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Dublin 'super clubs' - fact or urban myth?

Boden and Crokes may be bigger than all the rest but becoming the best is not all down to numbers

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Naomhan O’Riordan of Kilmacud Crokes in action against Dean Curran of Ballyboden St Enda’s

Naomhan O’Riordan of Kilmacud Crokes in action against Dean Curran of Ballyboden St Enda’s

Naomhan O’Riordan of Kilmacud Crokes in action against Dean Curran of Ballyboden St Enda’s

Back in December 2015, as Ballyboden St Enda's were closing in on a Leinster club football title, one of their officials reflected on the gargantuan size of the Firhouse Road operation.

"We would field over 100 teams so that question of being the largest sports club in Europe has come with the territory really," Boden's then football board chairman, Ger Flaherty, told the Irish Examiner.

"It's not something we've consciously done anything about or gone after. But our ethos would be that if you want to play Gaelic games, then we'll find an outlet for you and that approach has naturally swelled our numbers. I've yet to hear of a bigger club. Maybe there's a club of some sort in China that dwarfs us, who knows?"

Or maybe one a short hop across the southside, even?

Almost five years on, Ballyboden are still growing: the club this week confirmed that the club currently has 172 teams - across both genders, four codes and all age groups. Its membership, playing and non-playing, stands at 3,400.

But a check call to Kilmacud Crokes confirmed that the numbers quoted on their website (circa 4,800 members and approximately 130 teams) have since risen: their membership is now around 5,000 and they field closer to 160 teams.

Biggest

It's a moot point whether Kilmacud's higher membership or Ballyboden's greater number of teams makes either the biggest sports club on the southside, whatever about Europe.

But they certainly stand as the two pre-eminent Dublin 'superclubs' in terms of raw numbers, albeit neighbouring Cuala and Na Fianna on the northside have also grown into mammoth entities.

There are obvious demographic reasons why some clubs, especially in the southside suburbs, have mushroomed in size over recent decades. They cover sprawling areas populated in increasing numbers by young families.

But this can prove a double-edged sword when pitch facilities are finite; when available land is so scarce and expensive.

And yet results lend credence to the theory that bigger clubs tend to have a better chance of contesting - and ultimately winning - senior titles in football, hurling, ladies football and camogie.

Take Ballyboden. Formed in 1969, they didn't win a solitary Dublin senior title in their first 25 years. In their second 25, culminating last year, they amassed a staggering 31: seven in hurling, four in football, ten apiece in camogie and ladies' football.

Those 20 women's titles didn't happen in a vacuum. An eye-catching 38pc of Boden's total membership is female.

Mind you, the correlation between numbers and titles is not foolproof.

Heavyweights

Take the last decade. St Vincent's are the traditional heavyweights of Dublin GAA but they are certainly not the biggest (fielding over 40 teams of all ages, according to their website). Of the ten Dublin SFC titles on offer from 2010 to '19, they won four, two more than either Kilmacud or Ballyboden.

Meanwhile, Ballymun Kickhams - a club focussed only on football and much smaller again - have claimed one Dublin SFC crown in the last decade while losing two finals.

With so many marquee Dublin footballers, the theory goes that Ballymun should have won more. Countering that argument, manager Brendan Hackett remarked after their latest quarter-final win over Na Fianna: "How many members have Ballymun? Three hundred. Phenomenal."

On closer inspection, Ballymun's overall male and female membership could be closer to double that - approximately 575 - if you include 150 adult and social members plus their 17 juvenile teams, averaging out at 25 per squad.

The truth is, Kickhams have always been an outlier: a small club that has produced a disproportionately high ratio of Dublin senior stars, in the '80s, '90s and right through to the current team of McCarthy, McMahon, Small and Rock.

"They (Ballymun) punch way above their weight," former Dublin and Na Fianna player John Caffrey told The Herald recently. "They would have had a much smaller pick than everybody but they made the most of what they had ... and to this day the same thing."

* * * * *

This is Dublin SFC1 semi-final weekend at Parnell Park and Ballymun, again battling the numerical odds, are the only northsider in a race completed by three southside rivals. The 'Mun face 2018 champions Kilmacud on Sunday (4.30), preceded by tomorrow's clash of holders Ballyboden and St Jude's (5.30).

St Jude's are a fascinating example of a burgeoning club but one that cannot claim 'superclub' status because they are still seeking to crash through the glass ceiling and become senior champions.

The club of Kevin McManamon and (in hurling) Danny Sutcliffe have 1,850 members and field approximately 125 teams. Tomorrow will be their ninth SFC semi-final in 12 seasons.

But they have only reached two finals - losing both, in 2009 and '18 - while there was an equally unhappy ending to their back-to-back SHC deciders in 2014 and '15.

Countering that, their flagship camogie team toppled St Vincent's last Sunday to claim a second Dublin senior 1 championship in three seasons.

Established

Back in the realm of men's football, Sunday pits together two very different heavyweights. Ballymun can boast more Dublin regulars; Crokes have an array of Sky Blue squad members but just two established stars in Paul Mannion and Cian O'Sullivan.

Yet Kilmacud win any numbers game hands down and they also have the history of winning two All-Ireland club titles and four Leinsters in football.

Paddy Carr was manager for two of those provincial triumphs - and their most recent All-Ireland, in 2009. He then managed Ballymun to their last county final appearance, three years ago. Thus, he is ideally placed to assess both clubs.

In Ballymun, the exclusive focus on football coupled with the relatively small membership combined to create a "very tight unit".

But, in some respects, the football scene at Kilmacud wasn't too different.

"If you looked at the membership numbers in Kilmacud, you would think that it's one enormous organisation all facing in the one direction. Whereas in fact, just for its functionality, it has to almost operate as independent republics," Carr explains.

"The success was never down to anything got to do with finance being thrown at various things. It was always just the effort to create that ferocious togetherness," he adds. "We would have run the whole thing on a shoestring."

Then Carr touches on a deeper truth applicable to all clubs, super or otherwise.

Recalling Kilmacud's All-Ireland win over Crossmaglen, he says: "Five of the six backs were under 21 at the time. But they came from exceptional families … the kind of values that you'd want were present in those lads. Those core values that breed success.

"That ultimately, more than numbers, is what gives success. You look across all the successful clubs across the country, that is the one thing they've been able to cultivate - a massive togetherness as opposed to massive numbers."