Thursday 27 October 2016

Martin Breheny: Widening gulf is bad for football

Dublin v Kerry a dream final duo but lesser lights must be given incentive to stop further decline

Published 16/09/2015 | 02:30

The scoreboard shows Dublin’s landslide victory over Longford in this year’s Leinster SF championship
The scoreboard shows Dublin’s landslide victory over Longford in this year’s Leinster SF championship
Italian Flavia Pennetta showed in the US Open that an outsider can go all the way

If the 43rd and 26th ranked women in world tennis can reach the US Open final, what's to stop Sligo and Longford reaching the All-Ireland football final?

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Quite a lot, of course, but the general principle of underdogs believing they can chew up favourites is still worth exploring in a GAA context.

Italians Flavia Pennwetta (26th ranked) and Roberta Vinci (43rd) stunned the tennis world by qualifying for the US Open final on Saturday.

Penetta was a 200/1 shot pre-tournament, while Vinci didn't even merit a quote, although it was later calculated that the odds against the pair reaching the final were around 10,000/1.

There was nothing freakish about their achievements. They - and others - scattered the top seeds over the two weeks and, in the process, gave every other lower-ranked player an injection of inspiration that no psychological conditioning could ever provide.

How Gaelic football could benefit from a similar shock to the system. The issue here isn't that Kerry and Dublin, who between them have won nearly as many All-Ireland titles as the rest of the counties combined, are in another final but that there appears to be a growing sense that the gap between the elite and the rest is widening into an unbridgeable chasm.

That assessment is best illustrated by the unsatisfactory situation in Leinster, where Dublin are so far ahead that the others are no more than remote specks in their rear-view mirrors.


There's an unusual situation in Connacht too, where Mayo are enjoying their longest ever period of dominance without succeeding in advancing it to All-Ireland glory.

So far, at least, there's no sign of a break-up of the Kerry-Cork dominance in Munster, although it will be interesting to see how Tipperary fare over the next few seasons as more of their very talented underage players progress to the senior squad.

The big danger is that as power becomes more concentrated in fewer counties, their capacity to raise money for use in further squad development will help extend their lead at the top.

That, in turn, increases the sense of despondency elsewhere. It's a cycle that would be very bad for business.

Still, as Pennetta and Vinci showed the tennis world at the age of 33 and 32 respectively, there's always a way to beat the odds.

Even as Dublin and Kerry prepare for the final game of the season, other counties are already beginning to plan for next year. Central to that must a self-belief that they can improve from whatever base they currently occupy.

Of course, the system should be encouraging that approach. The All-Ireland championship format is currently up for review, with proposals being submitted to Croke Park for consideration in November.

Don't expect anything radical. The reality is that most GAA people - including players - want the provincials to continues, leaving little room for manoeuvre outside the current system, which offers losers a second chance in the qualifiers.

The main concentration is always on the championship and especially in a season like this which produced a string of one-sided games.

But what about the Allianz League, where there are few criticisms of the four-division structure which has been in place since 2008? But is it the best system? For the previous nine seasons, a two-division format applied, with the top 16 counties divided into 1A and 1B, each of equal merit.

The same applied for the bottom 16 in 2A and 2B. My colleague Colm Keys argued cogently on these pages some weeks ago that a return to that set-up would help to even out standards as it gives teams, currently in the second division, a chance to play four of the top eight sides every year.

They often have to play them in the championship anyway so why not earlier in the year too when their prospects of doing better would be higher at a time when teams aren't wound up to peak fitness. If playing stronger opposition improves players, it makes sense to manipulate the league to achieve that goal.

Besides, it would freshen up the fixtures list, giving the public a chance to see games they have been missing out on because of the rigid divisional system. For example, Meath haven't played Dublin in the league for seven years. Here's how it would work. The top two finishers in 1A and 1B would play in the semi-finals, with the bottom two in each group, dropping into 2A and 2B and replaced by the two highest finishers in those sections. It's how it was from 1999 to 2008.

By way of illustration, the following are sample divisions, drawn from the 16 who will be in Divisions 1 and 2 next year (four each from either group.

1A: Dublin, Cork, Monaghan, Roscommon, Tyrone, Meath, Cavan, Armagh.

1B: Kerry, Mayo, Donegal, Down, Galway, Derry, Laois, Fermanagh.

2A: Kildare, Sligo, Clare, Longford, Louth, Antrim, Carlow, Wicklow.

2B: Westmeath, Tipperary, Limerick, Offaly, Wexford, Leitrim, Waterford, London.

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