Friday 19 July 2019

Comment: 'Super 8s' will further expose the growing gulf

It was child’s play for Kerry as they routed Cork in the Munster SFC final. Pictured after the victory is Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy with his daughter Lola Rose. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
It was child’s play for Kerry as they routed Cork in the Munster SFC final. Pictured after the victory is Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy with his daughter Lola Rose. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Have we just witnessed the worst set of provincial football finals in history? Shakespeare wrote that, "The worst is not so long as we can say 'this is the worst'."

But Shakespeare didn't have to sit through the three and a half hours plus injury-time of futility which sedated the nation on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.

Both Munster and Ulster finals were over as contests long before half-time. The result of the Leinster decider was obvious once the Dublin panel avoided being sucked up by a tornado and deposited on a tropical island at five minutes to four.

For anyone but the most fervent fans of the winners these games were a desperate bore. The argument that we at least got to admire the skills of Dublin, Kerry and Donegal holds little water. Even the most accomplished displays are rendered meaningless by the absence of proper opposition. As John Malkovich says in Dangerous Liaisons, "One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat."

Some great players were in action over the weekend but these cakewalks added nothing to their stature. The marvel of Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kick against Spain was that it came against top-quality opposition in a hugely important match at the moment of maximum need for his team. An identical goal when 5-0 up against a bunch of no-hopers wouldn't mean half as much. Great players prove themselves in serious games against serious opponents.

The provincial final massacres were not serious games. They resembled challenges or practice matches, though the opposition at training would probably have been a lot tougher.

Not too long ago a result like Monaghan's 27-point victory over Waterford on Saturday would have been greeted by calls for a two-tier Championship to preserve football's weaker counties from such humiliations. It's hard to make that case when teams strong enough to reach provincial finals are shipping similar beatings. So now the call is for a three-tier Championship.

But who belongs in a football top tier right now? Dublin. Kerry. And Mayo if they recapture their best form, though beating Tipperary by eight points proves nothing.

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You can't even automatically award Donegal top-flight status. While there is undoubtedly the makings of a good team there, do you really fancy Declan Bonner's side to be still in contention entering the last ten minutes against Dublin?

Galway are improving too but Kerry's destruction of Cork put the Tribesmen's struggles to overcome Roscommon into perspective.

Much cited as a top team, Tyrone didn't do much better against Dublin last year than the usual round of Leinster whipping boys. They have since lost to Monaghan and scraped a extra-time win over a Meath team that couldn't beat Longford. The gap between Tyrone and Carlow is smaller than the gap between Dublin and Tyrone.

Monaghan? They've been beaten by Fermanagh, who Dublin or Kerry couldn't lose to on purpose.

The significant gulf in the football Championship is not between a top half and a bottom half, it's between a small handful of elite teams and counties who not long ago would have been confident of giving them a game. It's like the US economy, the gang at the top growing ever more powerful while the middle class falls further behind.

The combined gap between winners and losers in this year's provincial finals was 49 points, an average of over 12 points a game. Five years ago it was 31. Ten years ago it was 35, but there were five games, with a replay in the Ulster final. Fifteen years ago it was 27, also in five games. Twenty years ago it was 14 in five games.

Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry teams sometimes inflicted heavy defeats on their opposition. But back then the losers were quickly put out of their misery and could seek consolation in club football.

Now we have not just a back door system but the 'Super 8s', a system ideal for an era with lots of good competitive teams near the top. The problem is that at present Gaelic football has all the depth of one of those inflatable backyard paddling pools currently being bought by heatwave-crazed parents.

Limited as Laois, Cork and Fermanagh are, they are all within one game of making the 'Super 8s', though no sane person would like to watch them play Dublin, Kerry or a renascent Mayo. These one-sided finals are not an indictment of the provincial championships, there simply aren't enough good teams no matter what system is employed.

The 'Super 8s' will inevitably contain some zombie teams. By zombie I don't mean the lads from The Walking Dead who at least pose some kind of threat. I mean the helpless slavering hordes who line up to be blasted to bits in the one-person shooter games beloved by teenage boys of all ages.

What's ironic is that hurling is currently enjoying its best ever provincial championships. Yet a magnificent campaign is being hurried out of the way to make room for football's afternoons of the living dead.

Tipperary hurlers played four games, three of which were classics. They drew two and lost another by a point. Their championship is already over. It's the same for the Dublin hurlers whose three losses came by a total of five points. Meanwhile football teams which have lost games by margins of 22, 18, 17, 14 and 12 points may yet have four or five more matches to play. It makes no sense.

Was it the worst provincial football final weekend ever? Taking the weather into consideration, I think so. We should all have gone to the beach.

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