Feature – The alphabet of 2023

As we look towards a new season of GAA action, Michael McMullan casts his mind back over some of the moments 2023 had to offer.

With Rachael Merry to the fore, Granemore shot their way to the All-Ireland Junior Camogie Championship at the weekend to bring the curtain down on a successful three-year run for Ulster teams. The Armagh side backed up Brídíní Óga winning the same title in January and it was Eoghan Rua of Derry who were champions before that. The interesting angle now will be how all three teams can push on up the ranks in the coming seasons.

Derry repeated their 2022 Ulster final adventure. This year it was against Armagh on another action-packed afternoon in Clones. First, there was the story of Rory Gallagher being forced to step aside after allegations made by his estranged wife on social media. With Ciarán Meenagh stepping up, Derry needed Shane McGuigan to pull them back from defeat before three Odhrán Lynch penalty saves paved the way for Ciaran McFaul to kick the winner.

There have been many stories of outside managers but Mickey Harte’s appointment as Derry boss tops the pile in terms of shocks. A man who was so Tyrone is now in charge of their Ulster rivals. Add in the return of Jim McGuinness, Ciarán Meenagh’s move to Down, Justin McMahon linking up with Andy McEntee in Antrim and Conleith Gilligan coming on board in Armagh and you soon get the picture of the moving parts on the managemen scene.

It was the rise after the fall for Down Ladies who found themselves in the Junior ranks. Rather than complain and look for excuses, they put their collective shoulder to the wheel. Their Division Three league season saw them finish middle of the pack but their championship saw them win the Ulster and All-Ireland Junior titles.

Another theme of the season was the protests by camogie and ladies footballers all over the county to raise the awareness for equality across the board. Their reasoning was urging all three codes – GAA, Camogie Association and the LGFA – to come up with a common charter in terms of support for inter-county players. As the season went on, it became a regular occurrence that had the desired outcome with the various governing bodies entering listening mode. Time will tell how far the equality goes.

It was a season to remember for the hurlers of Monaghan as the transformed a first national final into the county’s first silverware in the form of the Lory Meagher Cup in Croke Park. Niall Arthur, Niall Garland and Thomas Hughes shot down Lancashire at Croke Park. The joy at their homecoming was another joy to behold and proof of the progress being made in the county. There was more good news when Castleblayney went all the way to the Ulster Junior title.

On the balance of the final, despite having the chances, Glen didn’t have enough against Kilmacud Crokes. As has been well documented, the fallout was about so much more. The fact Dara Mullin stayed on the pitch may well have been an innocent mistake when you take how the Crokes lost to Kilcoo 12 months earlier. Despite it being flagged up, the final throw of the dice shiuld have saw Danny Tallon’s last gasp 45 retaken. It would’ve saved so much hassle.

Omagh CBS were winners of the MacRory Cup and backed up their success with a second Hogan Cup title. It was no ordinary win at Croke Park. The Tyrone scholars blitzed Summerhill with a scintillating display of attacking football that yielded six goals. Not to be outdone, MacLarnon winners St Joseph’s Donaghmore went all the way to All-Ireland B glory to cap off a fine season for Tyrone schools.

One of the best developments in recent years has been the volume of games available at our fingertips. Most counties are streaming games and there are some excellent packages out there. The £60 for all Ulster Club games was tremendous value. The problem is the “dodgy boxes” that have become the norm and it is out of control. Tyrone GAA blames “organised crime” gangs and the loss of revenue could put the future of streaming in doubt.

He’s the man behind the scenes of Limerick’s dominance of hurling and comes with a huge reputation from the horseracing industry. In a time when county boards have been under pressure due to the rise in team preparation costs, McManus gave every county in Ireland €1M to be used how they saw fit. If it is used wisely, it could help teams get their hurling structures in place to grow the game. We’ll see. But it was a tremendous gesture.

The recommendation to shut five counties out of the NHL due to having a small number of clubs was one of those terrible ideas that come around every so often. Pumping money into developing the grass roots was the argument but it just didn’t wash as the countries united to voice their collective concerns that eventually saw the proposal binned.

Limerick are going for five All-Irelands in a row when John Kiely’s men get the show on the road next year. That’s just phenomenal. Their story from last year was again one of having the ability to outlast any opponent. It was their two games with Clare that defined them. After a narrow defeat in the Munster round robin, they returned to edge out an excellent showpiece in the final. Wins over Kilkenny and Galway, by an average of 10 points, in the All-Ireland games tells all you need to know about their ability to peak when it matters.

It was the year of Derry and Monaghan minors. The sides met three times with the Oakleafers coming out on top on all three occasions. Derry lost the final of the league to a late Donegal goal before turning the tables in the championship to set up an Ulster final showdown with the Farney County that went all the way to penalties. The sides then met in the All-Ireland final with Derry topping their season off with more silverware.

One of the most gripping stories of the 2023 season was New York’s epic Connacht Championship win over Leitrim in Gaelic Park. It was one of the most entertaining games. It was gung-ho for long periods with both sides deadlocked – 0-15 all – after extra-time. It was time for penalties which kept the rest of us glued to our screens back home. There was the jealous feeling at the end knowing the extent of the party in the Bronx that night in the city that never sleeps

It was another year of fixture mayhem between the camogs and ladies footballers in different parts of the country. It’s didn’t happen everywhere but it has become all too common. For example, Granemore were forced to play Ulster games on the same weekend. Dual hurlers and footballers are always able to have their fixtures at least a week apart. Female dual players aren’t always afforded the same chance.

They are here to stay. While they might not be everybody’s cup of tea, our fixture list is squeezed so much into oblivion that replays are no longer a consistent option. Sometimes there is a window, but more often there isn’t. They do bring excitement. The New York win listed above. Derry v Armagh. Armagh v Monaghan. Derry minors against Monaghan. Last Saturday’s All-Ireland Club hurling clash. The one tweak needed is to rotate the five takers. Callum Cumiskey missing two penalties is simply not on, it should never come to that.

QUEENS OF IRELAND Derry camogs ended their All-Ireland famine with a first All-Ireland intermediate title since 2007. Just like that day in Ashbourne, it took a replay. Derry were on the wrong end of some questionable decisions at Croke Park as their performance waned. They were lucky not be beaten but the display in the replay in Clones was right out of the top drawer with Lauren McKenna putting in an another amazing performance.

Brendan Rogers was in Player of the Year form all through the year. Rory Gallagher saw the hurt Rogers inflicted on teams at the tail end of 2022 when attacking from the middle of the park. The new season saw him a permanent fixture and it looked like he had played at midfield all his days. Had Derry reached the final he’d have surely been named ahead of David Clifford. Not only does he play like a champion, he operates with a smile on his face.

A third of the All-Star football team comprised Ulster players after Monaghan and Derry reached the All-Ireland semi-finals. Conor McCarthy had an excellent season and was rewarded with his selection but Karl O’Connell can consider himself unlucky. Derry’s quartet of Rogers, Shane McGuigan, Gareth McKinless and Conor McCluskey were joined by Young Player of the Year Ethan Doherty.

Dublin are back on the top of the tree and it needed the help of some of their stars of the past. Jack McCaffrey, Paul Mannion and Stephen Cluxton made returns to add to their championship punch. Their road to glory was more than that. In that crucial final quarter, it was the power they were taking off their bench that was something nobody in Ireland could match. Now they are the hunted again going into the new season.

The counties of Ulster had their say on the odd versus even debate. After the recent seasons of u-19, u-17, u-15 and u-13 they have voted back to the way it was – the even numbers. With meaningful underage lasting up to u-18 again, it will give underage players extra year to develop. On the flip side, clubs will have to reciprocate the move by not holding up adult or underage players for the talented minor on the senior team. Clubs need to be strong and not allow senior managers to pull rank.

Hats off to Vinny Corey for taking Monaghan to the last four of the All-Ireland in this first year of management. In an interview with Gaelic Life, his former teammate Tommy Freeman paid an immense tribute to Corey. He described how highly respected he was as a player and it followed him into management. Even listening to his interviews after games, he spoke with passion. It was on a par with Ciarán Meenagh’s post game comments after Derry’s defeat by Kerry.

Celtic Park and Owenbeg were home to the World Games with a splash of colour and language celebrating all that is great about the GAA. There were teams with players who had never been outside their own country before, let alone been to Ireland. Some the teams had players living away from home with Gaelic Games as their first sport while others were total beginners. A week to remember.

Whatever it is about Malachy O’Rourke, but he definitely has the Midas touch. He inherited a talented Glen squad who struggled to make around the final bend on the road to success. Three years later, he has steered them to three Derry and two Ulster titles. The fact it comes 20 years after he managed Loup to the pinnacle in Ulster shows how he has reinvented himself into the new era of football management.

Derry may have come up short in the Christy Ring Cup final but their u-20 hurlers went all the way to the All-Ireland ‘B’ title. The Derry work began in the u-17 Celtic Challenge with everyone in the county welcomed on board. The Derry players were boosted with the chance to play this year’s final at Croke Park. After taking a while to settle, they turned on the style with Ruairí Ó Mianáin putting on an exhibition.

Neil McManus owed nothing to the Antrim jersey he wore for 17 years following his decision to call time on his inter-county career. It’s a pity the Cushendall man didn’t get honoured by the All-Star selectors during a career that offered so many big performances. At the age of 35, his level of application proves that age is very much a number. It depends on how a player looks after themselves and McManus was playing the hurling of his life and was a driving force behind Cushendall’s match to a 12th Ulster title.

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