Saturday 21 September 2019

Comment - Football championship’s unrealistic structure means league remains best hope for new bosses

Newly appointed Louth manager Pete McGrath. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile
Newly appointed Louth manager Pete McGrath. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

Over the weekend, the GAA's Special Congress in Croke Park made a number of changes to the hurling championships.

There were several by-products to their decisions but one of them has copper-fastened a fifth tier to inter-county hurling.

It was a recognition that there are a handful of developing counties caught somewhere between Christy Ring Cup level and the big boys - they are not yet ready to compete regularly at Liam MacCarthy Cup level.

The decisions made in Croke Park will give those sides a chance to compete against similarly-ranked teams at the height of the summer while also allowing the best of them to dip their toe at the deep end.

It all means that by the time the various hurling championships roll around, most teams will have a decent shot at championship silverware, or at least a chance to gauge exactly where they stand in the pecking order.

The move was a recognition that in certain counties, where the hurling community might be playing second fiddle to football, the game needs the carrot rather than the stick.

Those tiers are mirrored in almost every area of the GAA. Throughout the association, teams are ranked according to ability. There are various levels of competition across clubs, schools and universities but somehow, inter-county football remains out on its own.

Next summer, as with the summers that have gone before, we will have the unrealistic scenario of 33 teams setting off in pursuit of the same prize. The provinces can offer a better chance of silverware but even that is pie in the sky for many.

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After that, counties will need the gods to be kind and hope the qualifier draw gives them a chance to progress into the summer. But the draw can be as cruel as it can be kind.

That leaves the incoming managers wondering what they can achieve with their new charges. In all, 12 football counties were on the hunt for new managers in this off-season.

In Laois, new manager John Sugrue will know his team can compete with their Division 4 opposition. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
In Laois, new manager John Sugrue will know his team can compete with their Division 4 opposition. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

Many of them got their business done early last week, in good time for the end of the county championships, but it was notable that of the dozen teams looking for a new boss, just one of them - Donegal - was a Division 1 team.

The rest are mid-to-lower-ranked teams, scrambling for traction. For them, championship silverware is close to unimaginable even if they manage to make the ideal appointment. For many new managers, the league offers their only chance of success.

That competition is eminently more fair. With four tiers, the league is based on ability rather than geography and makes for more meaningful competition.

Of course, there are exceptions.

Defenders of the current structure can point to Carlow's great summer as an example of what can be achieved by smaller counties with a good management team and a group of players playing to a system.

But closer inspection shows that Carlow's summer was elongated by draws against similarly-ranked teams.

They were admittedly competitive against Monaghan but their three wins came against Wexford, London and Leitrim. Like Carlow, those three teams spent last spring in Division 4.

Pete McGrath teaming up with Louth was one of the higher-profile appointments of recent weeks and this week he spoke about his ambition to have the county playing football "deep into the summer".

"What you have to do in any county is first of all to get the best possible squad of players available to you and get them working and buying into the vision of what you have in mind of where they can go to," McGrath told Newstalk.

"And at its most basic level you are getting a group of players to invest and commit time and a big chunk of their lives personally to be the best they can be at this level.

"And of course you have to set goals. Goals in terms of the league and its challenges and the championship and the challenges it is going to present.

"And if you were to say to me (what the goal is) it would be that we get Louth playing football deep into the summer. And if come August of 2018 Louth are still in the championship then we will have done a good job."

Given that he brought Fermanagh to the last eight of the All-Ireland series, it's hard to quibble with McGrath but he is perhaps in the trickiest place of all the new managers.

Louth have won back-to-back promotions in the last two seasons which puts them in the ultra-competitive Division 2.

In Leinster, the form shows they are well off the pace. Last year the Wee men conceded 27 points to Meath, who were well off the pace against Kildare. The back door saw them lose out to another provincial rival in Longford.

McGrath is far from alone. In Laois, new manager John Sugrue will know his team can compete with their Division 4 opposition. Stephen Wallace (Offaly), Lenny Harbison (Antrim) and John Evans (Wicklow) will have similar ideas.

But when the league ends, what hope does the summer realistically hold for those counties and many others like them?

A tiered structure has been ignored in the past but hurling has shown the way. It might just be time to grasp the nettle again.

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