In Celtic mythology, a ‘Fóidín Mara’ or ‘Stray Sod’ was an enchanted piece of grass where anyone who stepped on it would become disorientated, lost, and stuck in that field forever.
In my experience, the intermediate championship is the footballing equivalent of the ‘Fóidín Mara’ because once you step foot in it, it is bloody difficult to get out of there.
I’m not sure that there is a tougher grade in Gaelic football in every county than intermediate. It goes without saying, of course, that the quality, speed and skill levels are much higher at senior level but in terms of evenness, competitiveness, and unpredictability, intermediate is a law unto itself.
At the start of September, there were at least 10 teams in Mayo’s intermediate ranks that felt they were in with a decent shout of taking home the Sweeney Cup.
It wouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise to Mayo GAA diehards if any of Crossmolina, Parke-Keelogues-Crimlin, Kiltane, Louisburgh, Ballinrobe, Moy Davitts, Ballyhaunis, Hollymount-Carramore, Kilmaine, or Kiltimagh prevailed in this year’s competition.
They all have good players, most have recent senior experience and if they got on a roll, then each would fancy their chances. In that long list, I haven’t even mentioned Kilmeena — the team that could very well become the champions on Saturday. Such is the openness of the field, pre-championship betting odds on eventual winners should be taken with a pinch of salt.
When asked at the outset of each intermediate campaign who the likely victors will be, I always offer the same response: “Your guess is as good as mine.”
The senior competition usually takes on a familiar enough pattern with the same three or four big guns competing for the top prize at the business end. The list of possible winners rarely extends past a few, unlike its intermediate counterpart.
Why does the middle-tier division contain so many evenly matched teams? In sport, as in life, the cream always rises to the top. If you’re that much better than everyone else at intermediate then you win the championship and get promoted to senior where you can duke it out with the elite.
What’s left after the exceptional teams go up a grade is a coagulated mass of sameness with a host of equally balanced outfits.
Because there are so many teams at a similar level, the vagaries of form, fitness, weather, luck, and refereeing decisions play a huge part in one’s progression in the intermediate championship.
The better senior teams can ride out the earlier rounds of their championship run in third gear. They will always have enough to qualify from their group. Such a luxury is never possible in intermediate, no matter who you are.
Good intermediate teams like Kilmaine (my favourites for the crown pre-championship) found themselves in a relegation battle this year. Likewise, their near neighbours Headford, across the border in Galway, were a big intermediate contender having many excellent players but are currently knee-deep in a relegation dogfight too. Both teams lost their first game and were immediately behind the black ball.
The earlier rounds really are fraught with danger as teams walk a tightrope in matches that set the tone for the year and are often make-or-break ties.
The latter stages of intermediate championships don’t get much easier either as making progress can be exceptionally difficult in such a competitive field.
In Oranmore-Maree, we seem to be stuck in neutral and are finding it hard to break through to the next level. In the recent past, we have played in a succession of quarter-finals, losing five-in-a-row. A plateau that would rival Cape Town’s Table Mountain.
Oileáin Árann have contested four semi-finals in the last six years without ever reaching a final. Of course, in Mayo, we have our own heartbreak story with Kiltimagh’s three final losses in 10 years. Intermediate titles are hard won and easily lost.
There is rarely anything pretty about the fare on offer on intermediate fields. Every team has some skilful players but obviously not as many as senior teams so the football can be tighter and less free-flowing.
Teams are less athletic than senior ones but can be just as physical and big so space can be at a premium. Fewer scores materialise as pragmatic, half-baked, defensive systems attempt to cover shortcomings teams may have around the field.
I often think that it is easier for a promising youngster to make his breakthrough at senior level rather than lower levels as there is more football played in the top grades, the ball moves faster and skill and speed are the currency.
Undeniably, senior football is where any player worth his salt wants to ply his trade but experiencing the different divisions throughout your career is no bad thing for your football education.
Saturday’s intermediate final in Hastings Insurance MacHale Park will be Ballyhaunis’ third final in four years so they will want to seal the deal now and not become the perennial bridesmaids.
They look the stronger side with a lot of young talent but also great experience dotted throughout their team: Keith Higgins, Jack Coyne, Morgan Lyons, and Eoghan Collins have all played senior inter-county football and such knowhow and presence will be vital in what will be a tight battle at the weekend.
But given the year they are having, who would write Kilmeena off? They are riding the crest of a wave with serious momentum and a warm, feel-good glow which makes every big challenge an exciting opportunity.
In the last 12 months they have overcome every obstacle with aplomb. Kerry teams never lost Junior All-Ireland finals until Kilmeena slayed Gneeveguilla in Croke Park in February.
Eight months on, they’re going from strength to strength and I would not bet against them this weekend either.
For their own sake, it would be wise to get in and out of intermediate inside a year because as we’ve seen, if you hang around there for too long, you can get drawn back into the pack where years of slugfests could await.
The junior championship, like the senior, is a less open competition but throws up a very interesting final on Sunday, with no obvious favourite.
Truth be told, there were only three or four teams that could possibly have won this year’s junior title, even though the knockout phases were more keenly contested than previous years. Some of the earlier rounds were turkey shoots and not beneficial to teams with aspirations of winning anything or to the teams taking the drubbings.
This final pairing has seemed like an inevitability from a long way out and after much shadow-boxing here we now are.
I slightly favour Cill Chomain to beat Islandeady for the simple reason that they have more prolific finishers up top. Justin Healy has been tormenting defences at junior level for a few years now and he looks ready to guide his team to a higher level.
While it is a useful weapon, I always worry about teams that rely on their goalkeeper for scores. Netminder Bryan O’Flaherty has been Islandeady’s main score-getter this championship. As good as he is, I don’t think that is a sustainable situation.
Islandeady were second-best for much of their semi-final as they stumbled over the line against Shrule/Glencorrib and will need some more forwards to step up to the plate in Sunday’s curtain raiser. Cill Chomain to shade it but it will be a close-run thing.
As the county’s showpiece game, the finale of the senior championship will rightly attract most interest this weekend but it will be equally as intriguing to see which teams escape to victory in the intermediate and junior deciders. Whichever teams free themselves from the shackles of these brutal grades will have earned it.