Kerry 1-7 Cavan 2-3, Mayo 2-4 Wexford 1-4. And, if you look for the Ireland champions you will read, Galway!!!
How did this come about? The Connacht football championship had fallen terribly behind when Central Council fixed the All-Ireland semi-finals for 30th August and requested the Connacht Council to nominate a team. The other provinces had completed their championships but the first rounds hadn't yet been finalised in the west. Galway and Leitrim had drawn twice and Roscomn had drawn with Sligo so, by August, the first round hadn't been completed.
As Mayo were the provincial champions of 1924, they were nominated to represent Connacht in the All-Ireland sim-final. Drawn against Wexford they defeated them by a goal in Croke Park. In the other semi-final Kerry defeated Cavan by one point at Tralee. Cavan objected to Kerry having illegal players and Kerry counter-objected that Cavan had illegal players. The Central Council disqualified both teams.
So, Mayo were All-Ireland champions? Such was to be the case in 1941 when Cork, the nominated team of Munster, got a bye into the All-Ireland and defeated Dublin. In 1925 it was different. As Mayo were only a nominated team, the All-Ireland of 1925 depended on who would emerge as Connacht champions. And, so it was to be. (I wonder who changed the rules between then and 1941).
But, to get back to Connacht in 1925. Galway eventally beat Leitrim in their third outing and Sligo beat Roscommon in their replay. Then, Mayo beat Sligo in a memorable semi-final and qualified to meet Galway in the final. The Connacht final and the All-Ireland final now lay between the two teams. The game was played in Parkmore, Tuam, later a racecourse and presently a soul-less housing estate, on 18th October. An enthusiastic crowd turned up. A Galway man, Stephen Jordan, was the referee and 'no better man in Connacht could have been selected ... and to the best of his ability carried out a duty which to him, being a Galway man, was a great responsibility,' the Western People reported. The upshot of the game was that Galway, relying more on weight and strength and rush rather than stylish, systematic play, beat Mayo by 1-5 to 1-3. The cynics would probably say: sure, why wouldn't they win and they having their own referee as well as the venue!
Back in the council chambers the heat rose appreciably toward the end of November when a letter from M. Barrett, secretary of the Mayo County Board, questioned the validity of the Central Council in awarding the Ail-Ireland title to Galway on foot of their win over Mayo. The county contended and argued their case strongly, that they had been led to believe that they were All-Ireland champions and that they considered the game against Galway as being merely the Connacht final. Had it been the All-Ireland final it should have been played in Croke Park, as per the rule book.
The argument came to naught. The Central Council confirmed Galway as All-Ireland champions for 1925. But the Council must have had some reservations about its decision. It decided to present a set of gold medals to the winners of an interprovincial football competition between Cavan and Kerry, Galway and Wexford. Kerry refused to take part in this new competition. Galway defeated Wexford and later had a comfortable win over Cavan, thus proving, perhaps, they were the best team of 1925. On top of that they got three sets of medals in all.
What it all proves is not too clear. There is a precedent for two teams from the same province meeting in an All-Ireland final, although the circumstances are much different. It also shows that there were two totally different interpretations put on the question of nominating teams. Had what prevailed in Connacht in 1925, obtained in Munster in 1941, the Munster final on 26th October would also have been the All-Ireland final and it would further have established the precedent of two teams from the province meeting in an All-Ireland final.
AN OPEN DRAW
Regardless of the outcome of this two-year experiment of allowing beaten finalists back into the championship, there does appear to be an opening for a break from the traditional way of running the All-Ireland series. There are good arguments for an open draw, separate and distinct from the provincial championships. Such a draw would preferably have 12 teams, with four preliminary rounds, followed by quarterfinals, semi-finals and final. At the moment the 12 teams would be Clare, Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny, Offaly, Dublin, Antrim, Down and Galway. An open 'B' championship could also be run and a system of promotion / relegation worked out between the two. This would give us 11 championship games. Added to that would be the provincial championships with as many more hurling games. I do not believe the provincial championship would suffer: it was still desirable to win the divisional championship in this county, when the open draw was in operation. The system would give us more hurling games, greater exposure of the game and more exciting television.
Whether one is for or against the present experiment, one has to admit that it has increased the interest in hurling to an incredible degree. (I do admit that the sponsorship of Guinness with their imaginative and dramatic advertising campaign has also played its part, as also the increased televising of the games). By the time the 65,000 capacity attendance is added to this year's All-Ireland hurling championship figures, an increase of 25% will have to be achieved. More than 483,000 will have attended the matches as against 395,000 last year. Compared with 1995 the increase is even more dramatic, up 58% on that year. This is encouraging news and didn't happen out of the blue but because a few farsighted people had the courage to look beyond the cosy and the familiar.