Thursday 8 December 2016

Peter Canavan: Louth approach shows thinking has to change

Peter Canavan

Published 10/06/2016 | 02:30

Louth players, here celebrating their Division 4 title, have been let down by their county board. Picture Credit: RAY McMANUS / SPORTSFILE
Louth players, here celebrating their Division 4 title, have been let down by their county board. Picture Credit: RAY McMANUS / SPORTSFILE

‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result’

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According to urban myth (and Google), those words of wisdom were uttered by Albert Einstein, but you don’t need to be an Einstein to work out that the GAA is insane.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d be the first to acknowledge that there’s more right with our Association than wrong, but why more is not done to right obvious wrongs is infuriating.

One of the biggest blots on our landscape is the retention of the out-of-date Championship format. It continues to defy fairness or logic – as illustrated by the big winning margins in so many games this summer. It’s Gaeldom at its most galling.

Since 1884, we have made ONE alteration to the structure of our championship and that change - the introduction of the ‘back door’ in 2001 - could be, at best, described as a ‘tweak’.

Facets

Now, think of all the changes that have been made in other facets of life in that 132 years. The world has moved on at a pace, but not so GAA fixtures-makers.

I have previously outlined in detail on these pages a system which I think should be introduced for the Championship.

It basically involves: guaranteeing teams a minimum four games in the summer in a two-tiered Championship (senior and intermediate), with the abolition of all replays, and specific weekends set aside for club football.

The essential tenet of this proposal is ‘games, games, and games’. In the debate about what can be done to get ‘the rest’ up to the level of Kerry, Dublin and Mayo, there has been all sorts of talk about funding, facilities, training schedules, coaching officers, extending the parentage rule, moving the Dubs out of Croke Park, etc.

But, trust me on this. What improves teams more than anything is playing competitive matches over a period of time and, of course, preparing together to play in them. Ask elite athletes going to Rio and the word ‘repetition’ will feature as a key component in their quest for improvement.

Yet nothing really changes because, human nature being what it is, no-one likes having their routine upset, and I often wonder do those who run the county boards of these so-called weaker, or even middle-tier, teams really want to do things differently.

The way many of them vote against change at Congress (like this year turning down the chance to bring forward the All-Ireland finals by two weeks), and how they run their competitions leaves me in no doubt.

Take a look at Louth, ahead of Sunday’s clash against Meath. Here’s a lower-tier team which showed gradual progress in Division 4 during the spring.

They initially played seven League games, winning five, losing one (to Leitrim) and drawing one (with Antrim). This was enough for a place in the final, in which they continued their improvement and beat Antrim by four points.

This success must have been a source of encouragement to manager Colin Kelly as it re-enforced belief in what they were doing ahead of their Championship opener against Carlow. Here, the progress continued with a 2-24 to 3-11 victory; onwards and gradually upwards.

So, what happens next? Obviously, heads down and full focus on a quarter-final with Meath, their neighbours who robbed them of a Leinster title in 2010? No, the county players go straight back to their clubs.

Having been together since the start of the year, devoted themselves to training like a Division 1 team, worked hard to make improvement, and less than four weeks before their most important game of the year, the squad is forced to break up and collective training stops. Someone, please explain the logic to me.

Now, I’m on record as being an advocate of county players playing with their clubs as much as possible and practical – but definitely not in these circumstances.

How frustrated must Kelly have felt last week, trying to prepare for his team’s biggest match of the summer, as he watched some of players line out in their third club league game inside a week, and not able to train them collectively?

It’s mind boggling, especially as Louth have a decent chance of surprising a Meath team which must feel under pressure heading into this game.

The message the Louth County Board is sending out to its county team by going ahead with these club games, to me, is a defeatist one.

What’s the priority: having county players fulfil these league fixtures with their clubs, or beating Meath? I know what it should be, but it appears that the administrators are more interested in ticking the boxes; when they should be thinking outside the box.

Louth are not the only ones who have become part of this self-fulfilling prophesy. There are many other county boards who adopt this short-sighted approach and ultimately, the negativity seeps into the players’ minds.

They’ve been preparing like a Division 1 team all year, and suddenly, their training programme (which was clearly benefiting them) has been thrown out the window and they find themselves being dragged back into the world of a Division 4 team again.

The knock-on effect is that teams like Louth lose much of what they have gained to this point; the unity of purpose they had disappears and they struggle to regain their focus.

And my underlying fear, especially given all the lopsided results to date, is that it’s getting to a stage when our premier Gaelic football competition is irrelevant until the end of July.

In the past, I’d often joke with my hurling friends that hurling is a ‘minority sport’ as it doesn’t have the same reach as football.

However, the joke is in real danger of falling back on me. What I’m being told by these friends is that five counties could realistically win this year’s All-Ireland hurling title: Kilkenny, Tipperary, Clare, Waterford and Galway. In football, I believe the corresponding figure is four: Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, and Donegal. At a push, some people would say five by adding in Tyrone, though  they still have it all to prove.

If the people in Croke Park don’t start making – as opposed  to proposing – changes to the system, I fear we could be left with a very sad state of affairs. Or maybe it’s me that’s going insane?

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