Club championships cannot afford to lose their innocence at the cost of experience
U2’s recent show at the 3Arena was called the ‘Innocence and Experience Tour’ and it was an apt way to describe the difference in this weekend’s All-Ireland club semi-final games.
Whilst one match highlighted playing good football and, more importantly, how allowing the other side to play can provide a wonderful spectacle, the second semi-final was all about ground and pound to reach Croke Park on March 17.
The difference between the joy of Castlebar Mitchels and the sorrow for Clonmel Commercials was encapsulated by the Munster champions’ manager Charlie McKeever after the game.
McKeever was gracious in defeat, as ever, but one comment he made to the media struck a note that should unsettle anyone who enjoys the club championships at present.
“All in all, we were probably two fouls away from an All-Ireland final. Had we killed two or three balls in the last three minutes, we probably would have been there."
The fact that Clonmel didn’t take the lazy option and foul Ballyboden players, or try to haul down Darragh Nelson as he took the equaliser, should be complimented and not laughed away as being soft, or the words of a loser.
Perhaps Clonmel’s innocence, or inexperience, cost them the game. But if they had been cynical, perhaps they would have lost something much more precious in the eyes of their fans, as well as neutrals; respect to look each other in the eye and know they played their natural game.
The ugly scenes that marred some of the Crossmaglen and Castlebar Mitchels game at the finish came after a ball was thrown into the Castlebar dugout that prevented a quick sideline ball being taken.
It was a naked attempt to try and slow down play, but understandable if you look at it in terms of various examples of Mayo heartbreak in big games of the past; do what has been done unto us to try and get the win.
It was just the most high profile incident in a sometimes fractious encounter, and indeed the Armagh side have been no angels in the past.
But it did highlight the contrast between two relative newcomers to this stage of a competition who played open, entertaining football, and what two teams who have been here before were willing to do to reach Croke Park next month.
The experience of being at the last four stage before had taught both teams a valuable lesson; if you can’t win, then you dare not lose.
The All-Ireland club championships in hurling and football allow players who have never played inter-county the chance to dream of Croke Park.
The reason thousands of fans tuned into the games on TG4, or went to Portlaoise on Saturday night was to escape the idea that you can play 14 men behind the ball, or that the panel is so strong that someone on the bench can replace a key player if he is black carded.
Both games had black cards and red cards but the sense that the sanction is more grevious at club level is hard to get away from.
The issue facing every team starting out on the trail for All-Ireland club glory is one of nature versus nurture.
Clonmel will improve from their experience of course, but it would be terrible if the only lesson they learned from Saturday’s loss would be to make sure that fouling someone was how you go about winning games.
Charlie McKeever wanted his side to be cynical, to be cute, to do almost anything to get over the line, but because they weren’t, they lost.
The players may regret not taking down Nelson for the rest of their lives, but why should they? Being positive had gotten them to within seconds of an All-Ireland club final. Being cynical hadn’t.
The club championship retains a beautiful innocence that is being eroded every time players go out and are hauled down going through on goal in the name of winning.
It would be a shame that innocence was lost all together.