Thursday 23 November 2017

Hold the Back Page: Boring elephant in the room

Did Dublin’s third league title in a row make the players feel in any way compensated for last year’s championship defeat by Donegal?
Did Dublin’s third league title in a row make the players feel in any way compensated for last year’s championship defeat by Donegal?

Eamonn Sweeney

And so another tedious National League campaign draws to its usual meaningless close. Dublin made it three football titles in a row last Sunday. Today either Waterford will win their first hurling title since 2007 or Cork will win just their third in the last 34 years. By this time next week most of us will have almost entirely forgotten the 2015 National League. Like every other National League, it just won't matter.

What did we learn from this year's leagues? That the Dublin footballers have a higher cruising speed than anyone else. That Brian Cuthbert's revolutionary defensive strategy is neither revolutionary, defensive nor strategic. That Roscommon are bringing along the promising under 21s of the last few years. That Jimmy Barry-Murphy enjoyed putting one over on Ger Cunningham and that when it comes to winning close games, Tipperary remain the anti-Kilkenny. And that was about it.

But then we don't expect to learn much from the leagues. Almost everyone agrees that the leagues, especially the football competition, don't really matter. And quite a lot of people seem to believe it doesn't really matter that they don't really matter.

The problem is that these competitions which don't really matter take up an awful lot of time. They began in the last week of January and will end today in the first week of May. Almost half of the inter-county season, in other words, is taken up by games that don't matter. Even the team which wins the All-Ireland football championship will end up having played more games that don't matter than games which do matter. The same applies to hurling. In both codes many counties will play just two, three or four games in the championship compared to at least five league games in hurling and seven in football. In 2015 every single county will spend more time playing in a competition which doesn't matter than one which does.

This is, to use a technical term, nuts. If it's generally agreed that the leagues don't matter, why waste so much time playing them? The GAA are forever convening think tanks which come up with suggestions to tackle the unwieldy nature of the fixture calendar. Play the All-Ireland club finals in December, scrap the under 21s, prevent inter-county players from playing Sigerson Cup, switch to a two-tier championship, etc.

But no-one seems willing to tackle the big boring elephant in the room. Now I'm sure some apparatchik could come up with a good line in guff about how the leagues are actually very important competitions yada yada yada, but the fact is that crowds vote with their feet at this time of the year. Last year the total gate revenue for the championships was a tremendous €23.6m. The leagues on the other hand took in €4.25m.

The 20,013 attendance at the Cork-Donegal and Dublin-Monaghan football semi-final double bill at Croke Park spoke volumes, as did the acres of empty seats at the lower division deciders. Even for those who attend, league matches are often seen as a duty to be discharged, something to be endured before the real stuff begins. The majority of GAA fans treat the league like the support band at a big rock concert and try to time their entrance so they can avoid as much of it as possible. Yet they are offered more games in a competition they don't want to watch than in one which they do.

The hurling league fares better than the football league, thanks to the more streamlined structure adopted a couple of years ago and stuck to despite the complaints of counties who wanted a return to the old eight-team top flight where no serious side was in danger of relegation. Renewed interest in that competition showed what a bit of imagination can achieve.

The football league, on the other hand, seems about as relevant as the Railway Cup. Did Dublin's third league title in a row make the players feel in any way compensated for last year's championship defeat by Donegal? Will anyone in Cork care about their humiliating defeat if the team bounces back to beat Kerry? Did Kerry and Mayo give the impression that they were giving 100 per cent in their league campaign?

No is the answer to all these questions. Kerry, as they did last year, basically treated the league as a series of warm-up matches. So did many other counties. Managers undoubtedly find the league useful for this purpose. But isn't there something extremely odd about playing seven warm-up matches, more when you count the provincial cup competitions, to prepare for three or four serious matches? It's as though Chelsea or Manchester United's campaign consisted of 10 games in the Premier League and 25 in the Capital One Cup.

The leagues survive in their current form apparently out of bureaucratic inertia. This is the way it's always been, so this is how it continues. Yet it's not as though the GAA can afford to waste the time the competition takes up. The cramped condition of the club calendar, where the business end of championships often ends up being telescoped into a few frantic weeks after players have been left without games for the whole summer, could surely be alleviated by cutting back on the largely meaningless inter-county matches which occupy the first three months of the season.

Why not scrap the leagues altogether and instead provide counties with a few extra championship games, which is what their fans would prefer to see anyway? Or at least try and integrate the two competitions so that the league does not seem entirely futile once the first ball is thrown in at championship time.

I think the GAA should move the football championship to a two-tier system in 2016, with the top 16 teams in next year's league making the cut for the premier competition. That would give us a league with plenty at stake. And to keep it that way you could have a four up, four down system every year, which would keep all the teams on their toes.

Even a bit of minor tweaking might help the football league. The divisional finals don't really make much sense at the moment, pitting as they do two teams who have already achieved their main objective in being promoted and are looking ahead to the championship.

Why not, as used to happen, let the top two in Division 4 meet the top two in Division 1 and make it a home quarter-final for the minnows. This year it would have given Offaly a home date against the Dubs and enabled Longford to have a crack at Cork in Pearse Park. It would at least provide a sense of occasion.

And if that's not possible, why not switch to six divisions, two of six teams and four of five teams? It wouldn't take as long and there would be very few dead rubbers. Freeing up the time would give the GAA the chance to examine options for providing teams with more championship games.

Something will have to change. Because right now the National Leagues are about the most boring spectacle in Irish sport, a long competition which nobody gets excited about. Even if Cork and Waterford produce a classic today that won't change a thing because both sides would, in a second, swap a league title for victory in their first Munster Championship game.

They know that the league doesn't matter. So why bother with it?

Living the dream as persistence pays off

DARYL MURPHY’S achievement in finishing top scorer in The Championship is a triumph for persistence and integrity. At 32 years of age and in his 12th season of professional football, the Ipswich Town striker has just found the form of his life.

Not only was Murphy, with 27 goals, well clear of the chasing pack after what has been a vintage Championship season, but he went into yesterday’s programme as joint top scorer in all four divisions along with another Irish player Eoin Doyle, who began the season with League One’s Chesterfield and finished it with Cardiff City, and Joe Garner of Preston North End in League One.

To understand the quantum leap which this represented for the Waterford man, it’s worth noting that he started this season with 47 goals from his 289 professional games. The most league goals he’d ever managed in one season was the 13 he scored last term for Ipswich.

The total is deceptive because Murphy spent a long time as a wide man, creating rather than converting opportunities, but it’s still safe to say that no-one thought of him as the kind of scoring machine he’s turned out to be this season. It’s a magnificent late flowering.

He’s had an honourable career, one which must have seemed unlikely when he landed back home at 19, thrown on the scrapheap by Luton Town after two years there. It’s the kind of blow which many promising youngsters have never recovered from but Murphy knuckled down to life with Waterford United to such effect that Sunderland handed him a second opportunity three years later.

Since then his career has largely been spent out of the limelight. He was outstanding when Sunderland won promotion to the Premier League under Roy Keane in 2007 and had chances in the Premier League with the Black Cats before moving to Celtic. Things never quite caught fire for him at the top level and in 14 appearances for Ireland he never found the net. Released from Celtic on a free transfer, he picked himself up again and became a regular in the Ipswich first team.

And this season, played as an out-and-out striker by Mick McCarthy, Murphy has achieved a glorious apotheosis. He has matched quantity with quality and elevated himself to hero status at Portman Road as Ipswich drove for the promotion play-offs. It’s the most heart-warming story in Irish football this year.

But it’s not the only one. Four years ago, Wicklow striker Barry Corr spent 18 months out of football with a knee injury so severe that when he returned he needed 90 minutes of physio before every training session. This season Corr has been top scorer for Southend United with 14 goals as they battled for promotion from League Two.

Corkman Billy Clarke has had to deal with not just a cruciate ligament injury but a peripatetic career which has seen him play for 10 clubs in 10 years. But things clicked for him this season at League One Bradford City, where he’s finished top scorer at the club whose victory over Chelsea in the FA Cup was one of the greatest shocks in the competition’s history.

Murphy’s fellow Waterford man Derrick Williams has responded to being laid off by Aston Villa by becoming almost ever-present at centre-back for League One champions Bristol City. Damien McCrory, from the Limerick town of Croom, had a knee operation last summer but this season the defender played a key role in helping Burton Albion, win the League Two title.

North of the border, the top scorer in the Scottish Premier League with 17 goals is Dubliner Adam Rooney — nine clubs in 10 seasons and over 100 goals. Rooney’s strikes have enabled Aberdeen to give Celtic their closest run in recent years and he’s been nominated for Scotland’s Player of the Year award. The former Crumlin United striker has had about one per cent of the publicity lavished on Anthony Stokes.

These players, like Daryl Murphy, don’t often hit the headlines at home but competition for places in English professional football is as fierce as it is in any sporting league in the world. It can be an uncertain life and one which involves plenty of upheaval. They triumph, like the cat on the hot tin roof in Tennessee Williams’ play, just by staying there. But sometimes they get the chance to do a little bit more.This season they were living the dream.

Sunday Indo Sport

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