Carlow crisis may point to wider concern
Game in real trouble if players from weaker counties are asking 'what's the point?'
Published 18/06/2014 | 02:30
Not a night goes by when Bernard Brogan isn't on our TV screens loading his shopping basket while cheerfully informing us that if we feel the same as he does, we know which supermarket group to support.
Seán Cavanagh will be in PwC's head office in Dublin today for the announcement of the company's extended deal with the GPA. Bernard and Seán are worshiped by the sponsorship world. Two bright, articulate, successful young men, who are also multi-gifted footballers.
In hurling, Joe Canning and Henry Shefflin are in high demand. Lots of other GAA players from the successful counties get a turn, too, as companies recognise the benefits of having local stars promoting their products.
It's all part of a rapidly evolving tapestry in the GAA, falling very much under the 'good luck to them' heading, as the front-line stars capitalise on their high profiles.
And then you check the scoreline from Dr Cullen Park last Sunday: Meath 7-13 Carlow 0-6. It was the biggest Leinster SF championship defeat Carlow ever endured, coming just two months after finishing 32nd – and last – on the Allianz League tables. In March, Carlow's U-21s lost to Dublin by 31 points, six points fewer than the defeats suffered against the young Blues in 2013.
This year's defeat led Carlow chairman Michel Meaney to warn that if the depressing trend continued, there was a risk the county might not be unable to field teams at some stage in the future.
He said that around 10 players hadn't made themselves available to the U-21 panel "because they seem to think they're too good to play for Carlow or were afraid to play Dublin."
Last Sunday, Carlow senior manager Anthony Rainbow said that at least 10 players had declined to join his squad too.
"Is it the clubs not getting behind the county scene and not encouraging their players to come in? I don't know what it is, but they have to look at themselves," he said. Among the absentees – for whatever reason – was Brendan Murphy, Carlow's best player.
It's just two years since Carlow drew with Meath in the Leinster championship, yet only three of that team started on Sunday.
"Since I've come in three years ago, the panel has been completely different every year," said Rainbow, a warrior for so long with Kildare.
Despite being a historic worst, Carlow's defeat passed off "as one of those things" in the busy GAA ocean, a sad case of small fry being sucked in and spat out by big fish.
Still, Carlow are alive and back in training for the first round qualifier tie at home to Waterford on Sunday week. That should be much more to their liking, having run Waterford to three points in Dungarvan the final round of the league in April.
Who knows, Carlow might even win and dull some of the pain from last Sunday's horrible experience?
Even if they do, there's a much wider issue here, not just for Carlow but for the GAA as a whole. Why did as many as 20 players make themselves unavailable for the Carlow senior and U-21 squads this year?
Is it the first sign that players are unwilling to commit to the tortuous training commitments associated with the inter-county game when they know there's little real chance of being competitive, let alone win anything?
If that's the case in Carlow, can it be long before it spreads elsewhere? Inequality between counties, arising from size and population imbalances, has always been part of GAA life. Players from smaller counties accepted that and then got on with working even harder at bridging the gap through sheer force of will and determination. There were successes, near-misses and failures, but optimism never waned.
Now, you have to wonder. Population imbalance is no longer the only problem, having been joined by resource issues. Players from the smaller counties, especially at U-21 level, are meeting their counterparts from the larger powers in college and quickly realising there's a two, or maybe even a three-speed track out there.
The more successful a county is, the greater the capacity to generate funds, so the gap is likely to widen rather than narrow into the future. That's when the red-alert light comes on.
So many players refusing to join county panels in Carlow may be no more than a temporary blip, but it would be futile to assume that is definitely the case. Could it be the start of a trend where players from disadvantaged counties, already handicapped by geographical consideration, won't be prepared to put in the hard slog because every other dice is also loaded against them?
A two-speed game, based on population differences, is one thing, but a three-speed affair, where resources are also imbalanced, would be far more damaging to the point of being potentially fatal for the county structure as we know it.
Barry-Murphy keeps the analysis simple
As is often the case with his post-match comments, when he tells it as it is whether Cork win, lose or draw, Jimmy Barry-Murphy made a very interesting point after last Sunday's win over Clare.
When it was put to him that having had two games against Waterford was an advantage against Clare, who were having their first outing, he replied that last year Cork went into the Munster semi-final cold, whereas Clare had beaten Waterford. Cork won by eight points.
He wasn't in any way being triumphalist, instead quietly inferring that games are won on the day, not by what happened earlier. That was proven in Ulster football too, which produced the reverse of Munster, as Monaghan, in their first game, beat Tyrone, who were having their third outing.
In the modern world of micro-analysis, where the winners are always portrayed as having got everything right and the losers everything wrong, it's still worth remembering that most games are won because team A played better than team B. Simple, but true.
A weekend to sum up the fixture unfairness
By the time Sligo (v Galway) and Cork (v Tipperary) begin their football championship campaigns on Saturday evening, the losers of Limerick v London, Laois v Fermanagh and Derry v Longford will be out this year's championships, having exhausted their provincial and qualifier chances.
By the time Kerry begin their campaign against Clare on Sunday, either Wicklow or Offaly will be gone, too.
Meanwhile, Tyrone had their third game the weekend before Sligo, Cork and Kerry play their first.
Now, isn't all that enough to promote an outbreak of head-scratching among GAA gurus?
One thing is certain – it sure ain't fair or equitable.
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