Tuesday 12 November 2019

John Greene: Star farce reaffirms all the old prejudices

John Greene

Paul Barden should have won his, and his county's, first All Star last week.

I do not just say that because I am from Longford. Nor do I say it because I think counties like Longford should get the odd token gesture, a pat on the back if you like, from the establishment every now and again. I say it because he was the outstanding No 11 in Ireland in 2012.

With each passing year, the All Stars lose more and more credibility, and at this stage an overhaul of the scheme is badly needed. Recent selections have been hugely open to challenge. Fair enough, picking a team in this manner will always be a hugely subjective exercise, but certain fundamental principles should still apply.

This year's football team has eight players from Donegal, four from Mayo, two from Cork and one from Dublin. So, what the selectors have said in picking this team is that just four counties possess the best 15 footballers in the country. This, of course, is total nonsense.

What they have done is reaffirm the prejudices of previous years -- maintaining a tradition of bias which has become a feature of the All Stars in its latter-day incarnation. This custom, as highlighted in the Irish Independent last week, has ensured that five counties have never had an All Star, and five more have had just one each.

Meanwhile, six counties -- Kerry, Dublin, Cork, Meath, Tyrone and Galway -- account for two-thirds of the awards. The easy defence for selectors is that they are the best and most successful teams in the country, but that's a cop-out because there will always be great footballers scattered through the country, some playing with counties unlikely to make any kind of major breakthrough. Paul Barden is such a player, as is Limerick's John Galvin, unbelievably overlooked two years ago. What was once supposed to be a scheme to herald the best footballers each year has been distorted into something very different, and vastly inferior, in the last few years.

This year's team is made up entirely of players from the four semi-finalists. Last year, Michael Foley from Kildare was the only player to feature who hadn't played in the semi-finals. Yet this was not the path that was first set out for the All Stars; this is not the tradition its originators envisaged being handed down. In the scheme's first year, in 1971, eight counties were represented in the team; eight were also represented the following year. In 1984, the centenary year, six counties featured; in 1990, seven counties were honoured; in 2001, it was seven again. Even as recently as 2010, eight counties featured, even if that particular team was widely seen as deeply flawed, not least because of Galvin's omission. In the last two years, only Dublin, Kerry, Donegal, Mayo, Kildare and Cork have produced All Stars; only six counties deemed worthy.

It has to be said that Donegal played with a sustained level of excellence right through the championship this year, something of a rarity for recent champions. They defeated Tyrone, Kerry, Cork and Mayo and were the dominant team in the country. So it is fitting that they dominate the All Stars this year. But even had they limped into the last four, and not exploded into life until the last two games -- the semi-final and final -- it's a safe bet that they would still have had seven or eight representatives on the team.

Yet, even the criteria for selection -- at least for those of us looking on from the outside -- appear blurred. Michael Murphy, by his standards, had a quiet enough year until the final, when he gave a man of the match display.

Earning man of the match in an All-Ireland final is reasonable grounds for inclusion so if that is what swayed the selectors, then fair enough. But Alan Dillon, say, who was chosen at No 11 ahead of Barden, was very quiet in the final, having played reasonably well in earlier games at wing-forward, albeit against lesser opposition (with the exception of Dublin).

The GAA inter-county competitive season runs from the beginning of February to the end of September, spanning league and championship, and yet it is clear from the All Star teams of recent years that enormous weight is given to the All-Ireland semi-finals and final and that the league is effectively ignored. This at a time when the league is being taken more seriously by teams than ever before.

The case for Barden's inclusion in this year's All Stars is very strong. Of the nine half-forwards nominated, he was the only one who operated all year -- in fact for most of his career -- as an out-and-out centre half-forward.

Longford went through the league unbeaten in eight games, earning promotion and the Division 3 title with victory over Wexford, and Barden (pictured) was man of the match in three of those eight games.

In the championship, Barden was again man of the match in the one-point victory over Laois in the first round, the highlight of which was his brilliant goal. He followed this up with two more goals in the draw with Wexford, one a penalty and one another fine strike, and four points from play in the replay defeat.

He has played for Longford for 14 consecutive seasons and, at 32, is playing his best football. He has played for Ireland and Leinster, he was named on the Leinster team of 25 years in 2009 and, in May, was named the Player of the Month, when he was described as one of the most accomplished forwards in the game.

The tragedy for him is that it was the wrong month

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