Wednesday 29 March 2017

Silverware is just a pipe dream, but there's glory in the little victories for Leinster's legion of no-hopers

Aidan Rowan and Longford lost to Dublin by 27 points last year – just two weeks after the high of their first win in Tullamore since 1943 (Sportsfile)
Aidan Rowan and Longford lost to Dublin by 27 points last year – just two weeks after the high of their first win in Tullamore since 1943 (Sportsfile)

Christy O'Connor

Exactly a year ago this weekend, Offaly and Longford met in the opening round of the Leinster Championship in Tullamore. The match oscillated wildly, bobbing and weaving like a buoy in an angry ocean.

Longford kicked five of the first seven points. Offaly landed ten points on the bounce either side of half-time. They led by seven heading into the closing ten minutes before Longford kicked 11 of the last 12 scores. The Longford players went wild at the final whistle. So did their supporters. It was Longford's first win in Tullamore since 1943.

But the high didn't last long. Two weeks later, Dublin crushed them in Croke Park by 27 points.

What was Longford's victory over Offaly really all for? Would they not have been better off losing narrowly to Offaly to avoid such a beating from the Dubs?

Let's switch this debate for a minute. Westmeath's failure to beat Meath in their entire history had been an itch they were desperate to scratch. Then last June, after 80 years of trying and at the 24th attempt, the Lake men finally beat the Royals. They outscored their neighbours by 2-8 to 0-1 over the closing 20 minutes as if history meant nothing.

The win unleashed a raw, unhindered range of emotions. It was also a simple reminder of how the game is about glory, and how special that feeling really can be.

That is ultimately what the Championship is. To the outside eye, those wins mean nothing to the bigger Championship picture, but every Championship is made up of a collage of small images, however memorable or forgettable.

None of the six Leinster teams who kick off their summer this weekend - Carlow, Laois, Longford, Louth, Offaly and Wicklow - will win a provincial title this year.

Most teams never have a hope of winning a provincial title, let alone an All-Ireland, but most elite sport is built on inequality. Players from those counties outside the elite know the odds but they still sign up for the punishment and hardship.

They're not aiming to win All-Irelands, they have different goals: League promotion, a couple of Championship wins, individual progress and satisfaction.

Despite the annual hammerings and recriminations, a 'B' football championship could never achieve that status in players' hearts and minds. That's why the proposal for a B championship was knocked back at GAA Congress in February.

When the GPA canvassed their members, there was no appetite for a B competition.

Carlow have been in Division 4 for a decade. They were beaten by an aggregate margin of 22 points by Laois and Longford in last year's Championship but manager Turlough O'Brien said this year that a B championship was "madness" and "discriminatory".

"We're in the GAA over 100 years and have always been part of the race for the All-Ireland," said O'Brien. "We might not have been very successful but you always have the dream that one day you might get a couple of victories.

"Those days are as important to us in Carlow as All-Irelands are to Kerry or Dublin. To deny counties and players that day or that opportunity is very wrong."

Nobody can deny, though, that Leinster football is a one-county show. Dublin exist in another galaxy to the majority of their supposed provincial rivals. Eight of the 11 counties in the Leinster Championship were in Divisions 3 and 4 this spring.

Dublin clubs have won nine of the last 13 Leinster club championships. Dublin have won six of the last eight Leinster U-21 titles, and four of the last seven minor titles.

Dublin has never been a colleges superpower but the rising tide has been lifting boats there too. Colaiste Eoin won only their second Leinster A title in 2014. St Benildus College won their first Leinster title this year. Only two Dublin schools competed in the Leinster Senior A Colleges Championship last year; five made the competition this season.

Population and finances play a huge role in Dublin's dominance.

Dublin spent more on their county teams last year than Carlow, Longford, Louth and Wicklow combined. That gives them a massive advantage, but reducing Dublin's funding won't suddenly improve the lot of other counties. That is their own responsibility.

For all the cribbing about whatever funding Dublin get, they are still the province's golden goose. The huge gate receipts they generate trickles down into games development and infrastructural work in other counties.

Offaly's planned Centre of Excellence in Kilcormac is set to cost €1.9m, and they have received a €275,000 grant from the Leinster Council.

Wexford's new Centre of Excellence in Ferns was strongly backed by money from the Leinster Council, most of which came from big days out with the Dubs in Croke Park.

"Only for Dublin," said Wexford chairman Diarmuid Devereux last year, "we wouldn't have that centre of excellence."

Despite Dublin's run of nine Leinster titles in ten years, counties still have a massive loyalty to the Leinster Championship, even though most counties have zero chance of winning it in the next decade.

Moving Dublin out of Croke Park and into Nowlan Park for a quarter-final on June 4 offers the winners of Laois/Wicklow a better chance of making the game more competitive but it won't alter the result or address the imbalance that is sucking the life out of the competition.

Change is required in the short term to try and make the Leinster Championship a more viable competition.

In February 2015, all Leinster counties backed a motion at GAA Congress to introduce a round-robin system to the Leinster Championship but the motion narrowly failed to achieve a two-thirds majority.

Leinster tried to solve its problems but it effectively wasn't allowed by the counties outside the province. How does that make any sense?

Westmeath's run last year to a Leinster final was a prime example of how that system could work; wins against Louth and Wexford gave them the confidence and momentum to attack Meath.

An inter-county round-robin would cause concerns about the potential effect on club schedules, especially when the GAA are trying to condense the calendar year even more, but some structural change is necessary.

Changing the Leinster Championship will only be accepted as part of an overall change to the All-Ireland Championship but the resistance to that concept is stronger than ever.

The goals of most counties are modest but there is still something seriously wrong when a large proportion of players head to the US as soon as they lose their first match of the summer. Just watch the drain in the coming weeks. The qualifiers hold no real appeal for most teams any more.

The old novelty, where a team could get a decent draw and embark on a run, are gone; 13 of the 16 teams from Divisions 3 and 4 last season were eliminated before Round 3 of the qualifiers. Deep down, does it really matter between making the last 24 and the last 16?

The provincial championships will remain untouched but a two-tiered Championship in a more condensed season could work if the League was done away with.

A Champions League system runs the risk of meaningless Championship games as the competition progresses, but each county needs an equal distribution of games.

Some counties are barely surviving. The structures are even more inequitable and unsustainable when they are dictating so much to club fixtures, which is fostering huge apathy and enmity at club level.

Westmeath's run last summer reflects the only way the Leinster Championship can retain any significance but who is going to generate that spark this season? Meath and Kildare should be doing better but neither is going to stop Dublin in the short term.

In the meantime, Dublin will just keep on raging on. The gap is getting wider but their success is hewn from a decade of relentless work at underage. It may be a numbers game, and the system doesn't help either, but Dublin have still set a standard for everyone else to follow.

Starting today, a mini-Leinster Championship will be played out again this summer, counties trying to get one or two big wins against their neighbours to sustain them for a while until the machine arrives and rolls over them.

That pain is inevitable but every Leinster county has to suck up that suffering until they match that Dublin standard.

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