Time to be serious about a three-division championship
The end of the true amateur All-Ireland is nigh. Its demise will not arrive for a few years, but even the pittance that the Minister, the GAA and the GPA cannot agree on makes no difference in the overall picture.
As Bob Dylan sang many years ago, the times they are a changing; eventually even the GAA will be drowned by the tide.
The biggest change should be in the fairness of the competition. When the players from the counties with no chance finally decide that they are fed up being patron-ised and ignored, the present system will probably end, with the players telling the legislators what is needed.
That change will introduce a three-division championship on a League system with the top four, or whatever number is chosen, playing off in knockout games. Promotion and relegation will follow and the provincial system and the current leagues will end. There will be three All-Ireland winners then, each at their own level: division one, two and three. What it will mean for players is a realistic chance of winning something, which is what all competition should be about. Not money, tradition, influence or power, but fairness.
In previewing the championship, the easy part is to discount at least two thirds that have no chance in the present mongrel system which further reinforces the dominance of Kerry because, barring some major hitch, they will still be involved in the quarter-finals in August. Not that they need much help anyway, but they will accept all gifts from Greeks or Rebels.
In the past I have been accused of favouring Kerry far too much. In previewing games the obvious thing for the last number of years is to go for Kerry because their record is so superior. In times of doubt go for Kerry, in times of certainty still go for Kerry.
My admiration for them is based on the standard of excellence they constantly strive for and often achieve. They win with style but I admire them more for the way they lose. No hard luck stories, no blaming referees, they just go away and work hard for the next opportunity.
This year I hope that somebody can come out and beat them fair and square; this All-Ireland is about who can beat Kerry. There are less than half a dozen possibilities even if the Kingdom are not going to be as good as last year. No team could replace men like Séa-mus Moynihan and Mike McCarthy. They leave long shadows. The worry from a competitive point of view is that they may not have to be as good: there were not too many teams who impressed in the league.
The exception was Donegal, a team who carry a whiff of danger, sometimes for themselves as much as others. Yet they have the horse power and, I presume, the ambition. It would be hard to think that any player would mess about when all that is called for is a bit of discipline for a few months.
I played with a good few lads who might not have had the perfect diet by today’s standards but when it came to the business end of things you could stake your life on them. I prefer big hearts to pasta any day. That characteristic is something no diet or training will ever put in a man.
This will undoubtedly be a championship dominated by the hand pass; it could be called the All-Ireland handball championship, it is a plague which should be tackled.
By August I expect Kerry, Donegal, Tyrone and Mayo to be involved; add in a few more like Dublin, Laois, Derry, Armagh and Cork. That group is a bit like saying it will probably rain tomorrow: not much novelty.
Tyrone are the mystery team. At the beginning of the year they looked as if they had rounded up most of the fifth cavalry but the wheels have fallen off the wagons a bit. Unless Stephen O’Neill and Brian McGuigan return they are not a bet and, like Kerry’s missing stars, the ghost of Peter the great still hovers around.
As for the championship in general, there will be the usual amount of controversy. Where highlighting unsavoury incidents occurs, the GAA, and the players, will probably agree that it is all the media’s fault for blowing it up and things were not nearly as bad as they looked, especially if it is shown in slow motion. There will be the standard criticism of referees and the ‘so-called analysts’. In other words, business as usual. Hopefully, though, we will see players in interviews who show themselves off in the best sense of the word and not inhibited, cliché-ridden individuals who worry in case they say something which offends the sensitivities of the opposition and can only blabber “at the end of the day” ten times.
Players are clever, interesting and witty and we need to know more about them than their favourite food, film and who they would like to be on a desert island with. Maybe this year will signal a change in that direction. It would be good for the players in every way to show off their personalities.
A more thorough analysis of teams will follow in due course when the big guns are drawn. Dublin are one of those, they don’t appear to have the ammunition this time either. Always the kind word for the Dubs. If it does not happen there will be the usual blood letting.
Paul Caffrey knows very well what he is up against, he will carry the can for failure no matter whose fault. Win and he is a hero for life. No chance to smell the roses there.
And then there is the small matter of late September. Recently I was reading about the Flight of the Earls which took place 400 years ago when some of the bravest and best left Donegal. This would be a fitting time for the players of Tír Chonaill to show that the warrior spirit still lives. The provincial honours, for what they are worth, may go to Donegal, Mayo, Kerry and Dublin.