IT was a call that I couldn’t turn down. As a teacher, I’ve a bit of spare time on my hands during the summer so when I was presented with the opportunity to get involved in a coaching capacity with the Carbery senior footballers this year, I took it.
In May 2021 Carbery were eliminated from the Premier SFC divisions/colleges section by Muskerry, losing 0-16 to 0-6. That was a setback. This result led to much soul-searching by the management, the players and supporters like myself who hold divisional football in very high regard.
When Conor Counihan, Cork GAA's Project Coordinator for Football, was asked about the demise of divisional football on these pages last year he commented that ‘Do it right or don’t do it at all’. Since 2000 only one division has won the county senior football championship and that was the Carbery team I played with in 2004. Divisions have been beaten finalists on five other occasions with numerous semi-final appearances also. If the contribution of divisional football to Cork football and player development was to be valued by those in positions of power within Cork GAA then a new innovation was needed. And that’s what has happened.
This year, June was set aside for divisional action on Thursday nights. MTU, UCC and Duhallow were set to one side with the remaining divisions – Avondhu, Beara, Carbery, Imokilly and Muskerry – playing off to identify one other outfit to join them in the divisions/colleges play-offs with all teams guaranteed two games. The overall winner joins the premier senior championship at the quarter-final stage later on in the summer.
Carbery had a convincing 2-18 to 1-10 victory over Imokilly in round one and ran out seven-point winners, 1-12 to 0-8, against arch rivals Beara in Bantry. They also beat Avondhu 3-19 to 0-11 to advance to the next round.
The Carbery division has 26 clubs. That is the same number as county Leitrim and two more than Longford. Eight of these clubs are either playing premier senior football or senior A football, which takes them out of the equation. Granted, the football landscape in Cork has changed a lot over the last ten years but that leaves 18 clubs whose players have a chance to play football at the highest level for their division. Ten of those clubs were represented against Beara.
Tim Buckley, the current Carbery manager, has battled an array of mitigating circumstances in his efforts to prepare the team for championship. They included an increasingly congested fixture list, players' own commitments to inter-county and club, players opting to play for their college and players just not willing to tog out for their division. A lot of those battles were won, some are ongoing and some will never end, yet he and his selectors deserve huge credit for assembling a very talented and committed group of footballers to represent Carbery.
If you’re a junior or intermediate player, as I was in the late 1990s and early 00s, playing senior football with your division puts you in the shop window, allows you to showcase your talents at the highest level club football offers and provides you with a path to the red jersey.
The perfect example of this in the Carbery v Beara game was young Sean Daly from Randal Óg getting the chance to play alongside former county senior Ruairi Deane in what proved to be a very potent inside combination. Together, they garnered 1-9 out of Carbery’s total of 1-12.
Outside of inter-county action and following Cork's All-Ireland SFC quarter-final exit to Dublin and with club action not kicking off until late July, the local media have the opportunity to really focus on the divisional round-robin series – and it has helped to raise the profile of the competition. From my own point of view in a coaching capacity, my involvement is giving me the opportunity to get my finger back on the pulse of senior action and is proving very enjoyable. Playing championship games week after week is what all players love but presents challenges for those of us involved in the organisation of the team.
Months of preparation at club level is condensed into a number of weeks when with the division. Half a dozen training sessions between championship games at club level has been reduced to one, maybe two sessions between games over the last few weeks. Clarity, simplicity and ensuring the players understand and buy-in are the key factors in such a short time slot. However, all these guys are the best players and are leaders at their clubs and they realise the importance of optimising the time when we are together.
Progress has been made this year by the Cork County Board, the divisional boards and the management teams all over the county in their efforts to provide a platform for players outside of senior to play at the highest level. But there is always room for further improvement. The premier senior club grade currently has three groups of four teams. Would it be possible to make that three groups of five teams with three teams qualifying from the divisions/colleges section? Also, senior A teams are not allowed play with their divisions yet they are not playing at the highest level. A change in this rule would bring Bandon, O’Donovan Rossa, Ilen Rovers and Dohenys into the reckoning for Carbery.
Look over the ditch at our neighbours in Kerry. Admittedly, they are more or less a one-code county but their divisional system is an integral part of both their underage and adult championship structures. They run off their junior and intermediate championships prior to the senior championship to accommodate the divisions and this should naturally give inter-county players more breathing space.