Is the Tailteann lift going up or down?

Cavanman's Diary

At Croke Park on Sunday, the elevator steward said a curious thing. Maybe he was high on the news that Hollywood star Bill Murray attended the hurling the day before but, when I hopped in, he said, “Nobody famous here today yet.”

Before I could respond, he added: “No offence to yourself, you could be famous in your field.”

I saw my opening. “Ah, I’m not a farmer, haha!” I joked, lamely. He didn’t get it and stared at me in confusion. There followed an excruciating silence as the 20 seconds to Level Seven dragged on for what seemed like hours.

It was a strange little exchange but, then again, it was a giddy sort of a day. On the field, while all four teams went at it hard, there was quite a bit of sloppy play in both semi-finals. Off it, there was a novelty factor and the crowd was in high spirits.

In Virginia, a dozen or so congregated at the bus stop and, when we got to Jones’s Road, we weren’t exactly greeted by a sea of blue, but certainly a large pond.

The official attendance of 16,500, then, was a tad disappointing when it was announced. It compared favourably with the attendance at the Sam Maguire qualifier double-header at the venue recently but that was a particularly appalling turn-out. By noon on Friday, the GAA were reporting sales of 9,100, with which they were very happy, but the numbers didn’t swell massively from there, with several Cavan supporters sampled stating that they were going to wait for the final.

That’s always a dangerous game to play when it comes to this Cavan team, who can keep pace with the best of them but do not have a high-cruising speed and can tend to idle out in front.

That was the case again on Sunday. Cavan went six points up with some vintage football but were sloppy thereafter against a pacy and mobile Sligo team who took to Croke Park well, shooting aside. Brilliant performances from Jason McLoughlin and Gerry Smith, along with some big plays from Gearoid McKiernan, helped Cavan over the line and Mickey Graham identified afterwards that experience was crucial.

It will be interesting to observe the hype around the county in the build-up to the final. Ordinarily, for an Ulster senior final or All-Ireland U21 final, occasions Cavan have experienced eight times in the last 34 years, the county, as a matter of course, just goes doo-lally.

This a national final but the usual madness is unlikely to take over this time; supporters are realistic enough to take this competition for what it is, despite almost propagandistic coverage in some quarters of the media, where the competing counties have at times been depicted as no-hopers for whom a Tailteann Cup medal would mean the sun, moon and stars.

In the Sunday Independent on the morning of the match, Colm O’Rourke wrote: “It is neither patronising nor an exaggeration to say that this is one of the biggest days in the whole championship year.

“The Tailteann Cup semi-finals, with four smaller counties – Cavan (though they might not agree), Sligo, Westmeath and Offaly – playing in Croke Park may not amount to a hill of beans in many people’s eyes but this is more than a little different.

“First of all, they are playing their fifth championship match so there is a body of work under the bonnet that has rarely, if ever, been completed before. I’m not into stats much but I wonder did any of these, apart from possibly Cavan, ever play five championship matches in one year? And the winners today will play six. Maybe Cavan did it back in the 1940s or ‘50s…”

Stats are one thing but facts are another and maybe the Meath legend, usually a voice of reason and common sense, was not into those much on this occasion. The reality is that Cavan have now played five championship matches or more in one season seven times in the last 25 years. Contrary to what one would think from reading that column, it is quite a common occurrence.

In the Irish Times a few weeks ago, Kevin McStay, an authoritative columnist, mentioned both Cavan and Leitrim as counties who had been failed by the provincial system, citing the fact that Leitrim had won just four matches in the Connacht Championship since 1994. Kevin neglected to mention that Cavan had won 23 Ulster Championship matches in the same period, reached five finals and won it twice. You can’t have it every way...

The GAA should be commended for pushing the Tailteann Cup from a PR point of view – both matches being screened live on RTE television was superb – and for fixing the semi-finals and final for Croke Park. However, the size of the crowd on Sunday may indicate that, going forward, a smaller provincial ground would be more suitable.

After a long hiatus, Cavan have played quite a lot at Croke Park in recent years. From 1997 to 2007, the county never made it there, in any grade of football. Eventually, a Division 2 league semi-final against Roscommon was fixed there and there was a real buzz about it.

Handball champion Paul Brady was on the squad at the time and was due to play an All-Ireland Senior Doubles final that day in Limerick; such was the attraction of lining out at HQ, Cavan successfully managed to get the handball played early in the day so he could leg it to the capital. Nobody dared miss the chance to take to the hallowed turf.

In the intervening years, the shine may have dimmed a little, for supporters anyway. The U21s played there in 2011, the seniors played an All-Ireland qualifier against London and a quarter-final against Kerry there in 2013, league finals in 2014, 2016 and 2018 and an All-Ireland semi-final, albeit behind closed doors, in 2020.

The final will be played on the undercard to the All-Ireland SFC semi-final and there could well be a scramble for tickets. That, in itself, is a selling point; a match becomes an event and, if supply is squeezed, demand grows. That all builds hype.

Has the Tailteann Cup been a success? So far, so good it seems.

Teams have taken it seriously, the association have done a good job promoting it, but the premise remains flawed. The extra training and so on is beneficial but it remains difficult to see how teams like Cavan are to improve in the long term by playing lower-ranked sides. To ascend a ladder - or an elevator, come to think of it - you must look upwards, surely, and not down.

And inequalities remain, despite some one-off results. If the winner can say they are the 17th best side in Ireland at worst, well, there are teams in it who haven’t been within an ass’s roar of that standard for decades. If tiered championships are here for the long haul, three would be preferable.

The fear is that, with the current status quo, there will always be a team or two who are too good for it and the ones who would benefit most – “taking the competition by the scruff of the neck and enjoying a wonderful, wonderful summer”, as Larry McCarthy predicted – will not be good enough.

Regardless, both Cavan and Westmeath have put their best foot forward and are extracting the maximum they can from it, rightly. They will be viewing this competition as a means to an end; while it would be lovely to win, their great hope is surely that they will not be in it again for a long time. And that says a lot.