Thursday 17 January 2019

Leinster is the sick man of Gaelic football – and GAA must put Meath and Kildare in intensive care

Sean Curran, left, Conor McGill, Darren Gallagher and Donal Lenihan of Meath
Sean Curran, left, Conor McGill, Darren Gallagher and Donal Lenihan of Meath
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

We need to talk about Leinster. Here's a number for you. 417,072. That was the combined population of counties Meath and Kildare at the last Census. Here's another number. 97,705. That's the combined figure for Longford and Carlow.

Yet yesterday afternoon the football teams from the latter counties (historical total of Leinster titles, two) defeated those from the former (historical total of Leinster titles, 34). Combined with Laois's win over Westmeath on Saturday night it means three of the four provincial semi-final slots will be filled by three of the four least populated counties.

Meath and Kildare are the GAA's great underachievers. They've become to underachievement what Dublin are to success. Both counties need to ask themselves how this could have happened.

The first thing they need to do is look at themselves rather than Dublin. Sometimes it seems both counties use their mighty neighbours to the east as a kind of alibi. They take self-pitying solace in the fact that they can't be expected to beat a rival with such financial and demographic power. Maybe besting Dublin is an impossibly tall order for Meath and Kildare. But they should surely be able to beat Longford and Carlow.

Yesterday's triumphant minnows have an ability to get the best out of their slender resources which puts Meath and Kildare to shame. With roughly one fifth of Meath's population, Longford have in the past decade scored qualifier victories over Mayo, Monaghan, Down and Derry. The most surprising thing about their first Championship win over the Royals in 36 years was how unsurprising it seemed.

Carlow's win over Kildare bridged a 65-year gap. With just one quarter the population of yesterday's vanquished rivals, they also have to cope with the demands of being a dual county. Carlow beat Meath in last week's Joe McDonagh Cup, play at a higher level than Kildare and have a decent chance of making this year's All-Ireland Hurling Championship proper.

Cian O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile

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Meanwhile Meath and Kildare drift along like two Titanics unconcerned about the icefield up ahead. It's not good enough. Both counties need a full-scale review of how they do everything, from underage coaching to club structure to the selection of managers.

If they won't do it themselves, Croke Park should make them do it. The GAA must act to stop the rot in Meath and Kildare because the one-sided nature of the Leinster championship is horribly exacerbated by the weakness of the two counties best equipped to challenge Dublin.

Kildare can point to three Leinster minor titles in five years and Meath to a win over the Dubs in the same competition during the week as positive signs for the future.

But neither county has excelled in bringing through new talent. In 2013 Kildare won the Leinster U-21 Championship with a team which should have gone on to win an All-Ireland. Six of that side played yesterday. Five years ago they hardly envisaged their future including a seven-point Championship defeat by Carlow.

All credit to Carlow and Longford. But they will never have the resources to challenge Dublin and their weaknesses will soon be cruelly exposed in a Leinster Championship whose outcome now seems even more of a formality than usual.

It's not just the Leinster Championship which needs Meath and Kildare to be good, it's the All-Ireland Championships as a whole. The Super 8s concept is partly predicated on the hope that traditionally strong counties with a large support base might enjoy a renaissance. You just know whoever drew up the plan had Meath and Kildare in mind as possible participants.

The decline of Leinster's sleeping giants also makes talk of a two-tier Championship seem nonsensical. It's a system which makes perfect sense in the abstract.

But those who advocate it picture the likes of Meath and Kildare in the top tier and the likes of Carlow and Longford in the secondary competition. That's at odds with how things really are. The comparative strength of teams has to be judged by scorelines rather than history combined with population statistics.

This idea of themselves as 'strong counties' may be at the root of Kildare and Meath's problems. The democratic nature of the current Championship is good for them because it enables the likes of Longford and Carlow to show both counties where they are right now.

They're at rock bottom, that place you need to be before real recovery begins. Meath and Kildare need to ditch the self-delusion. So does the province where they play. We're always told how unjust it is that Leinster teams must battle through an elongated provincial campaign when Munster and Connacht teams have a mere hop and skip into the later stages.

Yet Roscommon, perhaps the third best team in Connacht, would beat everyone in Leinster apart from Dublin. Next year Munster will have four teams to Leinster's three in the top two flights of the League, while Ulster will have six.

A decade and a half ago when Meath and Kildare were the big guns in Leinster, the GAA started investing heavily in Dublin. The fruits of that policy are with us today. They remind me of the moment in The Italian Job where Michael Caine, contemplating a wrecked safe, says, "You were only meant to blow the bloody doors off."

There were sound reasons then for developing the game to the maximum in our most populous county. Now similar action needs to be taken in the counties which rank number four and five and are growing faster than anywhere outside the capital.

Leinster is the sick man of Gaelic football. The healing won't begin till the GAA puts Kildare and Meath into intensive care.

Irish Independent

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