Friday 13 December 2019

Colm O'Rourke: Hurling's tiered system would work for football

‘The proper thing should have been an announcement on Saturday night that the match was being replayed — and in Croke Park too'. Photo: Sportsfile
‘The proper thing should have been an announcement on Saturday night that the match was being replayed — and in Croke Park too'. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

It happens fairly regularly in club matches that referees get the score wrong. Very often it is of no consequence, but even in a club junior league game where things are tight, there is sometimes debate over the actual score, especially in a high-scoring game where there might be a one-point difference.

At times like that a referee must feel totally isolated because he will generally be on his own. Last week in Croke Park took the biscuit though. A national final in Croke Park with a referee, four umpires, two linesmen, a couple of interchange officials, a scoreboard operator and the whole top brass and none of them could get the score right.

That in itself looks bad, but the whole Christy Ring saga then became an embarrassing mess. Before the two teams left Croke Park it was clear a mistake had been made, but it took until Tuesday to sort it out. This was an insult to both counties involved. If the CCCC were doing their business properly, they would have had a telephone conference call on Saturday evening to sort the mess out as it was inevitable there would have to be a replay.

Waiting until Tuesday and then expecting both counties to play four days later was the ultimate insult. Meath were quite right to voice their displeasure. The GAA allowed celebrations to continue over the long weekend and then tried to shoehorn the game into Newry within a few days. They showed absolutely no regard for the players involved.

The proper thing should have been an announcement on Saturday night that the match was being replayed - and in Croke Park too. Nobody could have any a complaint with that but what transpired only reinforced the view that this was no more than a match to get out of the way.

If it happened in a higher grade would the same shambles take place? No chance. An emergency meeting would have taken place within an hour and a new date and time would have been set before the teams reached home.

It's amazing that it happened to Meath . . . The years have passed since the drama of that controversial Leinster final against Louth. At the time I thought there should have been a replay and tried to convince those involved that it was the only way to go. That view was backed by most if not all of my former playing colleagues, but unfortunately it did not hold sway.

At this remove I feel that it would have been better to give that game to Louth, as it was the worst thing that ever happened to Meath. A lifetime's reputation of toughness based on honesty was sullied in the space of a few days and, like everyday life, the most important part of any man is the reputation they enjoy - or otherwise.

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What was most wrong about that was getting the players involved. That was totally unfair. Emotions were running too high for rational judgement and it was up to the county board executive to do the right thing. The Leinster Council, of course, did not cover themselves in glory either. They did not have to accept the referee's report and it was a total cop-out on their part. They should have just re-fixed the game and to hell with precedents.

Anyway, after raking over all those coals I feel a lot better and today's game is between the same counties whose paths have gone south since then. Neither have been close to a Leinster title since and using league form as a guide it does not look likely this year either, with Dublin awaiting the winners.

However, Louth are in better shape now than in recent years having won Division 4. Meath's struggles in the second tier may not accurately reflect their potential and league form is proving a very accurate guide to championship matches so far.

That is if you want to call this a championship. It's more like a slaughter of the innocents. In the past we relied on Ulster for competition at least, if not for football. Now the plague has spread and the performance of Down is a cause of great concern. What we are seeing in a lot of counties is a sizeable number of young men who are saying loud and clear that they have no interest in spending a big portion of their spare time training and playing for a hopeless cause.

There are two ways of looking at this. You could argue that this trend is a reflection of a softness in young players who are unwilling to put themselves through any hardship, that easy living is all they want. In the era of instant gratification the prospect of all pain with little prospect of gain holds no appeal.

Of course the other argument is that it shows modern players think more logically and clearly. Where there is very little chance of winning anything the players decide that holidays, club football, without too much commitment, or a summer in America is a better deal. I don't know who is right or wrong in this debate but there is a growing individualism among modern players and a greater selfishness than existed 20 or 30 years ago.

'What about Dublin?' some might ask. Surely they should be leaders in the worst aspects of football as the rest of the country traditionally regarded them as soft. Of course they are quite the opposite in fact because they have the resources to be contenders every year. All players would commit a few good years of their lives for a shot at the title in September. In Dublin now that is almost a guarantee, like Kerry in the old days where you stood a great chance of an All-Ireland medal if you got on the panel. Dublin now occupy that space and the fame that goes with it. It is a lot different in counties like Derry, Down and Longford, who have got hidings in the championship already.

Yet despite the farce it became, what last Saturday in Croke Park proved is that hurling has a system where every county can compete at their own level and players have a chance of playing in Croke Park. Six different counties played in the big arena last week and more hurling counties will probably play there this year than football counties. Most players want the chance to play in Croke Park at least once in their careers, but even that modest ambition is denied to most county footballers. There is something seriously wrong there.

A type of tiered system would work in football as it works in hurling. It must be attractive and give a lot more counties a realistic chance of getting to, and winning in, Croke Park. So long as the score was right.

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