Thursday 27 July 2017

Leinster caught in Dublin's grip

Diarmuid Connolly tussles with Westmeath’s James Dolan during last year’s Leinster SFC final, which was inevitably won by Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Diarmuid Connolly tussles with Westmeath’s James Dolan during last year’s Leinster SFC final, which was inevitably won by Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

If Leinster counties outside Dublin had any doubts about how the public regard their current status in the football world, they got an emphatic answer from the online response to a piece in this newspaper on Thursday.

We pointed out that if the Leinster final finishes level on July 16, the replay cannot be in Croke Park because of the U2 concert, which takes place on the following weekend.

Wicklow boss Johnny Magee. Photo by Ray Lohan/Sportsfile
Wicklow boss Johnny Magee. Photo by Ray Lohan/Sportsfile

It should not be beyond the bounds of reasonable speculation to assume that a provincial final might end level but it's considered so improbable in Leinster football that comparisons were drawn with the likelihood of the world ice-skating championships taking place in hell.

That view is backed up by the markets, which have Dublin at 1/25 favourites to win Leinster for the 12th time in 13 seasons, with Meath a distant second on 18/1, followed by Kildare on 22/1.

Inferior

It's bad enough that two traditionally strong counties are so inferior to Dublin but it gets worse from there on. Despite reaching the last two Leinster finals, Westmeath are 80/1 for this year's title, followed by Laois 125/1, Wexford 200/1, Longford and Offaly 300/1, Louth 500/1, Carlow and Wicklow 1000/1.

It takes 10 games to complete the Leinster championships, but if those assessments are remotely accurate, it might be as well to declare Dublin the champions, with the rest heading directly for the All-Ireland qualifiers.

At least that way, it would leave all the counties to work on their club fixture programme, prior to entering the All-Ireland series.

Of course that won't happen, but even mentioning it highlights the imbalance that currently exists between Dublin and rest of Leinster.

It's possible that special circumstances have arisen, making it far more difficult for Dublin's Leinster rivals than would have been the case in the past.

Many people believe that the current Dublin squad is the best ever produced by the county, in which case it's not surprising that their harvests are so bountiful.

Even if that is true, it comes nowhere close to offering a credible explanation as to why the rest of Leinster are no more than mere specks in Dublin's rearview mirror.

The unfortunate truth is that most of the Leinster counties have deteriorated - some at an alarming rate - since the turn of the Millennium.

Meath started the 21st century as All-Ireland champions, only to be replaced as Leinster champions by Kildare in 2000, who also won the provincial title in 1998. Laois ended a 57-year wait for a Leinster title in 2003 and a year later, Westmeath made the provincial breakthrough for the first time.

Offaly, league winners for the first time in 1997, were still strong enough to reach the Leinster final in 2006.

Wexford reached the 2005 league final and the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final. Wicklow advanced to Round 4 of the All-Ireland qualifiers in 2009, beating Ulster trio, Fermanagh, Cavan and Down who, a year later, came within a point of Cork in the All-Ireland final.

Contrast that with the last five seasons, during which Wicklow have won only two qualifier games while suffering some very big defeats.

The decline of so many Leinster counties betrays the adage that a rising tide lifts all boats. Dublin's surge has reached record levels but instead of hoisting other boats with them, the blue swell is sinking all around it.

Wicklow manager Johnny Magee has been consistently outspoken about what he regards as a world of 'haves and have-nots', with the divide growing wider all the time.

He fears it may even be too late to arrest a trend which can only be to the detriment of football.

Wicklow's introduction to 2017 brought a big defeat by Meath in the O'Byrne Cup last Sunday, after which Magee applied some perspective.

"Andy (McEntee) is working off a panel of 50 and is sending two teams around the country playing challenge matches. I don't have the resources to do that. I wish I had but that's the way it is," he said.

Magee also made an interesting point about how difficult it is to promote so-called weaker counties.

"You guys (media) work for the papers and if I do an interview or try to promote something, are you going to print my article ahead of Jim Gavin's?

"No, you're not because your editor will say the Wicklow manager won't get people to buy the paper or get hits on the internet.

"So it's hard for me to get a sponsor in. And Dublin have eight sponsors. So it's not like-for-like. How are we meant to combat that?"

As a former Dublin player, he is ideally placed to comment on the difference between the top and bottom ends of the scale, worlds which simply have to be aligned to some degree if the inter-county structure is to continue in a meaningful, not to mention, fair way.

As for his remarks about Meath's capacity to carry a large squad and take challenge games around the country, they might lead an outsider with no knowledge of the GAA scene to assume that the Royals are one of football's super-powers which, of course, is no longer the case.

They haven't been in Division 1 for 11 years, during which they have even dipped into Division 3.

They last won the Leinster title in 2010, a success that still carries an asterisk.

Prior to that, their last Leinster title was won in 2001. Meath haven't reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals since 2009, which is in keeping with their average league position (12th) over the past five years.

Who would have foreseen such a lengthy recession after the glory period of 1986-2001, during which four All-Ireland and eight Leinster titles were secured?

And who would have anticipated that the gains made by Kildare in the late 1990s and into the 2000s would turn out to be no more than passing riches?

Granted, they enjoyed a series of good runs in the All-Ireland qualifiers under Kieran McGeeney, regularly making the quarter-finals, but they failed to win a Leinster title, even at a time when Dublin were a long way below current their powerhouse levels. Indeed, they have reached only one Leinster final (2009) in the past 14 seasons.

Laois have dropped back too. In 2012, they came within of goal of Dublin, the defending All-Ireland champions, in the quarter-final but have since suffered two double-digit defeats against Gavin's men. They also find themselves in Division 3 for the first time in many years.

Offaly, complete with a proud tradition of finding lots of nuggets in small mines between 1960 and 2006, have drifted into the bottom third, standing at 23rd in the average league placings over the past five years.

Wexford looked as if they were building something impressive under Jason Ryan but have since dropped into Division 4.

The All-Ireland quarter-finalists line-up over the past four years makes more depressing reading for Leinster. Despite being the largest province, they have had the fewest representatives.

Dublin have been in all four quarter-finals and were joined by Kildare in 2015 but that's as good as it got for Leinster.

Meanwhile, Ulster have had 13 representatives, Munster eight and Connacht six in the same period.

So here's the big question: why has Leinster (other than Dublin) suffered such a catastrophic power failure?

Given their respective populations and the numbers playing football, there's no reason why, in particular, Meath and Kildare aren't doing a whole lot better. Their experiences on the club scene is, perhaps, a pointer to the source of the problem.

Moorefield (2006) were the last Kildare club to win the Leinster senior title, while the trophy hasn't gone to Meath since 2002 when Dunshaughlin were successful. Meath haven't even had a finalist since Skryne lost to Portlaoise in 2004.

Nine of the last 12 Kildare titles have been won by Sarsfields and Moorefield, pointing to a tight Newbridge control.

Slick

In fairness to both clubs, they run slick operations but their dominance, broken once by Athy in the last seven years, isn't necessarily good for Kildare in an overall sense.

Ultimately, it's up to Kildare and Meath themselves to get all their structures right so they improve to a level which makes them competitive on the All-Ireland scene.

Unlike several other Leinster counties who have very limited resources, Meath and Kildare draw from large population bases and also possess the capacity to generate the levels of finance currently rustling around at the top end of the market.

Frankly, neither has a legitimate excuse for being so far down the pecking order. Eight Leinster counties will be in Divisions 3 and 4 this year, with Meath and Kildare in Division 2, leaving Dublin as the sole representatives in the top flight.

Even then, only Wexford and Westmeath (Division 4) are favourites to be promoted. That contrasts starkly with Ulster, who will have Donegal, Tyrone, Monaghan and Cavan in Division 1 and Derry and Fermanagh in Division 2.

It behoves Leinster to address why that is the case.

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