Sunday 22 July 2018

Horan proposal for secondary competition a primary concern

That most players know they can't lift Sam doesn't matter - that was never the point

Carlow’s Trevor Smith is challenged by Donal Brennan of Leitrim during the 2006 Tommy Murphy Cup semi-final. The ‘second-tier championship’ was abolished after just five seasons. Photo: Sportsfile
Carlow’s Trevor Smith is challenged by Donal Brennan of Leitrim during the 2006 Tommy Murphy Cup semi-final. The ‘second-tier championship’ was abolished after just five seasons. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

After Clare were torn apart by Tipperary in the Munster hurling final in 1993, demonstrating an embarrassing gulf in class, the late journalist Raymond Smith suggested it might be time for the humbled to consider playing in the All-Ireland B championship. Emotions were raw in the wake of this loss and those words were like petrol tossed on to a flame. However sincere its intention, the idea was met with a visceral reaction. People felt outraged. Demeaned.

Smith was making a point empty of emotion, one based on the logic of a team finding more solace in a competition where they would be competitive than in one in which they were being slaughtered. Clare's history of capitulation in Munster finals helped form this opinion. They hadn't won a provincial title in 61 years. But in two more years they would win Munster and an All-Ireland, simply unthinkable when Smith was contemplating that a different galaxy might be beneficial.

In what's been a short time in office, GAA President John Horan has re-opened the debate on the merits of a second tier football championship. It is unclear what structure, if any, Horan had in mind when floating this idea in a recent interview. He did not go into any detail and attempts to get a response from the president in recent days were unsuccessful. But ten years after the demise of the ill-fated Tommy Murphy Cup, the mere mention of a secondary football competition tends to elicit a heated response.

The Armagh footballer Brendan Donaghy, whose county has just earned promotion from Division 3 of the National League, reflected some of that constituency's thinking in recent days. When a player says that something "turns his stomach" it is clear he wants to be heard. In a piece with the Irish News, Donaghy dismissed the notion of a second tier championship as an "insult" to players.

"I'm sure if you asked any player, regardless of what division they're in or where they're at, if they wanted to play in a 'B' championship, I know from my own point of view and everybody in that changing room, they'd be disgusted," he said.

"Nobody, when they start playing football, aspires to be playing in a 'B' championship. When I was growing up, I didn't sit and think to myself 'ah, winning Sam Maguire would be good but if I could win something lesser, that'd be a good job'".

But this, in some shape or form, appears to be the way the GAA is headed, unhappy with mismatches in the provinces and qualifiers and mindful of the qualifiers having gone stale. The Super 8 model is catering for the game's elite, boosting its profile and cementing its status while leaving those outside of that loop feeling more alienated. Horan's desire for a secondary championship may be regarded as a bid to appease that demographic.

Selling it is key; they will need convincing. Already, as evidenced by reactions like Donaghy's, there is a tendency to see secondary as a kind of stigma. You have those competing in the main championships and then that other competition for the less worthy. Many players would argue that they'd rather not be part of something that could be construed as a patronising compensation, a clap on the back for being such good sports.

Which creates the need to make this somehow meaningful and appealing to a GAA player conditioned and entrenched in his thinking. There really is only one championship in his mind. That most know they can't win it doesn't matter. That was never the point of the exercise. They always took part and felt like they belonged.

The proposed secondary competition Horan is presumably talking of would still allow this, but offer an alternative if that road comes to an early halt. The trick then is to create enough incentive to stimulate the kind of response that was patently lacking in the Tommy Murphy Cup. That died a death after five seasons and endless strife and controversy.

Two years ago a secondary competition involving the eight counties in Division 4 of the National League, who would be denied access to the qualifiers, aroused an opposition so fierce it failed to make Congress as a motion. The GPA found that its members were dead set against the idea. That sentiment also prevailed in comments from the GPA chairman, Seamus Hickey, only last January.

"We had the Tommy Murphy Cup some years ago, which was fairly inconsequential," said Hickey. "We always listen to the players but as of now there's no appetite among footballers for a second-tier championship."

The Murphy Cup had well-meaning intentions in trying to cater for those counties who could never have any realistic prospect of winning an All-Ireland. But in the first year the apathy showed in only four counties taking part. One of those, Sligo, was a finalist but over a third of their players pulled out.

The principle of the Tommy Murphy Cup was beyond reproach. But the timing was off and in the first year, 2004, the GAA paid the price for deciding to hurry it through rather than wait until the year after Congress backed the proposal. Congress, of course, is supposed to reflect the views of GAA people on the ground, in all counties, but while Sligo's county convention the previous winter had strongly backed the idea, it soon became clear the county players were on a different wavelength.

Sligo had, under Peter Ford, become in the years before a highly competitive outfit and enjoyed a brilliant run in the qualifiers in 2002. "My position as a player was that you didn't want to be looked on as part of a secondary competition," says Eamonn O'Hara, one of those players who refused to take part. "You were trying to get people to look at Sligo differently, rather than as a weaker team."

The county chairman, Joe Queenan, said that the Tommy Murphy Cup had caused him "great personal trauma" as he backed the democratic views of the county board. "A situation like this must never be allowed to happen again," he said.

Only four teams competed in 2004. In the next four years until it was cancelled the Cup was won by Tipperary, Louth, Wicklow and Antrim. In three of those years nine counties took part and in one year there were 13. Offering holidays to the winners to the US did not stimulate greater interest initially, nor playing the final on a big day in Croke Park. Horan realises that the GAA must find some compelling package of incentives to make any new version work, perhaps tying in some performance-related rewards that kick in during the following year's All-Ireland.

The Carlow manager, Turlough O'Brien, who has led the county out of Division 4, remains to be convinced. "I am always concerned about presidents campaigning on issues. It is as though presidents want to make their mark. I don't agree whatsoever. If they are going to make it a tiered championship why not make one for Dublin and one the rest of us. People talk about the hurling being tiered and saying it is a success but the Ring, Rackard and Meagher Cups get very little coverage.

"Football is much stronger. Take out the top four or five teams and I don't see a huge gulf between the rest of them. I don't see the need for this 'B' championship. Players don't want and I don't want it. If this happens we will be forgotten about.

"We will hear more about the Super 8s; that is where the focus will be. The GAA is in danger of becoming a two-tier organisation - it is well on its way by the look of things. Look at the coverage on RTE last year of the qualifiers. I would say it got 30 seconds on the Sunday Game and that is what will happen to the 'B' championships - it will be an after-thought."

Horan as chairman of Leinster Council was keen to introduce a round robin for the Leinster football championships to try to stimulate that ailing competition but it met with resistance. Further structural reform isn't due until Horan's final year in office when the current format expires.

But would a county be driven enough to really put in the kind of sacrifice needed to make a new competition viable? The greater focus on counties now, and the increased time spent on preparation, is creating a more critical analysis of competition structures and performance levels. The truth is that while there has been improvement in some areas the mismatches there today were also there 40 and 50 years ago. They just commanded less headline space and attention.

Trying to get everyone on the same standard is a very utopian notion anyway and perhaps at odds with sporting nature. You have winners and losers, and there is scope for wild swings in fortunes. That is part of the appeal. Offaly hurlers drawing with Kildare in the Leinster Championship in 1976 and four years later winning their first ever provincial senior title. Clare footballers losing to Kerry in Munster 9-21 to 1-9 in 1979 and defeating Kerry in the Munster final 13 years later.

Turlough O'Brien makes a similar point. "This talk that you have really no hope; a lot of the time for that is that counties have thrown in the towel. In Leinster so many counties have decided that they are not going to win it and they are adding to the whole problem by making Dublin unbeatable. At some stage they are going to be beaten.

"The reasons counties find they are struggling is not because of not having the players, but they don't have the structures and facilities to allow the players to improve and get the best out of themselves. Carlow are proof of that; how could we be so bad for so long and suddenly we're able to compete? Sometimes in the GAA we are trying to be all things to all people, we can't be that."

Denis Connerton, the Longford manager, whose side is seeking to win promotion to Division 2 today, feels that any new competition must be properly marketed and supported. "Just as long as it doesn't make players feel like second-class citizens," he says.

He makes the point that the Super 8 is not designed with counties like Longford in mind. "Longford hasn't been Super 8 side since 1968," he notes, the year of their last Leinster Championship win.

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