Friday 30 September 2016

Colm O'Rourke: The championship format isn't going to change soon - You can only help those who are willing to help themselves

Published 07/06/2015 | 13:56

Much like Dublin and the rest of Leinster, Paul Flynn and David Byrne make life difficult for Longford’s Brian Kavanagh
Much like Dublin and the rest of Leinster, Paul Flynn and David Byrne make life difficult for Longford’s Brian Kavanagh

After last Sunday's ruthless annihilation in Croke Park, the week was dominated by revolution and calls for change to the Leinster Championship.

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 And while I can claim that at least I was wise before the event, I will not be rushing to the barricades because I have seen it all before.

Something which holds true for life in general is that you can only help those who are willing to help themselves. That has been singularly missing from most of the weak counties for over 100 years and it does not look like it is changing any time soon.

Any county board which has consistently failed to achieve for a variety of reasons is entirely negligent to their own county players if they do not actively encourage a change in the system. The same is true for the GPA who supposedly represent the interests of players.

This is the greatest single issue which should be exercising this body - trips to the United States, or scholarships or any of the other activities, are way behind in importance to fixtures and fairness of competitions.

The elite have always been part of the GAA. There have been very few contenders for the All-Ireland in any decade. It is not going to improve any time soon either.

The same is true in most provinces: Dublin win Leinster, Kerry in Munster, Galway or Mayo in Connacht and then there is Ulster, the jewel in the crown or the fly in the ointment. What is likely to happen is that those with greater populations and access to sponsorship will surge further ahead.

Dublin is the obvious example. A look at the players missing last Sunday like Rory O'Carroll, Cian O'Sullivan, Michael Darragh Macauley, James McCarthy, Cormac Costello, and add a few more like Paul Mannion and the rest of the subs and you'd have another team which would be capable of winning the Leinster Championship.

Furthermore, most of the top Dublin club teams would beat most of the counties in Leinster. The attraction of playing for Dublin is great - big crowds, huge exposure, employment prospects and public adulation. Nothing should be done to change that and a second team would not hinder that reality, but a look at the other side of life shows the unequal struggle.

Many counties find it difficult to get players to commit to their county team. Why would they spend long hours of preparation for a ritual humiliation? They stick to club football where they are graded to ensure they have a chance in their respective championship or if they are up to a certain standard can fly to the US and have a great time for the summer. Can anybody blame them?

This idea of winning a provincial championship every 50 years is simply not a good enough reason for continuing the current situation, but the debate is futile until a GAA president is brave enough to commit himself to radical change and get a committee together with the influence to bring it about.

I was a soldier on one of those committees before and it ultimately led to the back-door system. Yet it had a far more radical proposal which was shot down in flames. That was a three-tier system with promotion and relegation. Basically, a club championship structure imposed at county level. Home and away games in summer, a projection of far more revenue for everyone and semi-finals and finals for all tiers in Croke Park.

The other big factor in favour of this would be the order it would bring to club fixtures. Every county date would be set for the first seven months of the year and all counties could then slot their club fixtures around that while every county could promote their home games and keep most of the money. A win-win situation, but the provinces were the main stumbling block then as they are now.

If there is some sort of interference with the present system, it will probably involve some other round robin between the beaten counties to guarantee them entry at the quarter-final stage. This is the sticking plaster solution but it addresses none of the fundamental issues.

Anyway, it is better to travel in hope than to arrive, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said, so the battle will go on. However, it is time now for a new breed of young lions to take on the entrenched establishment. And while change comes slowly in the GAA, it only comes at all from people who are willing to put in the time and effort needed.

It certainly won't come from half-baked proposals which make for good soundbites on TV, radio or in newspapers. That can set the agenda but solutions must stand up to scrutiny on fixtures, media involvement, finance and a host of other relevant things.

Meanwhile, the nuts and bolts continue. Derry play Down in the Ulster competition which is designed to see who can handpass most. Both are leading contenders on that score. Derry were relegated from Division 1, while Down topped Division 2 so there should not be much between them. I did see Down live this year - if live is not too strong a word - when they played Meath in the league in Newry on a night you would certainly not let your pet dog out. Down were dreadful, they handpassed incessantly out of defence and rarely kicked a ball quickly to the inside forwards. If I was playing in that sort of system I think I would quickly lose the will to be a footballer and go fishing instead.

Derry are no better to watch. They had the equivalent of the rocky horror show in Croke Park against Dublin. They lost but the stink still remains. Were their tactics the right ones or were Longford's last weekend? You would need to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes with some of the most eminent theologians to get the answer to that conundrum. It is the modern version of what constitutes a just war. Is it just to pack the defence to keep the score down?

Of course there is nothing wrong with winning by four points to three and some day it might come to that. Derry will probably veer away from groundhog day today and they have some fine footballers in Sean Leo McGoldrick, the Kielts, Mark Lynch, Enda Lynn, Benny Herron and Eoin Bradley, but they don't play with joy. Perhaps now they are free of the intense competition of Division 1 they will find a new expression.

Down were singularly unimpressive in the Division 2 league final against Roscommon. Maybe it was a case of the job being done with promotion secured. Today they should be better. Conor Laverty has been their best player for a while. In the age of the giant he shows week after week that skill and a bit of class still works even if he looks more like a jockey than a county forward. He will get a bit of help from Mark Poland and Donal O'Hare. Down are on a journey but have miles to go before they sleep.

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