Thursday 21 September 2017

Martin Breheny: Fading forces should look within before blaming the system

Football championship system has flaws but decline in several counties is greater concern

Padraic Joyce celebrates Galway’s All-Ireland SFC final success over Meath in 2001, the last time the Tribesmen won a championship game in Croke Park. Since then both teams have suffered a sharp decline in fortunes
Padraic Joyce celebrates Galway’s All-Ireland SFC final success over Meath in 2001, the last time the Tribesmen won a championship game in Croke Park. Since then both teams have suffered a sharp decline in fortunes
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It's fun but it's facile. A flood of suggestions on how the football championships should be run will burst banks over the next few weeks after four (of five) quarter-finals produced average winning margins of 14.5 points.

Most will start from the premise that the current system is dysfunctional, which it is, and many will argue that the introduction of the 'Super 8' as a replacement for the quarter-finals does not address fundamental concerns, which is also true.

Now for the facile element. Blaming formats - old or new - for wildly varying standards and insisting that everything would be much better with a different system is like suggesting that fitting a new steering wheel to a clapped-out car would make it go faster.

Let's start with Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone. They were, in that order, the four clear pre-championship favourites to reach the semi-finals so it's hardly a surprise that they made it.

In Mayo's case, they got there after losing one and drawing three games (two went to extra-time). Yes, they won by 22 points on Monday but is that to be taken as the ultimate assessment of them, any more than the heavy defeat defines Roscommon's season?

Lest it be ignored, Roscommon are Connacht champions, having easily overcome a Galway team that beat Mayo in successive seasons. Plus, of course, Roscommon drew with Mayo last Sunday week.

Galway manager Kevin Walsh can only look on as his troops lose to Kerry last month. Photo: Sportsfile
Galway manager Kevin Walsh can only look on as his troops lose to Kerry last month. Photo: Sportsfile

All of which suggests that, on a given day, there's little between Mayo, Galway, and Roscommon, which should make for a very interesting 2018 Connacht Championship.

Mayo aren't 22 points better than Roscommon, no more than New Zealand were 49 points better than France and Argentina 23 points better than Ireland in the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-finals. You see, freak results happen in other sports too, without the system being blamed.

The easy wins for Dublin (over Monaghan), Tyrone (Armagh) and Kerry (Galway) in their other quarter-finals should be of more concern.

Those results have absolutely nothing to do with formats. Why should Galway, who are third on the All-Ireland roll of honour, not be good enough to match Kerry?

It was even between the counties (six wins each and two draws from 14 championship ties) up to the mid-1960s, but Galway haven't won any of seven games since then.

Why? They can't blame formats for falling so far behind in that particular duel.

The same goes for Armagh and Tyrone. After all, it's not very long ago since this was one of the closest rivalries in football - and at the very highest level too - yet, last Saturday, Tyrone won by 18 points.

Dublin's dominance over Monaghan is more understandable but even then Malachy O'Rourke and his squad left Croke Park last Saturday feeling they hadn't done themselves justice.

Still, given recent results, the timing of the introduction of the 'Super 8' is far from ideal.

Personally, I don't like the 'Super 8' system for two reasons. One, it's coming at a time of the championship which should be knockout and two, it does nothing for 75 per cent of counties, most of whom need more games than the top sides.

Still, it will be in place for the next three years so it's pointless debating its merits or otherwise and especially in advance of its first outing next year.

However, that should not shut down a wider and, ultimately, more important debate about standards and gaps and how to raise one and close the other.

Competition structures may be part of the process but they are not the key issues. More relevant is what's going on in each individual county and whether the very best is being squeezed from it.

That includes several counties whose stock has dropped for no obvious reason.

Why will Meath begin their 12th season out of Division 1 next year? Why did they spend a season in Division 3 and, in another year, avoid relegation from Division 2 on scoring difference only?

Why have Kildare reached only two of the last 14 Leinster finals?

Why have Offaly won only one Leinster Championship game in ten seasons? What are Laois doing down in Division 4?

Why have Galway won only one Connacht title in nine seasons and why did they spend five seasons in Division 2 before finally escaping this year?

What happened to Cork after winning the 2010 All-Ireland with a team whose average age was 25 years? They have since won only one Munster title in what is their longest barren provincial spell since the second half of the 1970s.

They were up against probably the greatest team in of all time in 'Micko's Marvels' back then, compared to the last seven years during which Kerry, the present-day masters, have won only won All-Ireland. Cork have won five of the last seven Munster U-21 titles, yet no progress has been made at senior level. Why?

Down, beaten All-Ireland finalists in 2010, made some progress this summer but were starting from a low base after winning only one championship game (v Leitrim) in the previous three seasons? Why such a decline?

And what happened to drop Derry from runners-up spot to Dublin for the Division 1 title in 2014 to Division 3 next season?

However flawed they may be, championship structures have not created an elite who have pulled ahead of the rest. That's down to individual counties, many of whom enjoyed considerable success at various stages over the last 20 years, losing ground. They are the only ones who can correct that.

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