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17 November 2005 Edition

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Provincial clash generates winter heat

BY Matt Treacy

When St Patrick's Day was dry — as in alcohol free rather than being little more than an excuse to get publicly pissed — and the only place where you could get a pint legitimately was at the Dog Show in the RDS, the inter-provincial finals, or Railway Cup as it was then, was about the most interesting event in Dublin apart from the parade.

Barely warmed up by a bowl of soup after watching what seemed like every truck and exhibitionist in the city pass by, off we went to Croke Park to be re-frozen. In the late 1970s it was a chance to see the footballers of Dublin and Kerry, and the hurlers of Kilkenny and Cork do battle in different colour jerseys. And to see players from other counties that you wouldn't normally get the chance. Even by then, however, the competition had gone into serious decline and there were small crowds which provided neither atmosphere nor shelter from the bitter elements.

The competitions continued to fade through the 1980s and 1990s to the point where there was intermittent talk of getting rid of them altogether. Only the attachment to 'tradition' saved them but they continued to suffer the worst of Oscar Wilde's social stigmas by being largely ignored. There is a story that one semi-final in recent times was played in front of less people than there were players.

In truth nobody really cares which of the provinces wins. People are attached to their club and county and inter-provincial rivalries are far fiercer than those between the provinces. Unless of course you happen to be an O'Brien or O'Connor or an O'Neill and still have issues over the way the whole High Kingship thing worked out.

Or at least that was the case until recently. Without doubt the renewed interest has been due to the relative dominance of Ulster counties over the past few years at national level and the talk of their being a distinctive clash of styles between the footballers of Ulster and the rest.

I'm not too sure about all of that to be honest. Armagh and Tyrone have certainly brought a new level of fitness, preparation and intensity to the game but to what extent are they attributes that apply to the other seven counties in the province? Indeed the loudest advocates of 'Ulster football' often appear to be from counties who might appear to be basking in a reflected glory that wouldn't seem to have an awful lot to do with them at all.

One unkind person said to me recently that to hear Monaghan people claiming part of the credit for the achievements of their Tyrone and Armagh neighbours on the pretence that they all represent 'Ulster football' is like Celia Ahern referring to herself and James Joyce in the same breath as exemplars of 'Irish writing'. But that is unkind. Certainly the two Monaghan men on the Ulster team on Saturday, Dick Clerkin and Tommy Freeman, acquitted themselves well.

It was a bitterly cold night under the floodlights at Parnell Park but the 6,000 or so people who braved the elements were treated to a magnificent game. There were some fine individual performances on both teams; particularly I thought from Laois' Pádraig Clancy at midfield. In truth every one of the Leinster players gave their all and there were some outstanding displays on the Ulster team with Seán Cavanagh, Christy Toye, and Brian Dooher prominent throughout.

The outstanding performance of the night, however, was from Westmeath's Dessie Dolan who scored eleven points, seven of them from frees. Mattie Forde also scored three excellent points when he was brought on. It was nice too to hear the mainly Dublin crowd get behind the likes of Graham Geraghty although someone behind me at one point reminded him "not to get used to it". Hostilities will resume after this short intermission.

Dublin observers will have been pleased by the performance of all five players who appeared on the night. Barry Cahill looks confident at full back and limited his immediate opponent Paddy Bradley to two points. Paul Caffrey was one of the Leinster selectors and it is possible that he was thinking of future options for the Dubs when deciding to play Cahill in that position.

The new Westmeath manager Tomás O Flatharta will also have been pleased to see that Michael Ennis, Damien Healy, Alan Mangan and Dessie appear to have found a renewed enthusiasm. It was obvious too that they are much sharper for their recent training sessions. The spies are out already!

After the match it was hot whiskies in Craobh Ciaran's. That was something you couldn't have done in the olden times. It's funny, you don't really feel the cold after seven or eight of them.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

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