All Star cast should be in a 'League' of their own
Candidacy should be judged from the start of season – not from closing stages of All-Ireland
Prepare for irritation, a dollop of outrage and the sneering putdown: "Sure what do those clowns know anyway." It's All Star announcement week (hurling tomorrow, football on Friday night) and with it will come the predictable claims from counties at the higher end of the achievement scale that they are hugely under-represented.
Their annoyance won't take them through the bravery barrier to the point where they will identify those whom they believe should have been omitted. Instead, they will make a case for their own players, arguing that they are the victims of horrendous injustices. Still, if they don't name those they oppose, then their arguments are hollow, since even All Stars teams have to be confined to 15 players.
Two counties who won't be complaining are Carlow and Longford as neither is represented on the football or hurling nomination lists. There's nothing new about that. Indeed, they are the only two counties without a single All Star in the 42-year history of the scheme. They remain banished from an exclusive club.
They are joined in football's zero column by Limerick, Waterford and Kilkenny, but the latter three are well represented in hurling. However, 18 counties have never won a hurling award. Given the wide variation of standards across the country, the hurling imbalance is not surprising, but it seems quite extraordinary that not one Longford or Carlow footballer has ever been deemed good enough for selection over more than four decades.
But then five others, Antrim, Clare, Wicklow, Wexford and Louth have only one football award each, while Cavan, Tipperary and Leitrim have two each. The bottom 15 counties have won only 19 of the 630 football awards. That equates to 3pc, the same return as the bottom 12 counties have from the 1,260 awards handed out in both codes.
At the top end Kilkenny, Cork, Galway and Tipperary have 68pc of the hurling awards. There's a wider spread in football, yet the top 10 have taken 82pc of the honours.
Those figures clearly underline the elitist nature of the All Stars, which won't come as any surprise, since the teams are always dominated by counties which reach the closing stages of the All-Ireland championship. One good performance in August/September easily beats consistent excellence in the league and also outweighs solid outings early in the championship.
There are many who contend that's as it should be, since August/ September decides the destination of the season's big prizes. Yet, surely there's an argument that excellence over an extended period earlier in the year should count for more than one big performance later on. The league will never be as important as the championship, but it should still carry more relevance to the All Star scheme. Indeed, there was a time when that was the case, but since the introduction of the All-Ireland qualifiers, most of the pre-late May action is largely ignored for All Star purposes.
A good league campaign may tip the balance for a player in a tight contest where he is up against a rival who did well in the championship only, but that's about as close as the spring competition gets to having any impact on the selection.
The timing of the All Stars nominations distorts the judgment landscape. The meeting is held shortly after the All-Ireland finals when memories of the big days in Croke Park are still vivid. It has always been the case in sport that more recent events carry more influence than those that demand a re-wind of the mental mechanisms.
I say that as an All Star selector since 1982. It's also why I believe the balance is all wrong. All Star candidacy should be built from the start of the season, rather than back from the All-Ireland finals. A system whereby the All Star selectors publicly announced a top five in each position after the League would lay down a clear marker heading into the championship. Some of the chosen ones would, no doubt, build on the impressive starting base while others would be overtaken as the summer progressed. That system has the advantage of structuring the All Stars from the start, rather than the end of the season.
The closing stages of the All-Ireland championship will always be hugely influential in All Stars, but, under the current nomination/selection system, they stand like giant oaks blocking out the light from smaller trees which are also entitled to see the sun.
That Carlow and Longford have yet to win an All Star award in either hurling or football, while several others are poorly represented, supports that point. Many counties have no real chance of winning All-Ireland titles, but they still have – and always had – some excellent players. The All Stars scheme does not reflect that, which is a weakness.