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Tuesday 7 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
James Crombie/INPHO
# Kerry SFC
As the champions are relegated, is Kerry's club structure still working?
Last year’s Kerry SFC winners Austin Stacks were relegated on Sunday.

IN THE GAA, a gap between what is recommended and what actually takes place is inherent. Consider the comprehensive review of the Kerry county senior football championship which took place last year.

Firstly, they put forward the suggestion that the competition run with four groups of four teams, with the top two from each group qualifying for the quarter-finals. Check. 

It was noted the competition would be better served by including 10 club teams and six divisional teams. Also, it was recommended that the club championships be completed before the commencement of the county SFC.

Neither happened this year. Are they likely in 2023?

shane-stack-and-conor-okeeffe-with-kieran-donaghy Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Any prospect of a new format is suddenly more conceivable after illustrious Tralee giants Austin Stacks were relegated on Sunday. Sean O’Shea’s Kenmare Shamrocks won out 3-11 to 1-15 to send the 2021 champions and Munster finalists down to intermediate for the first time ever. 

The Kingdom’s club system is like an eccentric accent outsiders struggle to understand. There are two football championships, the principal one made up of eight senior clubs and divisional sides. 

The club championship is restricted to just the clubs. If a divisional outfit with the county championship, as is set to happen in 2022, the winners of the club championship represent Kerry in the Munster club championship. Sounds straightforward enough says you? 

We’ll leave explanations of the county league, district league and district championships for now and deal with the task at hand. Such a format has consistently stood to Kerry and it should be said, that remains the case. 

It produces consistent, competitive games and allows players from intermediate, junior and novice clubs to play on the biggest stage. The divisional element is a vital component of the championship, no question.

So, what’s the issue? In the aftermath of Stacks’ defeat, former county chairman and GAA president Seán Kelly took to Twitter to hit out at the current state of play. 

“I’ve been saying it for a long time. Only eight clubs in Kerry official senior championship is ridiculous. It’s wrong that such a great club should be in this position. Put down motion for county convention to change this ridiculous system.”

East Kerry’s Killarney Legion or Rathmore would be entitled to feel mistreated by the fact it took Austin Stacks being relegated to instigate a rejig, but just because the writing has been on the wall for several years doesn’t mean they should keep looking away.

“Going to 12 clubs is something I have been advocating for a long time. You’ve only eight senior clubs, to me that isn’t good enough,” said Marc Ó Sé on The42′s GAA Weekly. He was speaking last week before the relegation play-off occurred. 

Much of the recent debate has focused on the strength of a side like East Kerry rather than the plight of the clubs like the Rockies. The team that started the semi-final victory over Dingle included All-Ireland winners Shane Ryan, Paul Murphy, James O’Donoghue, Jonathan Lyne, David and Paudie Clifford.

All-Ireland winning minor captain Paul O’Shea came off the bench in the second half to kick the equalising score. One team have a kingdom’s worth of riches.   

Ó Sé argued that this is cyclical, a move must come for the benefit of the clubs rather than hindering the divisions. 

“East Kerry hasn’t won as much as you would think. 8 or 9 titles. Other clubs have more. I remember back in the day when Gaeltacht were coming, East Kerry won a three-in-a-row starting in  1997. That team had the likes of Seamus Moynihan, Johnny Crowley.

“At the moment they are phenomenally strong. I don’t think it is as big a problem as people are making it out to be but saying that, I still think it should be twelve clubs.”  

Throw into the mix the barbed wire that separates local interest and national equity. A cutthroat senior championship means top-quality outfits emerge from the intermediate and junior championships. The 17th-best team in one county meets the ninth-best from Kerry. Lightweights versus middleweights.

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Four of the last ten intermediate All-Irelands have been won by Kerry clubs. In total Kerry clubs have won the competition six times, the only other county with more than two is Tyrone. It is a similar story at junior, five of the last ten titles have headed southwest. 

What is in the club’s best interests? What about the county? That is before you even take into consideration the country. A solution is by no means simple, nor should it be everlasting. 

Here’s what that comprehensive review had to say.

“We feel that the divisional/group teams set-up has served Kerry GAA excellently for many years and we feel this needs to continue going forward.

“However, as with many aspects of GAA, we also need to look forward and plan for the years ahead. To keep the county championship at the highest level and to make sure as many teams as possible are competitive we feel that an overview needs to take place.

“As can be seen from the demographic projections and also the way our underage structures are going, there are areas of the county that will struggle for [player] numbers going forward. With this in mind and with everyone being open to consultation and hopefully change, we feel that we could again develop and improve our county championship.”

Back in 2015, the county championship featured 20 competitors, including 11 clubs. The recently passed congress motion means 16 is the magic number. Right now, the evidence is mounting that altering the balance towards more clubs is fairer locally and nationally. 

However, such moves should not be abiding. The recent strength of clubs like Dingle has significantly weakened West Kerry’s catchment. Kenmare District did not field this year with Templenoe and Kenmare Shamrocks both competing as senior clubs.

Should that or comparable situations alternate, so should the system. Future flexibility is the key and the challenge.  

Change is constant, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. 

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