Time to face harsh truth on falling standards
Dublin have made huge gains in last decade but over half of the football counties are now weaker compared to 2004
IT'S the myth that needs to be challenged at a time when the hype about the healthy state of Gaelic football fuels the contention that competitive levels have never been higher.
There's no doubt that the past few seasons have been hugely entertaining in the latter stages of the All-Ireland series, but away from the glamour and glitz of Croke Park on the big occasions lurks the reality that standards in many counties have dipped.
That is despite record amounts of money being spent on preparing squads, many of whom are supported by up to 20 specialised back-room experts and the club programme being decimated in summer/early autumn as local action ceases in order to allow county managers unlimited access to the players.
Our analysis suggests that as many as 17 counties were better in 2004 than now. They include Galway, Armagh, Laois and Limerick, who are all infinitely inferior to what they were a decade ago.
It's especially serious for Galway and Armagh, who between them won three All-Ireland and 13 provincial titles between 1998 and 2008. Now, both find themselves in a situation where, unless they accelerate over the next few weeks, they will be facing relegation to Division 3.
Kerry and Tyrone, who between them won every All-Ireland between 2003 and 2009, have also slipped back, albeit by a relatively small amount, while several others have also lost ground.
There have been advances too, notably for Dublin, who have made by far the biggest gains, especially over the last few seasons.
Cork, Mayo, Donegal and Monaghan are better than a decade ago and while a similar case can be made for Kildare and Meath, there are those who would argue that it's so marginal as to be negligible.
Nine counties are priced at 40/1 or under to win this year's All-Ireland title whereas 16 were in the same range a decade ago, which suggests a widening of the possibilities in the championship.
Given the vast financial outlay in preparing modern-day teams, it was expected that more, not fewer, All-Ireland contenders would emerge, but that does appear to the case. The fact that Dublin (2/9), Mayo (2/9) and Cork (4/7) are all priced so tightly to win their respective provincial titles points to an expected dominance that is not good for the championship.
Cork's price seems exceptionally short since they will almost certainly have Kerry to contend with, but it's a real indictment of the rest of Leinster and Connacht that Dublin and Mayo are regarded as such certainties to extend their dominance.
The broader question is why so many counties countrywide are weaker than a decade ago.
Inevitably, cyclical considerations apply, but that's hardly a full explanation as to why so many have fallen back, some by distances which leave them unrecognisable from where they were.
2004 V 2014
HOW THE COUNTIES COMPARE
THOSE WHO LOST GROUND (17)
Kerry, Tyrone, Galway, Armagh, Laois, Down, Derry, Fermanagh, Roscommon, Limerick, Offaly, Westmeath, Longford, Antrim, Leitrim, Carlow, Sligo
It has been crash-and-burn territory for Galway, Armagh, Laois and Limerick in recent years.
By comparison with 10 years ago, that quartet has suffered the biggest slump, tail-spinning from lofty orbits, which, in the case of Galway and Armagh, previously took them to All-Ireland glory, carried Laois to their first Leinster title for 57 years and took Limerick so tantalisingly close to winning the Munster title for the first time since 1896.
It might appear strange to include Limerick, a county not noted for its football exploits, in the heavy casualty department, but the reality is that this time 10 years ago they were on their way to the Allianz League Division 1 semi-finals, where they lost by two points to Kerry.
Four months later, they were desperately unlucky not to beat Kerry in the Munster final, but had to settle for a draw and lost the replay. Matching Kerry – and other major powers – was the norm for Limerick in that era, but is no longer the case.
While Limerick's decline is disappointing, it's nowhere nearly as incomprehensible as the deep recession into which Galway and Armagh have been sucked. Ten years ago, Armagh were still enjoying the precious memories of their first All-Ireland win in 2002. And while they were bitterly disappointed to lose the 2003 final to Tyrone, Joe Kernan was preparing to lead them on a new voyage which yielded three successive Ulster titles.
They were ranked No 2 behind Tyrone in the 2003 end-of-year ratings, but had dropped to 18th by the end of last year. Early-season form in 2014 suggests such a low rating was merited.
Galway's decline graph has been equally steep. They started 2004 as two-times All-Ireland winners since 1998 while pursuing a fifth Connacht title out of seven. They ran an excellent league campaign in 2004, which included beating All-Ireland champions Tyrone in the semi-final and running Kerry to a point in a classic final.
Now, they are bottom of Division 2 and in real danger of dropping into the third division for the first time since the mid-90s. They haven't won a Connacht title since 2008 or reached the final since 2009 and are ranked further behind Mayo than probably at any time since the early 1950s.
Galway have done well at U-21 level, but it hasn't translated to the senior grade, leaving the supporters to trade in nostalgia as they recall the days when winning the All-Ireland was regarded as an achievable aim every year. Ten years ago, Galway were 6/1 third favourites for the All-Ireland – now they look bad value at 50/1.
Laois began 2004 as Leinster champions and Division 1 runners-up, while high on ambition as Mick O'Dwyer reset the target towards All-Ireland final level. It didn't work out, but it was still a period when Laois were talked of as potential All-Ireland champions. Now, their supporters wonder if the squad will survive in Division 2. And after the heavy defeat by Louth in Portlaoise in last year's Leinster first round, Laois will be extremely apprehensive about their trip to Aughrim to take on Wicklow on May 18.
If Armagh, Galway, Laois and Limerick have bombed in recent years, Kerry and Tyrone have dropped too, admittedly not like anything to the same degree. They fought a real war in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final, which marked Tyrone's big-time arrival as they won a season-defining clash before going on to take Sam Maguire for the first time.
Kerry's response was to win the All-Ireland/league double in 2004 before Tyrone returned to the summit in 2005. Now, both are ranked behind Dublin, Mayo and Cork and alongside Donegal in the All-Ireland betting. Tyrone and Kerry remain as genuine All-Ireland contenders, but both are quite some way off the classes of 2004.
Down went into 2004 convinced they should have beaten Tyrone in the 2003 Ulster final (they led by nine points after 45 minutes prior to being hauled back to parity (Tyrone won the replay), but failed to build on what looked like solid foundations. The same happened after they lost the 2010 All-Ireland final to Cork.
It's a close call, but Down are probably behind where they were 10 years ago (their All-Ireland odds certainly suggest that).
The same goes for Fermanagh, who reached the 2004 All-Ireland semi-final, and Roscommon, who qualified for the All-Ireland quarter-finals in 2003 and the last 12 in 2004.
Derry took Tyrone to a replay in the 2003 Ulster championship, offering real hope for 2004. But they were again beaten by Tyrone before plotting their way to the All-Ireland semi-finals, via the qualifiers, where they lost to Kerry. It's difficult to envisage them reaching the last four this year.
Westmeath won their first Leinster crown 10 years ago, but are 90/1 for the title; Offaly came closer than anyone else to beating Laois in the 2003 Leinster championship but are now eighth favourites for provincial success.
Longford launched 2004 with a win over Kerry in Division 1 – now they are pointless in Division 3, while Antrim, Leitrim, Sligo and Carlow are also further back than a decade ago.
THOSE WHO GAINED GROUND (11)
Dublin, Mayo, Donegal, Cork, Kildare, Monaghan, Meath, Cavan, Louth, Wicklow, London
Dublin's share price is by far the biggest riser. Ten years ago, they had come off a disappointing 2003, losing much of the momentum they built in the previous season when winning the Leinster title for the first time in seven years. 2004 was even more unsatisfactory and while they regained provincial control in 2005, they made little impression at All-Ireland level for several seasons.
Basically, Dublin weren't good enough to break the Kerry-Tyrone-Cork dominance until 2011, but there were lots of positive developments going on in the background as a new generation of exceptional talent was emerging. The crop helped to yield another All-Ireland last year and leaves Dublin as the hottest of favourites to retain the title this year.
Mayo, who started 2004 at 33/1 to win the All-Ireland, are second favourites at 9/2 this year, suggesting that they are vastly superior to a decade ago. They are certainly better, although not necessarily to the degree the odds suggest. Indeed, in 2004 they reached the All-Ireland final, beating reigning champions Tyrone en route to a clash with Kerry which they lost.
There are also question marks about how much better Donegal are now compared to 10 years ago. The 2012 model was certainly much stronger than the 2004 version, but it remains to be seen whether they are capable of revisiting the All-Ireland heights of two years ago.
Donegal went into 2004 as beaten All-Ireland semi-finalists after losing to Armagh in a game where Brian McEniff's squad lost full-back Raymond Sweeney to a red card early in the second half. Would it have been different if Donegal had a full hand all the way?
Cork are better than 2004, having endured a dreadful '03 when they lost to Limerick in the Munster quarters and to Roscommon in the first round of the qualifiers. Monaghan are ahead too, having won last year's Ulster final.
Meath were at shorter odds to win the All-Ireland at the start of 2004 than now, but that was probably down to the legacy impact of their earlier successes. In reality, Meath were in serious decline at the time. They are stronger now, but still nowhere near the level which brought them All-Ireland glory in 1996 and 1999.
Kildare were also at a shorter All-Ireland price in early 2004 than now, but, in reality, they weren't as good back then. They lost to Wexford and Offaly in the championship at a time when they still hadn't adapted to the All-Ireland qualifiers. Kildare reached only one Leinster final in the last 10 seasons.
Cavan are also ahead of where they were a decade ago, as are Louth and Wicklow.
NO CHANGE (4)
(Wexford, Waterford, Clare, Tipperary)
Wexford began an improvement phase in 2004 which grew over subsequent seasons. They are at much the same level now as a decade ago. So too are Waterford, Clare and Tipperary.