Kilkenny may have reigned supreme in hurling during the first decade of this century. But their football manager, the ever-resilient Dick Mullins, readily admits that he is in charge of the worst county GAA team in the country.
“We are at the bottom of the barrel at the moment,” says the permanently-embattled coach with admirable candour.
“I’d say we are about 15 or 20 points behind any other team. That is the long and short of it.”
Last Sunday, the Kilkenny footballers, well-intentioned to a man, seemed to plumb new depths of ineptitude when they failed to register a single point against lowly Leitrim on a rain-lashed, windswept pitch at Ballyragget. The more negative accounts of the encounter suggested that they were “slaughtered”.
Those who were trying to put a more positive spin on matters said they were merely “annihilated”. The score was 3-19 to 0-0.
GAA historians and statisticians were left scratching their heads about when was the last time a county team had failed to notch up a single point by the final whistle.
In the world of inter-county football, Sunday’s scene at the St Patrick’s GAA ground in Ballyraggett was as far removed from the glamour of an All-Ireland final as it is possible to be.
On a cold, rainy February afternoon, the number of players easily outnumbered the spectators.
No more than a dozen people turned up on the dismal afternoon to watch the Allianz League Division 4 fixture.
One or two onlookers had travelled from Leitrim to be there, while the other spectators were mostly hardy and curious locals, possibly out walking their dogs.
Richie Stone lives across the wall from the GAA Club in Ballyragget, and was one of an elite group to witness the historic scene of sporting carnage.
Richie is full of admiration for the Kilkenny goalkeeper, JJ O’Sullivan, who fought valiantly as he faced an aerial bombardment in the goalmouth. “He was extremely busy,” he said.
“It is very difficult for footballers in this county because hurling is the hugely glamorous sport,” says Richie, who is PRO of the local GAA club.
“The trouble is that some of the best footballers in the county are also hurlers, and they find that they can’t play both.”
Kilkenny have traditionally been so hopeless at football that for many years they did not compete in the national league at all.
The stories of the occasionally farcical struggles of football on the stony ground of this hurling stronghold are legendary.
The tongue-in-cheek warning issued to me that if I became a spectator at the team’s training I might be picked for the team was not entirely without foundation.
According to local GAA lore, back in the mists of time a local bus driver once travelled with the Kilkenny team to a match, only to find himself being asked to tog out in the county colours, because they were one man short.
Kilkenny returned to the league with hope in their hearts after a long absence in 2008. This was to be a new era, when defeats would no longer resemble cricket scores.
The English capital may be remarkable for many things, but it is not considered a Gaelic football stronghold.
Sadly, in the low-level world of Kilkenny football, lightning does not strike twice. The remarkable triumph against London has not been repeated: the Exiles beat Kilkenny 0-16 to 0-2 this year. In their only other league match this season, Kilkenny suffered a 28 point drubbing against Clare (5-17 to 1-1).
“We’ll take each game at a time. We’ve got the bus organised, and I hope that we’ll get 15 players and five subs. There are a few lads who are sick at the moment, so it’s difficult.
“They have done their best, but unfortunately their best has not been good enough.”
Richie Stone says the poor performance of the football team attracts a lot of attention. It is possibly a way of getting back at Kilkenny. “I think a lot of it is down to the fact that our hurling team does so well,” he says.
On one occasion in the middle of the last decade, when Kilkenny met Offaly in a football match, a local reporter remarked that nothing short of a meteorite shower would enable the Noresiders to win.
And so it proved to be. Kilkenny went down by 23 points, not bad by their standards.
That game is principally remembered for a touching act of sportsmanship by the Offaly manager, Kevin Kilmurray.
Towards the end of the game, when a Kilkenny defender had been sent off and the Cats were down to 14 men, the Offaly coach inexplicably took off one of his players, even though he had used all his subs.
The move was seen as a simple act of compassion, almost unheard of in top-level sport.
The routine massacres have led some to question whether Kilkenny should continue in the league at all.
“There’s no point in being silly here,” the former GAA president, Nickey Brennan, said in an interview after Sunday’s match.
“When you send out a team and they’re not capable of a score it has to bring the process into question,” he said.
For the moment anyway, the hapless Mullins plans to fight on — and will send his charges into battle against Longford tomorrow with the aim of “keeping the goals down”.
“We’ll just have to go up there on Sunday and see how it goes,” says the manager of Ireland’s least successful county team..