In or around 7pm next Saturday, barring a draw in Páirc Uí Rinn, the north side of Cork city will find that it has lost a senior football club.
This is because St Nicholas and Na Piarsaigh will face each other in the relegation play-off of the Cork Senior County football championship.
I have been an advocate of promotion and relegation in the Cork county championships since the system was first introduced almost a decade ago. I am of the opinion that relegation keeps the competitions honest. It has helped prune away non-contender clubs who tended to cling on to their senior or intermediate status long after they had ceased to be competitive.
That opinion still holds. I believe in a “free market” competition within the county championships. For every club that was propped up by the old “you held your status until you dropped” system, another club was denied the opportunity to advance.
All those ideas are fine in theory. When relegation comes knocking at your own club’s door it is an entirely different matter. I think John Arnold captured the relief of escaping from relegation in his column in this paper two weeks ago. John, a Bride Rovers stalwart had just witnessed his club escape relegation with a last minute goal. He made a pilgrimage of thanks and gratitude to the graves of each and every person who had contributed to the community that is Bride Rovers since it inception. Staring relegation in the face makes you very appreciative of what you have.
From what I can gather when I talk to people around the county, there is a perception out there that there is not as much as stake for St Nicholas or Na Piarsaigh as there was for Bride Rovers, or indeed Cloyne who were defeated by Bride Rovers. There certainly is.
There has been a long and honourable history of playing senior football on the north side of Cork City. St Nicholas played in the senior football championship of 1902. One hundred and ten years ago. They competed in the senior grade intermittently between than and the late 1920s; winning several minor and intermediate county titles during that time. The club dropped down to intermediate for most of the 1930s. The club went senior again after winning the 1937 intermediate championship and they have held that status since then.
St Nicks were the first indigenous city club to win the under-18 minor county title in 1926. They were the first city club to win the senior title in 1938, and it is almost been forgotten now that St Nicks were the first Cork club to win the Munster Club Football title in 1967.
That year was also the first year that Na Piarsaigh took part in the senior county championship. They earned their senior spurs when they won the junior county title in 1965 and then defeated neighbours St Vincents 1-8 to 2-4 in the 1966 intermediate final. While Na Piarsaigh have never won the senior county title, the club did win the senior league in 1967 (Kelleher Shield) and they have been competitive most years since. Like St Nicks, the club has won a plethora of minor and juvenile championships.
This year is the 75th successive year St Nicks have competed in the senior football championship and the 46th successive year for Na Piarsaigh. They are not the only north side clubs to have competed at senior level during that time.
Delanys played in the senior grade between 1956 and 1964. The club was very strong in the earlier years, but struggled to compete in the 1960s and probably would have benefitted by relegation if it existed at that time.
There was another club down on the Lower Glanmire Road. They were called St Patricks. The club was formed in the 1930s; faded for a while, then came back stronger than ever in the 1940s. St Patrick’s reached the junior county final in 1945 and lost in a replay. The junior crown was finally captured in 1949. As there was no intermediate grade at that time St Patricks were promoted to the senior grade and competed at that level until 1954.
The St Vincents club was founded in Gurrane in 1943. It became a very good football club within a couple of years. St Vincents won the 1946 junior county football title (against a crack Bere Island team) in 1946 and reached the senior final of 1948. They might have won that final but for the incessant rain and poor state of the pitch which militated against the Gurrane team who were generally lighter than their strong Millstreet opponents.
St Vincents competed at senior level until the intermediate grade was re-formed in 1965. The club reached and lost three of the next four intermediate football finals. By then they had won the intermediate hurling title and were competing at senior hurling level.
While county titles at senior (St Nicks have five titles in all), intermediate and junior level were common occurrences up to the 1970s, only two adult titles have found their way across the Lee since then. They came when St Vincents won the premiere intermediate title in 2006 and St Nicks won the under-21 title in 2003. St Vincents are in this year’s intermediate final again. Hopefully they will earn the right to keep the north side representation in next year’s senior championship at two clubs.
Why have the titles dried up and the north side clubs become less competitive? Well there are many reasons: some of these are obvious. All the clubs became less competitive at football around the time they developed their properties. These properties take up a lot of time and money. This takes from the resources available to play hurling and football and in many cases – there is no easy way to put this, hurling got priority over football.
There still should have been plenty of non-hurlers left to play football, but the early 1970s was also the time the ban was lifted on the playing of soccer. A sizable percentage of non-hurlers opted for a full soccer season of games rather than a half and less resourced season of Gaelic Football. Another percentage of potential footballers was lost to the thriving basketball scene.
Then there was the fact that secondary schools on the south side, like Sullivans Quay, Coláiste Chríost Rí and Coláiste Spioraid Naoimh put a big effort into college’s football. This provided the south side clubs with a steady stream of well-prepared and enthusiastic footballers. The only indigenous competitive secondary school on the north side; the North Mon, did not put the same emphasis on football, although the Mon did win the Munster Colleges title in 1988.
The final reason that space allows for here is that other clubs throughout the county have become more competitive and better organised. When the north side of Cork had three and four teams in the county senior football championship, clubs like Castlehaven and Bishopstown did not exist and others like Skibbereen, Carbery Rangers, Ballincollig and Aghada could not be competitive in their junior divisional championships.
Next Saturday’s game will be a very solemn occasion. A large and populated area of Cork will be losing a senior club. There will inevitably be tears when the final whistle blows. Some will be tears of relief, and more will be tears of genuine sorrow. A club does not get to be a senior club for 75 or 46 years without it being a labour of love to a whole body of people who have served as secretaries, chairmen, treasurers, selectors, players and all the other jobs that have to be done to keep a club vibrant.
It is not fair to blame the relegation system for this. The system is there to protect the standards of the competition. In nature, what is old – dies. Also in nature, what falls to the ground germinates, re-generates and becomes fresh and strong again. Hopefully, this is the fate that awaits both St Nicks and Na Piarsaigh after next Saturday’s game.