Wednesday 28 September 2016

Back door offers much to minnows

Published 06/07/2009 | 09:59

TRADITION is the cause of many strange happenings in the GAA, some good, some not so good, but it came as a shock to many followers in the two counties when the draw for the qualifiers threw neighbours Longford and Leitrim together in the All-Ireland championship for the first time in the 125-year history of the GAA.

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Little wonder there was extra bite when the two sides met in Carrick-on-Shannon on a glorious summer’s evening, and who could have imagined that there would have been a delayed start in order to cater for the large crowd as seven o’clock neared. This is the sort of thing that is only supposed to happen to the ‘big’ counties such as Dublin, Kerry or Cork.

Outsiders who often dread, or possibly look forward to, long-standing local derbies between various pairs of the top teams, need not have worried about nasty or unseemly behaviour in this local encounter. True, they have often met in the National League, but the absence of a championship clash meant that nasty overtones were absent on Saturday night.

Counties like Longford and Leitrim know their place in the scheme of things in the GAA. Their aspirations remain modest to a fault and championship football for them invariably ends in the month of July or, more often, in June. But that does not detract from the excitement, born out out of eternal optimism, which gives GAA followers in both counties a lift when championship time comes around.

Traditionally, Longford would regard themselves as slightly better than Leitrim in their contests over the years, but that perceived edge is never sufficient to allow Longford people to adopt a superiority complex.

On Saturday, that trend was maintained, as for most of the game the visitors were that bit sharper and always found it easier to get scores. A large crowd, by the standards of such a pairing, provided a great atmosphere and as so often happens with Leitrim, they trailed in the third quarter but rallied strongly towards the finish. Alas for Leitrim, another custom was followed when they ended up as narrow losers – the dominant component of Leitrim senior football teams for decades, with the exception of their Connacht victory in 1994.

Lots of people will decry a pairing like this, regarding it only as a statistic on this year’s GAA calendar, but that is a big mistake. After all, what have Longford and Leitrim to play for other than excellent competitive games at their own level like this one? There really IS more to the championship than Tyrone, Cork, Dublin, Kerry and the other handful of big guns. In fact, there are about 20 counties like Leitrim and Longford for whom games like this are the very cornerstone of inter-county football.

There was no better example on Saturday than Wicklow where there was a great contest between them and Fermanagh – another ‘two-of-a-kind’ encounter similar to the Louth- Tipperary and Wexford-Offaly pairings.

Playing competitively in games where one team is not overwhelmed is the only sure way to improve standards and build enthusiasm among players and fans. Unfortunately, the current provincial system does not cater sufficiently for this need and it was only the luck of the draw that gave us so many even and exciting contests on Saturday.

We have an unusually high number of socalled weaker counties in both the first and second round draws of the qualifiers this year, with Division 3 or 4 providing almost half the round two qualifiers. Fly-by-night followers will not like that, preferring big-name clashes, but at local level this development gives a new lease of life to many smaller counties. There is a clear guideline there for the GAA if they want to improve the lot of the vast majority of counties. But don’t hold your breath!

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