Tuesday 24 October 2017

Martin Breheny: Weaker counties' stars in danger of being forgotten

Dublin's Michael Darragh Macauley (left), here being challenged by Brian Murphy, has an All Star to his name while Carlow's Brendan Murphy is facing into a campaign in Division 4 of the league
Dublin's Michael Darragh Macauley (left), here being challenged by Brian Murphy, has an All Star to his name while Carlow's Brendan Murphy is facing into a campaign in Division 4 of the league
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

BRENDAN Murphy or Michael Darragh Macauley? Brendan Murphy or Bryan Sheehan, Alan O'Connor, Daryl Flynn, Rory Kavanagh, Kevin Hughes, Seamus O'Shea, six midfielders who featured late into last year's All-Ireland football championship?

It was something to ponder on my way home from Carlow last Sunday after watching Murphy decorating a January afternoon with one of those powerful exhibitions which come so naturally to him. Macauley impressed too, imposing his trademark energy and enthusiasm on the game before being replaced in the second half.

As Macauley and Murphy went their separate ways out of Dr Cullen Park, you wonder if either thought of the other for even a fleeting second and, if they did, what were their conclusions?

Macauley's career remains on an upward gradient as the main midfield anchor on the best squad Dublin have assembled since the first half of the 1990s. He has already secured an All-Ireland medal, plus an All Star award and, at the age of 25, has good reason to believe that he will add to both collections.

Murphy continues to develop his expansive range of talents and since he's still only 22, it will be some time before he reaches his peak.

Even then, what opportunities does he have to prosper on the big stages?

A yearly -- and, most likely, unsuccessful -- struggle to escape from Division 4, plus early-round defeats in the Leinster championship and All-Ireland qualifiers is the likely environment for Murphy and his colleagues for the foreseeable future.

Yes, Carlow did reach the Leinster semi-final last year but since it was their first such venture for 53 years, there can be no great optimism that it will be a regular occurrence.

Murphy took his young talents to Australia a few years ago and, despite being hampered by injury, did well enough to convince Sydney Swans of his long-term value as an AFL player before deciding to return home to Carlow instead. There was interest from the rugby stables too after fellow Carlow man Bernard Jackman introduced him to then Leinster coach Michael Cheika.

Despite having no rugby experience, Murphy was seen as a raw young talent who could be moulded into a blindside flanker. According to Jackman, Cheika was prepared to offer Murphy a €30,000 per annum deal to join the Leinster Academy.

Murphy didn't see his future in rugby either, opting instead to remain as a Gaelic footballer with Rathvilly and Carlow.

His decision was a major plus for both but are he, and others like him, destined to spend their careers as warm-up acts for those whose success is influenced by geographical advantages?

Given the GAA's structure, there will always be a strong-weak divide and since (thankfully) there's no easy transfer system in place, players usually remain loyal to their native counties. It's a distinctive GAA charm but it should not be used as an excuse to effectively dump on the weaker counties and, by extension, the many fine players in them.

Obviously, there's no way of artificially closing the gap between strong and weak, but there is a responsibility to streamline the system and raise fairness levels.

The Tommy Murphy Cup, designed to give weaker counties a chance to win a trophy at their level, had real merit but instead of working towards solving the initial problems surrounding the competition, the GAA undermined it by poor planning and scaremongering about the havoc it was allegedly wreaking on club fixtures.

One of its laudable aims was that it offered weaker counties a chance to play a final in Croke Park alongside a big championship occasion in August. That's gone now and with it the opportunity for many players to enjoy the Croke Park experience.

For a few years, Division 4 teams weren't even allowed to compete in the All-Ireland qualifiers in what was one of the most bizarre competition decisions ever taken by the GAA.

For reason unknown, the weaker counties accepted their exclusion before eventually spotting how it left them isolated.

The Railway Cups were shamefully allowed to run down, thereby denying players from weaker counties the chance to operate with and against top level opposition.

And, if many in the GAA had their way, the International Rules series would disappear too, robbing the likes of Murphy and Leighton Glynn of an opportunity to prosper, albeit for two weeks in two out of every three years.

There's no easy way to ensure that top players from weaker counties get regular openings to display their skills away from Division 4 and first-round championship games, but that doesn't mean the search for an improved structure should be abandoned.

After all, Brendan Murphy and his like have as much right to be big names in Gaelic football as their rivals, many of whom aren't nearly as talented, but who just happen to have been born in bigger counties.

SPORTS books involving well-known figures tend to dominate the media reviews, but there are other less high-profile publications which deserve to be acknowledged too.

So too do their authors, especially when the work involves the amount of painstaking detail involved in 'Breifne Abu' -- Cavan's GAA Records 1886-2011. So, well done to George Cartwright, former county chairman, whose 368-page hardback book lists just about everybody who ever wore a jersey at county, club or college level in Cavan.

What's more, he has included all of their first names, further underlining the amount of work he put into the project.

"Facts are the framework on which history is hung," he writes. Hung very securely too, in this case.

Modern management really is a cruel game. Even if James Stewart leads Offaly to a second O'Byrne Cup success in seven days against Kildare next Sunday, he will still be forced to hand over the manager's bib.

He's standing in while Gerry Cooney completes a pre-arranged charity commitment in Namibia and will resume his role as a selector once the newly-appointed manager returns home at the end of next week.

If Offaly beat Kildare it will lead to an interesting quiz question in years to come: 'what GAA manager with a 100pc success record left the job?'

That's assuming, of course, that Stewart doesn't tell Cooney that they're getting along fine without him!

Irish Independent

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