Wednesday 21 February 2018

Comment: End-game predictability does not means it's all doom and gloom for the football championship


Clare’s Cathal O’Connor wins the ball ahead of Cork’s Kevin O’Driscoll in their 2015 clash in Munster, where the Banner have been closing the gap on traditionally stronger teams. Photo: Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile
Clare’s Cathal O’Connor wins the ball ahead of Cork’s Kevin O’Driscoll in their 2015 clash in Munster, where the Banner have been closing the gap on traditionally stronger teams. Photo: Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

As clichés go, it's still quite young and probably deserves to be indulged a little on the basis of not yet being fully formed.

That process will be greatly enhanced over the next few weeks when it will enjoy lots of outings, all as trite as each other. So let's have it then. "The All-Ireland football championship really only starts in late July/early August."

Make a note of how often you hear or read that and then ask: what does it actually add to the store of sporting knowledge?

It's spouted as a term of disparagement towards the provincial championships and the early rounds of the qualifiers, implying that they are no more than part of a tedious, but necessary, culling process, while everyone could name most of the All-Ireland quarter-finalists now.

The purpose of the provincials and qualifiers is to send the eight best teams to Croke Park for the quarter-finals. Quirks in the draws can prevent that from happening but, in general, at least six of the top counties always get there.

So what's wrong with it? Isn't that the purpose of all the preliminaries, even if they are comprised of the ludicrously imbalanced provincial systems, followed by the 'back door' re-entry opportunity? I'm no fan of the present system and believe that it could be improved by re-drawing the provinces into four groups of eight, streamlining the fixtures programme for counties and clubs.

I would also favour a secondary competition for the bottom 12 counties, with the final displacing the minors (who will be U-17 from next year on) as the curtain-raiser to the Sam Maguire Cup decider.

Why should U-17s, almost always from the stronger counties, get to play in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day when long-serving seniors from so-called weaker counties have no chance of featuring on the great occasion?

All that is a debate for another time and, in the meantime, we can prepare for a blizzard of negativity about much of the action over the next two months.

It's as if there was a glorious age when all the counties were so evenly-matched that if they were in a horse race, the finish would deliver a 32-way dead heat. Funny, I can't remember that. Can you?


Apart from being inequitable, due to the different number of counties in each, the big problem with the provincial championships rests in Leinster, where Dublin's unprecedented dominance sits like a dark cloud in the eastern sky.

Full marks to Dublin for being so powerful and for maintaining such remarkably high standards so it's up to others, especially Meath and Kildare, to correct the imbalance. Only they can do that.

It doesn't matter what championship structure applied, Leinster teams (other than Dublin) would have struggled over recent years and while there are signs of improvement, it's unlikely to bring about a dramatic change in the immediate future.

That's unfortunate but the harsh fact remains that counties, not systems, make competitions.

Nonetheless, Leinster's imbalances are distorting the overall picture. The standard in Ulster may have dropped back somewhat but their championship still has enough to make for a very interesting campaign.

So too in Connacht, albeit with a smaller field, while Tipperary and Clare are more competitive now than for a long time as they battle against Kerry and Cork, whose dip is surely only temporary.

Of course it would be much better if standards were more even all over the country but when was that ever the case? How could it be, given the many differentials locked into a county-based system?

More could be done to balance the scales but while we wait for that to happen, it isn't all gloom. If the eight best teams arrive in Croke Park for the quarter-finals, should it not be celebrated, rather than accompanied by weary sighs and the comment: "Sure we knew who they would be months ago?"

After all, predictability isn't confined to GAA. Last August virtually every soccer supporter would have correctly called the top six in the English Premier League, where the gap between top (Chelsea) and eighth (West Brom) stands at 45 points (equivalent of 15 wins) with one series of games remaining.

Celtic are 30 points ahead of Aberdeen in Scotland and 54 points clear of fifth-placed Hearts. Barcelona and Real Madrid are way ahead of the rest in Spain as are Bayern Munich in Germany, while Monaco are 23 points ahead of fourth-placed Lyon.

And when the rugby World Cup comes around, it won't demand much expertise to predict the quarter-finalists.

It appears that the hard facts of life that a gap is inevitable between the top sides and the rest is accepted across the world, but not in GAA-land, despite the obvious constraints which arise from the county system.

The football championship is far from perfect but guess what? It's not as bad as the naysayers would have you believe either.


First-place finish doesn’t always carry top prize

Westmeath hurlers topped the Leinster hurling ‘round robin’ table last year, the prize for which was a quarter-final clash with Galway, whereas second-placed Offaly were paired with Laois.

The pre-ordained pairings featured a clear anomaly, matching the winners against one of the top All-Ireland contenders and second-placed against much lower-ranked opposition. The Leinster Council responded this year by waiting until the ‘round robin’ was finished and then drawing the quarter-final pairings. 

Once again, the top team fared worse than the runners-up as Laois, who won all three games, drew in-form Wexford, whereas Westmeath (one win from three games) drew Offaly, who finished eight points behind the Model men in 1B.

It could be classed as an evening out of luck for Michael Ryan (left) and his Westmeath team over the two years but it still seems odd that the prize for second place is better than for first.

Would it not be fairer to automatically pair the ‘round robin’ winners against the weaker of the automatic quarter-final qualifiers?


Has black card spawned new form of super-cynicism?

Páraic Duffy said it was “really important that referees get it right more often this summer”, while former top referee Pat McEnaney dispensed with diplomacy, stating that “it was a bit embarrassing at times during last year’s championship”.

‘It’ is the implementation of the ‘black card’, a refereeing task that, in theory, looks fairly straightforward but which is becoming increasingly controversial. Why is that the case? After all, how difficult can it be to decide when a player commits a cynical foul?

‘Very’ appears to be the answer, despite the rule being in place since 2014. Interestingly, Duffy believes – and it’s a view shared by many referees – that the problem is being exacerbated by a growing trend among fouled players to attempt to make it look like a black-card offence.

In effect, it’s cheating. It’s risky too. If you get an opponent sent off in the wrong today, you could be the victim next week.

In which case, don’t look for any sympathy. The rule was brought in to stamp out cynical fouling, which is good for all players, but it now appears that a new form of super-cynicism has crept in.

Irish Independent

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