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Monday 22 July 2019

Wicklow's year comes to a close

All-Ireland football qualifiers: Leitrim 0-15 Wicklow 0-13

Wicklow’s Eoin Murtagh and Darragh Fitzgerald collide with Leitrim’s Pearce Dolan in Carrick on Shannon
Wicklow’s Eoin Murtagh and Darragh Fitzgerald collide with Leitrim’s Pearce Dolan in Carrick on Shannon

Brendan Lawrence at Carrick on Shannon

Wicklow's life in the All-Ireland football qualifiers was extinguished at the first hurdle by a lucky Leitrim in Carrick on Shannon in yet another disappointing episode for the Garden County.

In a game that John Evans' side could well have won, it was the home side who benefited from and drew on their wonderful league campaign where they won promotion to squeeze past a Wicklow side who seem bereft of confidence and belief and somewhat lacking in any real sense of direction.

This latest defeat certainly wasn't from lack of trying. In fact, this was a thoroughly enjoyable battle in front of vocal home support but in terms of seeing something different or new from these dedicated men in the Wicklow jersey, it just wasn't to be, and they limped out of yet another campaign with barely a whimper sounded.

What's worse than just the defeat to Leitrim is that it is now seven years since any real success in the inter-county scene for Wicklow, that being the Division 4 crown won by Harry Murphy's men in 2012.

The Johnny Magee years coincided with a mass exodus of quality and established players and a plunging into the depths of footballing despair, and since that time, aside from a rare victory or a moral defeat, the county has never been able to return to the positive place it was on that beautiful day when Harry Murphy's men beat Fermanagh to claim the league crown.

With inter-county football now dying a slow and painful death due to the rise of the terminators from Dublin the time must surely be near where the GAA players and public start to question what it's all about. Indeed, it would seem that the GAA public are already questioning and deciding on what it's all about with attendances hitting shocking lows at national league games and even Leinster semi-finals with last weekend's double header in Croke Park attracting a little over 30,000 brave souls to watch Dublin demolish Kildare at a canter while Meath booked their place in the slaughterhouse for the final with a comfortable win over Laois.

Leitrim bought themselves a reprieve with Saturday's victory over Wicklow and they might get to take another breath should they get past the not insurmountable challenge of Clare in the second round. Realistically, however, death awaits them in the very near future at the hands of a county from a different world of funding or tradition or development or all of the above. And the song will begin once again.

Talk of a second or third tier of football championship is rife at the moment, but it will only serve to widen the gap. GAA President John Horan held up the Carlow hurlers as a shining example of what can be achieved and the progress through the ranks of hurling's tiers that can be made but Carlow are now more or less back down in the Joe McDonagh Cup having performed relatively well but not well enough against the big boys in the Leinster championship. Time to find your feet is not available to those struggling to find their balance in the unfamiliar landscape of the top table.

You can have your tiers in football, but it may well murder the game. The second (and third, perhaps) tier will provide closer games but it will not possess the magic of championship where once upon a time the potential for a giant killing was possible or where a wonderful run or where the results of actual work at ground level in clubs and with players could be witnessed by the GAA world on the big stage.

An achievable avenue from the lower tiers or tier is a must if the game is not to die in certain areas of the country but even that is merely prolonging the inevitable: that being that Dublin are here to lord it among the lesser GAA mortals for a significant time to come unless the traditional stronghold of Kerry or one or two others at best can slay the monster, but even that will be a seismic once-off event.

It's only by huge investment in the rest of the country in terms of coaching in the clubs that the playing field will once again level off but the results of such a project would take a generation to bring through.

Splitting Dublin to even things up might be a bit of a joke suggestion at the moment but it will become more and more relevant as the years slip by on a tide of blue domination.

Which makes Wicklow's plight seem oh so woefully hopeless. As the now seemingly permanent resident in the bottom half of the Division 4 league, what hope has the Garden County of ever challenging for Leinster or All-Ireland honours in the next 20 years?

A tiny hint of hope via a Minor team in 2018 was quickly suffocated by a business-like Dublin in Aughrim in 2019 with the clear message being that while some groundwork has been started by way of the Garden County Academy the task at hand is a mammoth one.

Improvements have been made at that level with the modern aspects of the game embraced in Ballinakill to some extent, but it appears that another step needs to be made in Wicklow to give the county any hope of improvement or any chance at parity or competitiveness.

With the Garden County Academy only getting to bring their expertise to bear on players as they enter their teenage years, would it not make sense to launch an attack in terms of skill development and coaching on players from the moment they step on to a football field at nursery level so that when the players who wish to make the step up to the Academy do so the coaches within that group will be extremely confident that they are going to receive players who have had the very best coaching right from day one.

This might seem like a slight on club coaches. It's not. It's anything but. Clubs couldn't exist without volunteer coaches. I'm one myself. But I'm not trained specifically in this field apart from a foundation level coaching award. I'm not held to account if standards aren't met aside from a disgruntled club supporter if the team takes a hiding.

Dublin's dominance can be traced back to huge funding from the GAA and the explosion of paid coaches in clubs all over the county. Wicklow, and counties like us, need that same investment and they need it yesterday.

Wicklow GAA need a plan. Call it what you want, a 10-year plan, a 15-year plan, a five-year plan, but they need a structure and a plan to save itself because it is weakening rapidly from a position that wasn't all that strong to begin with.

A means must be found to finance a team of professional coaches in the county.

Larger clubs should have their own coach, more rural clubs could share a coach.

An audit of skills and proficiencies in every club in the county should be undertaken and a pathway or ambition clearly marked out for the players in that club to reach a pre-determined standard that will give the cream of that crop every chance of competing against the other counties in Leinster aside from Dublin. Let's forget about Dublin for the next 10 years at least.

A governing body is required to oversee that team of coaches with regular updates and reports back to the County Board.

The finance for that team of coaches has to be found, whether some of it's from Croke Park, from sponsorship, from fundraising, from the clubs or wherever, it just has to be found, and a seismic change needs to happen with the very youngest of our players all the way up through under-7s, 9s, and 11s before we finally hand them over to the Garden County Academy as fully rounded, capable and confident young footballers.

With the expected improvement of skill levels and athletic ability from the creation of these new coaching roles would come better games at club level and within 10 or 15 years Wicklow would hopefully have a thriving club scene with lower drop out figures and healthier championships and leagues at all grades.

However, such decisions and plans rest with people of a higher pay grade that this writer so it's back to the qualifier defeat to Leitrim we go.

As stated above, this was a game Wicklow could have won had they taken their goal chances that arrived over the course of the 70 minutes, but a Leitrim victory wasn't undeserved by Terry Hyland's charges.

The 0-7 to 0-7 half-time score tells an accurate story about the closeness of that first half with Wicklow almost rattling the back of the net just before the break when Davy Devereux was put through on goal only to see his rocket of a shot hammer back off the rectangular crossbar and spin out wide.

Wicklow took the lead through a fisted Podge O'Toole point after two minutes and by the time Mark Jackson swept over the first of his seven points from a free after five minutes it was 0-2 to 0-2 with Pearce Dolan and Domhnaill Flynn bagging Leitrim's two opening scores.

That Mark Jackson was Wicklow's highest scorer yet again suggests that there is a definite lack of an attacking edge but that wouldn't be a problem as long as victory was attained. Alas, it becomes a very big issue when defeat is our companion once more.

The Baltinglass netminder pushed Wicklow ahead after 11 with a pointed 45 but Leitrim were level three minutes later through a Pearce Dolan free and Jackson again proved accurate from a free with a savage strike that sailed through the posts after 23.

Leitrim seemed more capable of sweeping up the field than John Evans' side and they profited in a very healthy three-minute spell where they reeled off points by Ryan O'Rourke, Shane Quinn and Gary Plunkett to lead by 0-6 to 0-4.

Converted frees from Mark Kenny and Rory Finn leveled the game at 0-6 apiece before Domhnaill Flynn and Ryan O'Rourke, who was enduring a tough afternoon with Dunlavin's Eoin Murtagh breathing down his neck, closed out the first-half scoring.

The home side hit the ground running in the second half and they rattled off three points to Wicklow's single from a Patrick O'Connor free to leave them leading by 0-10 to 0-8 after eight minutes as John Evans sent in Conor Healy for Davy Devereux.

Jackson and Healy restored Wicklow to parity, but it was clear that Leitrim were the more confident side and they took the lead through a Ryan O'Rourke free and then registered two wides before Jackson drove over a bomb to leave it at 0-11 each.

A wicked score from O'Rourke gave the sizable Leitrim crowd plenty to shout about and that was followed by a Pearce Dolan single as Anthony McLoughlin and Daniel Keane entered the fray in place of Darren Hayden and Patrick O'Connor with nine or normal remaining.

Dean Healy reduced the deficit after 27 but O'Rourke and substitute Nial Brady pushed Leitrim out to 0-15 to 0-12 ahead with two to go.

And then a puzzling last few moments unfolded for Wicklow supporters. Wicklow were attacking for all they were worth and Mark Jackson reduced the deficit to two with a free after 37 minutes of the second half.

Back came Wicklow with what was more or less the last play of the game and they needed a goal. Darragh Fitzgerald won a free but rather than drop it down on top of the likes of Conor McGraynor and Anto McLoughlin, Mark Jackson was summoned out of his goal to take the free and he unfortunately mishit the ball and drove it wide and as expected the referee sounded the full-time whistle upon the kick-out.

A decent game to be fair but something major needs to happen within Wicklow GAA or else this wandering around in this purgatory will continue forever.

Scorers - Leitrim: Ryan O'Rourke 0-7 (4f), P Dolan 0-3, P Maguire 0-1, S Quinn 0-1, D Flynn 0-1, R Mulvey 0-1, N Brady 0-1. Wicklow: Mark Jackson 0-7 (5f, 2 45), Rory Finn 0-2 (1f), Mark Kenny 0-1 (1f), Podge O'Toole 0-1, Conor Healy 0-1, Dean Healy 0-1.

Leitrim: Cathal McCrann; Paddy Maguire, Micheal McWeeney, Aidan Flynn; Raymond Mulvey, Mark Plunkett, Conor Reynolds; Oisin McCaffrey, Shane Moran; Domhnaill Flynn, Sean McWeeney, Shane Quinn; Evan Sweeney, Pearce Dolan, Ryan O'Rourke. Subs: Dean McGovern for McCaffrey (35, B/C), Niall Brady for Sweeney (60), Oisin Madden for Reynolds (64), Gary Plunkett for S McWeeney (65), Jack Gilheaney for Moran (69), Moran for Plunkett (70), Noel Plunkett for Quinn (75).

Wicklow: Mark Jackson; Jamie Snell, Ross O'Brien, Eoin Murtagh; Davy Devereaux, Shane Mooney, Darragh Fitzgerald; Podge O'Toole, Dean Healy; Rory Finn, Darren Hayden, Theo Smyth; Mark Kenny, Chris O'Brien, Patrick O'Connor. Subs: Conor Healy for D Devereux (44), Daniel Keane for P O'Connor (61), Anto McLoughlin for D Hayden (61), Conor McGraynor for T Smith (69), Cathal McGee for R Finn (73).

Referee: Barry Cassidy (Derry).

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