Tuesday 23 October 2018

Comment: Longford and Carlow providing a blueprint that Meath and Kildare can only admire

 

By refusing to bow to the conventions associated with smaller counties, Longford have managed to rise to a level few could have anticipated. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
By refusing to bow to the conventions associated with smaller counties, Longford have managed to rise to a level few could have anticipated. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

At the end of 2014 an ambitious player development plan, entitled "20/20 Vision for Longford" was rolled out in an attempt to improve standards in the county in future years.

Headed by their former inter-county goalkeeper and games development administrator Damien Sheridan, the plan had a few pillars. Among them was an elite player development plan that would see players involved in county underage squads continue to have their strength and conditioning programmes overseen by county coaches, even after the teams had broken up in a particular year.

Additionally, it provided for the establishment of five development squads from under-13 to under-17, and a teacher training programme that would empower teachers with the tools to coach at primary level.

The architects also identified an issue that low underage numbers created, with so few ever getting to play a full 15-a-side game as mergers between neighbouring clubs led to stronger teams and better games.

Earlier this year, the board added another small but welcome strand to their development programme when they put on grinds for their Junior and Leaving Cert students involved with the squads. The take-up for maths and Irish has been good and has resonated with parents especially, the message being that Longford GAA wants to give something back to their players in a challenging year for them.

The 2014 plan underlined an ambition in the county not to let resources pull them down, as illustrated by then minor manager Gareth Browne in an overview he wrote for the document at the time.

Browne asked: "If there was an Olympic level for GAA players, how could we help them to reach it, what can we do as a county to help our players be the best they can be?

"Just because we are small does not mean we are weak, as is often stated in national media. Why can't we aspire to win an All-Ireland?"

It was a genuine question he posed. In the meantime, Longford have beaten Monaghan in a qualifier two years ago and have now qualified for a Leinster semi-final for the first time in 30 years courtesy of a first win over Meath in 36 years.

The 2020 plan may not have had a direct influence on the composition, but as a mission statement for the county it reflected a will and a way to make the most of what they had.

Similarly, Carlow manager Turlough O'Brien has made a determination that scale is not going to dictate to them their place on any provincial order of merit.

O'Brien has consistently made representing the county a badge of honour. For him, lining out for Carlow means more than just representing their football fraternity.

By refusing to bow to the conventions associated with smaller counties, they have managed to rise to a level few could have anticipated just a few years back when the county's U-21 team were hammered by Dublin, leading to their then chairman Michael Meaney fearing that if such a slump continued there would be no inter-county football teams from the county at some stage in the future.

Supporters

That was 2014. When the county team held an open training session last December, inviting all their supporters to Netwatch Cullen Park, O'Brien estimated that 1500 were present.

O'Brien hasn't been afraid to talk up his team and his county in a way that others in a similar position might be reluctant to. No other inter-county manager is as visible on social media. That creates a connection with the Carlow people.

That same connection in Kildare and Meath is frayed.

For Meath, it's turning out to be a lost decade, with a series of extreme results that dates back to the 2008 Leinster quarter-final against Wexford when they lost by a point, having been 10 points ahead.

The county just hasn't been producing successful underage teams or clubs.

Player drain has been particularly damaging in the last year, with 11 players who played some part in their four Championship games last year now not involved. Since the end of the league six players left the squad, following on from seven who went travelling, studying abroad or just made themselves unavailable.

Kildare have fared a little better over the same period of time but, with the exception of four successive All-Ireland quarter-finals appearances on Kieran McGeeney's watch and a couple of visits to Division One, it hasn't amounted to much.

The spectre of Dublin's success in the province looms large. In a bid to bridge the disparity between Dublin and the province's biggest centres of population that lie just outside the capital, the 'east Leinster project' was conceived two years ago. It committed e1.5million to more coaching and games development in four counties.

Louth and Wicklow are part of the project but, realistically, it's Kildare and Meath that Leinster were surely aiming at, given their respective population and tradition, if there is to be a sustainable challenge to Dublin in the long term.

By the end of this year, it is envisaged that Meath could have as many as 17 coaches employed in partnership with clubs and the county board, second only to Dublin's 70 or so. As the programme continues to roll out, Kildare will have the funding for a similar spread.

But that's a pitch for the future. For now, they must find ways to reboot their season in just 12 days, with two of the harder draws possible.

Next year, they'll both have to take their place in the first-round draw, the privilege of a bye into the provincial quarter-finals no longer afforded to them.

Irish Independent

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