Thursday 29 September 2016

Martin Breheny: Championship format protects the strong, discriminates against the weak and torments club players

Published 29/04/2015 | 02:30

Sligo’s Kevin McDonnell tries to get by the Galway challenges of, from left, Donal O’Neill, Paul Conroy and Aongus Tierney during last year’s Connacht SFC semi-final. This year if Galway make the semi-final again, they will have played three games six days before Sligo face their first outing
Sligo’s Kevin McDonnell tries to get by the Galway challenges of, from left, Donal O’Neill, Paul Conroy and Aongus Tierney during last year’s Connacht SFC semi-final. This year if Galway make the semi-final again, they will have played three games six days before Sligo face their first outing

Bye, bye, equality - welcome unfairness. The Allianz Football League, merit-based all the way, is over so it's time to look ahead to the All-Ireland Championships, whose format is complete with so much sporting injustice that only those with a malfunctioning moral compass could defend it.

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Accepting it is a different matter. That can be done on the basis that it's a quirky part of GAA tradition. If that's the logic, then all is well. Rock on with a system that protects the strong, discriminates against the weak and torments club players.

We are now in the calm before the Championship storm, a period when ambition, optimism and hope dominate the outlook. It's an expensive time too, with some counties spending up to €10,000 per week on training squads.

Yet, away from the giddy excitement rests some unquestionable realities.

The League will never match the Championship in terms of public interest but at least the spring competition is scrupulously fair. Playing well results in promotion; playing badly brings relegation.

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All counties start and finish the divisional rounds together, playing the same number of games. It's neat, fair and logical. Contrast that with the Championships, which are riven with shocking inequalities.

Stephen Cluxton lifts the league trophy for Dublin
Stephen Cluxton lifts the league trophy for Dublin

Try this for example. All-Ireland runners-up Donegal meet Tyrone (three-times All-Ireland winners in the last 12 years) in the first round of the Ulster SFC on May 17. The winners will play Armagh in the quarter-final.

Look at it from Tyrone's viewpoint. They have to beat Donegal (away) and Armagh to reach the Ulster semi-final, whereas All-Ireland champions Kerry can reach the Munster final by beating Tipperary (Division 3) or Waterford (Division 4). Cork can reach the final by beating Clare or Limerick (both Division 3) and will have home venue to aid that cause.

Provincial action feeds into the All-Ireland race and, yet again, Kerry and Cork score. Since they are virtually certain to be Munster winners and runners-up (in whatever order), they will play one qualifier game between them in Round 4, whereas the losers of Donegal v Tyrone face the first-round draw.

All-Ireland favourites Dublin take on Longford or Offaly (both were in Division 4) in the Leinster quarter-final and, happily for Jim Gavin's squad, they will have home advantage in Croke Park for a 48th successive championship game.

Responsibility for the ludicrous situation where teams which are weaker than Dublin must take on the powerful ones in Croke Park rests with the county boards, which put money before their own players.

Croke Park fixtures involving Dublin yield more revenue than games played at provincial venues, but is that the sole criteria for deciding venues in Leinster?

Are counties happy to reduce their chances of closing the gap with Dublin by staging some games at provincial venues in order to swell the coffers? It would appear so. Shame on them.

Leinster also apply a seeding arrangement, which protects the previous year's semi-finalists from being drawn in the first round, which is another example of protectionism. Munster seed the previous year's finalists through to the semi-finals, having kept Cork and Kerry apart last year.

Indeed, change only came about following a threat by the squads from Clare, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford in late 2013 not to participate in this year's Championship if the 'Big Two' were guaranteed to be seeded into opposite sides every season.

And then there's Connacht, where this year Galway would need to win four games in a seven-team group to take the title. If they reach the semi-final, they will have played three games six days before Sligo, who can take the title with two wins, face their first outing.

On and on it goes, with all its inequalities, inconsistencies and unfairness. And guess what? There are no plans to re-visit the format any time soon.

Any wonder Kieran McGeeney remarked rather resignedly on Saturday: "Everyone knows the whole thing should be looked at. The championship structure is imbalanced, but it is what it is and has been that way for over 100 years. My opinion is not going to change it."

Neither, it seems, is anybody else's either. Still doesn't make it right though.

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Kilkenny way off the pace in Championship whistling stakes

It's a interesting quiz question: name the four Leinster counties who out-shine Kilkenny in hurling matters.

Answer: Westmeath, Carlow, Wicklow and Offaly. And then there's Cork, Tipperary and Galway - apparently they are all ahead of Kilkenny too.

No, it's not some distortion of playing reality but rather the judgement call by the refereeing chiefs.

Yet again, Kilkenny have nobody on the 12-strong referees' panel for the championship, whereas Cork are triple-handed (Diarmuid Kirwan, Colm Lyons and Cathal McAllister), Tipperary (Johnny Ryan and Fergal Horgan) and Westmeath (Barry Kelly and James McGrath) have two each.

Brian Gavin (Offaly), John Keenan (Wicklow), Alan Kelly (Galway), Paul O'Dwyer (Carlow) and James Owens (Wexford) complete the list.

There's no reason why refereeing ability should be confined to those from strong counties, but it does seem rather odd that Kilkenny continue to have nobody at the top table season after season.

Five of 12 from Cork and Tipperary and none from Kilkenny - now that's curious.

Irish Independent

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