Sunday 21 January 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Inter-county schedule crying out for new deal

Kerry’s Barry O’Sullivan was harshly sent off during last week’s under 21 semi-final with Galway. Photo: Sportsfile
Kerry’s Barry O’Sullivan was harshly sent off during last week’s under 21 semi-final with Galway. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

A few clear-cut trends have emerged already this year. One of them is that there is a growing and more vocal disenchantment with the present championship structure. What players and supporters realise from the league is that you only get real competition between teams of a similar standard.

 The championship in this context is a shambles which meanders along until the quarter-finals in August and even at this stage most people who have even a passing interest in the GAA know at least six of the counties who will form the new golden circle next year.

Perhaps this is part of the grand plan from our leading officials who put forward the idea of a top-eight shoot-out which will cast the poor and weak into the wilderness for eternity. Maybe they realise that unless there is a radical shift in discussion then the real change which they favour has no chance of getting through. Could they be so devious and cunning?

Anyway, while there is general agreement that the present system is totally wrong, there is much less consensus on a 'new deal', a phrase associated with President Franklin D Roosevelt and getting the United States out of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

We need somebody of similar vision in the GAA who can set out the agenda for the next ten years. Without proper reform of the championship, the super eight won't save it from the dwindling crowds of the recent past. Between the Club Players Association, the GPA, county boards, central council and provincial councils, there is little or no consensus.

Until a select committee representing all interested parties sits down and draws up a completely new schedule of county football, we will continue to lurch from one crisis to another.

There is no point in the CPA coming out with radical new proposals on club activity and putting forward ideas on the number of games that club players should have. Almost all of these proposals are entirely dependent on county activity and until such time as a proper fixture schedule is set in stone then all discussion about anything that regard in the GAA is hot air.

Any committee looking at structures also needs to look at the number of competitions and their timing. A sound basis in common sense is also vital.

What purpose is there, for example, in having a junior football championship at county level? A county footballer is a senior player. Everyone else is a club player. County football is not supposed to pander to those who are not good enough for the senior side.

What is the reasoning for an under 17 or under 20 competition? Is it scientifically-based or just decided on a hunch? Should third-level players have their competitions in spring at the busiest time of the year for them or should all county activity move to a later start considering nearly all counties have most of their games played already for the year. Put a group together who will tease out all these issues.

Radical changes are needed and if a committee has to start off on the premise that the provincial championships are sacrosanct then they should immediately fold their tent and go less than quietly into the night.

The only basis for discussion should be that the system is unprejudiced, that all players and all counties are treated equally, that every player from every county gets to play in Croke Park at least twice a year and there should be rewards for counties who promote the game in the best fashion. This is not as difficult as it seems.

The league points the way forward. At least three of the four divisions were very competitive and there were a lot of good games, while the Kerry-Dublin final gave a feel-good factor to the whole competition. There was some awful muck too but we tend to forget easily and the new committee needs to look at rule changes as well. Banning playing the ball back to the goalkeeper and kicking frees backwards in your own half could only improve things. And more radical rule changes should start at underage levels and work up, free from the self-interest of some county team managers .

What has not gone away during the league is the continuous use of yellow and black cards by referees. When Meath played Down in Newry, referee Martin McNally seemed intent on flashing a yellow card at anyone who even looked as if they were going to throw themselves into a tackle.

The difference between that (and I could pick out plenty of other similar examples of refereeing) and the final between Dublin and Kerry was night and day. In that final the referee was not the centre of attention and allowed players to get stuck in.

Now that Lent is over, the resolution of being nice to referees is no longer valid. Last Saturday I watched Brendan Cawley referee Galway and Kerry in the All-Ireland under 21 semi-final. Galway were much the better team and should have been at least 15 points ahead of a highly fancied Kerry side by half-time.

During that first half, Kerry's Barry O'Sullivan was given a yellow card when there was not even a hint of a foul - two players merely jostling for possession under a kick-out. Then in the second half, O'Sullivan was involved in a tangle of legs and was given another yellow and a red. It had a material effect on the game as Kerry were only four points down with about 15 minutes left to play.

The reporting of this in general was that O'Sullivan's red was harsh. It was not just that - it was wrong. There should have been one yellow card in the whole game, I think it was Galway's Liam Kelly who pulled a Kerry forward back when going through near the end of the game. Other than that it was an easy game to referee. I wonder what the assessor's report on this game contained. Did he agree with all the other yellow cards? If these reports were published then all of us who know nothing about football could be educated. In the meantime, I think referees should be shy about showing yellow cards and in underage football there is rarely a need for them at all.

Galway won because they were the better team and I was very impressed with Michael Daly, Peter Cooke, Seán Ó Ceallaigh and Cillian McDaid in a very well-drilled outfit. They have a few players who will be of interest to Kevin Walsh very quickly. Yet at the end of this match I felt sorry for a young man who suffered in the wrong with a decision which could have had a significant effect on the result. I could not help but think that the advice to referees, in all underage games, should be 'let them play'.

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