Jungle drums beat for end of the Railway Cup line
THIS time last year, Sean Cavanagh was expressing his bemusement that only 1,600 had turned up in the Athletics Grounds to watch the Interpros final (which, for the sake of argument, will be referred to as the Railway Cup hereafter).
"It's really strange ... It's mindboggling at times ... "
On Sunday, only around 500 turned up for this year's final. The semi-final between Ulster and Leinster attracted something in the region of 200. After that game, one of the Ulster players sent a text to me suggesting I write a piece about the lack of respect paid to the competition.
A further text read: 'It's like being at an A-List party with a C-List crowd.'
I didn't do that column. It's been done a million times before and the boredom would kill a man.
It was in the dark of the Ard Stiúrthóir suite, level 5 of Croke Park on Friday that the full truth dawned on me, however.
Up at the top table of a Football Review Committee workshop sat Ciaran McBride of Tyrone, Tony Scullion of Derry and a selector of the Ulster team, along with Chairman Eugene McGee. During a discussion about the future of the Railway Cup, Scullion's comments were a weather vane of how deep the feeling runs in Ulster.
"I was one of the members of the FRC here and I would have spoken very strong about this within our group of people.
"I was honoured myself for a number of years to have played for Ulster and lucky enough to be involved with Joe Kernan (pictured) over the last few years with the Ulster squad."
He continued: "Playing for Ulster is the highest honour anyone can get, it's the highest honour anyone can get in Gaelic football, to play for their province.
"The Ulster players love playing. There's no-one who wouldn't play; they love to wear the jersey.
"I firmly believe we can get a better slot for it and re-launch it."
A Down delegate to Congress backed up Scullion, advising the FRC to: "Find a slot for it and more importantly, market it. Have one more try ... "
That better slot might just be as part of Aaron Kernan's proposal; an All-Star type game on the weekend of the All-Ireland finals, an idea that Ulster manager Joe Kernan was keen to advance in his post-match comments.
Back in 2007, before we found out that money indeed did have a value, the GAA threw pots of cash at it. They put it into Croke Park under lights, re-branded it as the Inter-provincial Championships and gave it the whole RTÉ live coverage treatment.
They didn't even get a dead cat bounce out of it. From that moment on, the GAA effectively orphaned the Railway Cup.
This year, Munster counties, enraged by the seeding structure in their provincial Championships, withheld players and the Munster team was made up solely of Cork and Kerry players.
This would not happen in Ulster, where managers understand the value of players going along to play Railway Cup and can see for themselves that they eat the same spuds as players from Tyrone and Donegal, who are not, as they thought, superhuman.
The problem lies with saturation of coverage.
On Sunday, we could watch Kilkenny and Tipperary deliver a match for the ages, with Henry Shefflin's between the legs flick and Seamie Callinan's hat-trick.
A fortnight before in another code we could watch Mark Poland and Jamie Clarke on a Friday night. The same weekend we could catch Tyrone against Mayo in deferred coverage, after Westmeath gave Dublin a bit of a fright
This weekend we can watch Armagh v Meath and Dublin-Cork all from the comfort of our home and hearth. As a viewing public, we are intimately familiar with the strengths and abilities of top players and regularly get to see them. We know that Sean Cavanagh has got his 'Sean Shimmy' dummy and that Ger Brennan is reliant on his left foot.
Part of the lure of the Railway Cup lay in 'discovering' players from unfamiliar counties. Ulster fans could see Mickey Kearins and Dermot Earley in the flesh. Now, we know all about their modern equivalents.
There are numerous reasons why Ulster players indentify with their province, impossible to detail without straying into cod-psychology.
It would be lovely to have a thriving, vibrant Railway Cup. But the majority do not care.
Ulster do, but they are like Japanese Lt. Hiroo Onoda, who emerged from the jungle on the Philippine Island of Lubang in March 29, 1972. He had been fighting guerrilla warfare since World War II, refusing to believe it was all over and he deftly avoided search parties, believing they were enemy spies.
Perhaps Ulster need to be led out of the jungle now. For better or worse, it's over.