Friday 2 December 2016

Martin Breheny: 'B' football championship answer fails test

Sharp decline in standards in many counties a bigger problem than championship format

Published 20/01/2016 | 02:30

Legendary maestro Mick O’Dwyer brought Wicklow Tommy Murphy Cup success in 2007 but it was their extended run through the qualifiers in 2009 that really captured the public’s imagination. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Legendary maestro Mick O’Dwyer brought Wicklow Tommy Murphy Cup success in 2007 but it was their extended run through the qualifiers in 2009 that really captured the public’s imagination. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

If you search for the right answer to the wrong question it should come as no surprise that it looks badly misplaced when subjected to even routine scrutiny.

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It has happened again, this time with the GAA's latest attempt to apply corrective measures to the All-Ireland football championship.

I can't believe that in the considered opinion of Central Council, the best option is to combine two elements of failed experiments from the nineties and noughties.

The plan to divert Division 4 counties away from the 'back door' and into an eight-team secondary championship tests the bounds of ridiculousness, especially since the only prize for the winners is entry to the qualifiers in the following year.

By then, their form might have dipped. They could even have finished bottom of Division 4 but they would still get a second chance ahead of rivals who were playing considerably better.

Comparison

Still, that's a small point by comparison with the much bigger flaws locked into the proposal.

For a start, the Division 4 shoot-out is to be called the All-Ireland 'B' championship. It's bad enough playing in a secondary championship without a large 'B' sign attached.

Of course, we had a 'B' championship before (1990-'98), where my abiding memory is of an icy cold Sunday in Navan in December 1992 when Wicklow beat Antrim in the final. The great Kevin O'Brien was Wicklow captain and, as he raised the trophy after the presentation, one of the handles snapped off. Somehow, it perfectly symbolised the 'B' championship.

Still, it limped on until 2000, squeezed into an end-of-season slot with no great interest among participants or public. When it was dropped as part of the new championship format (qualifiers) in 2001, nobody thought the 'B' term would ever resurface. It has.

The Tommy Murphy Cup, devised for weaker counties but minus the 'B' tag, was introduced in 2004 with the aim of giving the finalists a chance to play in Croke Park prior to a big championship game.

It worked reasonably well for a few years before interest waned among players, leading to its scrapping at the end of 2008. Lower-ranked teams weren't allowed into the qualifiers in 2007-2008, which is again the preferred option of Central Council.

It led to bizarre anomalies last time. Wicklow weren't allowed into the qualifiers in 2007 and 2008 but when they returned in 2009, they embarked on a never-to-be-forgotten run under Mick O'Dwyer, beating Fermanagh, Cavan and Down in Aughrim on successive Saturdays to reach Round 4, where they lost a tight contest to Kildare. The contrast for Wicklow between 2007/'08 and 2009 underlined the unfairness of excluding so-called weaker counties from the qualifiers, yet Central Council are now seeking to restore it.

If it were in operation this year, Wexford (now in Division 4) would not be allowed into the qualifiers, despite having beaten Down (now in Division 1) last summer.

Antrim would be excluded too, despite beating Laois (Division 2) in Portlaoise last June. That type of inconsistency does nothing for the integrity of the championship.

Asking county boards to submit ideas for amending the championship looks like the essence of GAA democracy but, in reality, it was never going to be deliver a whole lot. County boards like to run their own affairs and while they'll respond to ideas put forward by others, that's about as far as it goes when it comes to national issues.

A better idea would have been to establish a committee to examine the championship and devise a range of alternative proposals for change, prior to seeking wider opinion. Even then, it's unlikely that much progress would have been made, since it's very difficult to get agreement on competition structures.

All of which brings us to the issue of whether the right question was asked. There seems to be a widely-held, if misguided, view that tweaking the championship format can somehow bridge the wide gap in standards that currently apply. It can't. Whatever the format, one-sided games will continue for as long as standards are so varied.

That's where the real problem arises. Why have so many counties, particularly in Leinster, deteriorated over the past decade?

It can't be put down to Dublin's dominance. Dublin have raised the bar but it's still a matter of fact that virtually all other Leinster counties have dipped, compared to their peak points at stages - even over the last 15 years. The same applies to Galway, whose marked decline has facilitated Mayo's total dominance in Connacht.

Instead of asking counties how to reconfigure the championship, a more pertinent query would have been: why has there been such a widespread decline in standards? Of course the championship system is flawed but changing it will make little difference unless standards rise generally. It would be far more relevant for Congress to discuss that next month, rather than wasting time debating whether Division 4 counties should be tossed out of the qualifiers, thus returning to a system that failed miserably before.

Irish Independent

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