It’s definitely the time of year for reflection and so here’s John Cuffe with some analysis on the notion of winning Sam just the once. Special thanks to Peadar at The Design Gang for the graphic that accompanies this piece.
Yep that’s what the song says. To win just once and we would all die happy or at least we would die knowing. It’s the unbearable tantalising mirage that we see shimmer across Croke Park every four years on a late September since 1989 in our case. Almost there and then, hey presto, back to the house of pain.
I did a rough trawl of the All-Irelands since 1960. Again I caution you, I am open to correction here. Fifty-four years have been debited from my ledger since 1960. Mayo has also run up the red ink. What does the fifty-four year spell tell us? Well firstly how damn hard it is to win Sam or if you are a Kerryman, how damn regular you grab the big boy by the lugs.
The facts are straightforward. The All-Ireland senior title has been won by eleven teams since 1960. Strip out Kerry and Dublin who have amassed twenty-five between them, leaving twenty-nine to be scrapped for between the other nine.
The roll call goes thus: Kerry 17, Dublin 8, Galway, Meath, Down with 5, Cork 4, Offaly and Tyrone with 3, Donegal 2, and Derry and Armagh a single each. Apart from Derry and Armagh, all the other winners won multiple All-Irelands. So to win just once tends to mean you might win twice and more.
Looking at the provincial demographics we see that Munster are über all. Two counties, namely Kerry and Cork, have 21 titles between them. Leinster with Dublin, Offaly and Meath hold 16. Ulster has Down, Tyrone, Donegal, Derry and Armagh with a total of 12. Here we might avert our eyes – Galway prop Connacht with 5. Well, we in Mayo have tried, that much is for sure.
Having looked at the losing finalists I got a surprise. I assumed that we would have a varied group outside the serial and lucky winners. We didn’t, in fact we have just three teams that have got to that last hurdle outside the eleven winners. They are Roscommon in 1962 and 1980, Kildare in 1998 and Mayo a whooping seven times in 1989, ‘96, ‘97, ‘04, ‘06, ‘12, ‘13. Not another visitor to Croke Park outside the 11+3. That means a staggering 19 counties – if we exclude Kilkenny and include New York and London – have grazed on thin grass all those years.
Image: The Design Gang
In case anyone thinks it gets better by going back further, don’t. Taking the 1950s into account we can add on Mayo, Cavan and Louth as winners. Hell, we actually have to go back to 1936 to get a fresh face, a loser at that, as thankfully Mayo tanked the Boy Wonders team, Laois. So we actually see this race for Sam, to win just once, actually has a very select membership. It is limited to about fourteen counties since 1930.
The Sixties saw five different counties claim the All-Ireland. The Seventies saw that reduced to four, going back up to five in the Eighties but allowing for Kerry’s dominance. The Nineties saw a healthy eight counties grab the big lad but that was reduced to four in the Noughties as Galway and Armagh split Kerry and Tyrone’s dominance. Whatever you choose to call from 2010 onwards has an ominous trend. Dublin has grabbed two out of the last four.
Trends develop amid those stats, Dublin like the threes, picking up titles in 1963 and 1983 against Galway. Again this year they added another against western opposition. Donegal like the twos, picking up titles in 1992 and 2012, once shoehorning Mayo in a semi and once in a final. Down took three titles in the Sixties, Tyrone did likewise in the Noughties. Ask Kerry about both sides. Offaly are also partial to Kerry especially if it’s a two. The five-in-a-row was halted in 1982 along with a clean bowler in 1972 that saw the demise of the great Micks – O’Dwyer and O’Connell.
Kerry you can permutate virtually any way. Wins in 1970, 1980 and 2000 along with 1969, 1979 and 2009. If we look at 1991 to 1995 we see a five D with Down, Donegal, Derry, Down and Dublin winning successive All-Irelands. What are the chances of a repeat next year and the year after? We have a triple D in place already with 2011 Dublin, 2012 Donegal, 2013 Dublin. Had Down did what they always did, i.e. win the All-Ireland final in 2010 v Cork we would be well on the road already. Can we say that next year’s All-Ireland winners will sport the letter D as their opening letter, Dublin or Donegal, Down or Derry?
Of course I have an idle head, why else would I write this type of stuff but Colm O’Rourke got me thinking. In his weekly Sunday column he posited the common-sense approach taken at club level. Each county has its own Senior, Intermediate and Junior competition. Teams progress up and down the ladder, each grade having a proud status. At inter-county level we persist with a one-fit-all type of competition. A sop taken with the back door saw the big guns get a second chance thus robbing the underdog of his day in the sun. Instead of narrowing the gap it has actually widened it.
So we have, let’s pick a random one here – Sligo, they will never win an All-Ireland…ok? Not because John Cuffe says it; no, John’s people were Sligo on the Quay side. History not Johnny boy says it. Cold and calculating history says that. A county that has won three Connacht titles at senior, two at minor (one being an objection and you know what they say about a cup won on an objection, you will never have any luck). The most glaring gap is that they have not a single U21 title.
I pick Sligo but you can pick another ten solid counties caught similarly either with a lack of personnel or clubs or that damn indefinable variable, history. A graded system would allow teams to progress incrementally up the three grades. Measured sustainable success or lack of it would come to the front quickly, thus allowing that particular county to be no longer making up the numbers with the only prize on offer, the chance to get back inter-county training in November, the ultimate insult to the loser.
We in Mayo know how hard it is to win just once. Team after team has stumbled short of the flag-planting ceremony. Our minors have bitten dust in 1991, ‘99, ‘00, ‘05, ‘08 and ‘09 before getting to paradise this year. Even then it was slightly dampened because big brother got mugged in the yard. It’s never easy but we are lucky in a way, we get a glimpse, a taste and a day out.
Pity poor Cavan, their last minor team to get to a final was back in 1959. Sligo was in 1968 where my school mates Ritchie Boland and John Kilgallon starred for them. Pity the poor counties that will man up next summer, managers given unrealistic riding instructions, supporters believing impossible dreams. Counties will have psychologists, stats men, men wired up with phones, men who break up icebergs for tired legs, men who will slog through mud and abuse all year for a glimpse of a sunny day and a dry sod.
Like going over the top in the Somme, by the time July comes most will have been mown down. That’s not how it should be but that’s how it will be. History rarely gets it wrong. You can be sure that next year’s All-Ireland winner and finalist will come from two of between eleven and fourteen teams. The rest will listen and hum to the Saw Doctors, dream on and hope to win just once.