Sunday 18 November 2018

Martin Breheny: 'Deflated' Leitrim star Mulligan sums up All-Ireland dysfunction

Football championship draw reinforces just how unfair provincial system is

Mission impossible: Leitrim’s Emlyn Mulligan was left dispirited by the draw for next year’s Connacht championship. Photo: Sportsfile
Mission impossible: Leitrim’s Emlyn Mulligan was left dispirited by the draw for next year’s Connacht championship. Photo: Sportsfile

Martin Breheny

Cormac Costello was in the background in the RTÉ studios waiting to discuss the Leinster football championship draw as Emlyn Mulligan offered a brutally honest assessment of what had just been placed in Leitrim's way for next year's Connacht campaign.

First up are Roscommon in Dr Hyde Park. In the unlikely event of upsetting the odds against opposition who trimmed Leitrim by a combined total of 30 points in the 2018-'19 meetings, Mayo, who will beat New York in the first round, await in the semi-final.

And if Leitrim were to produce another massive shock, it's highly probable that defending champions Galway would await them in the final.

It means that Leitrim would almost certainly have to beat three Division 1 teams to win the Connacht title. Any wonder Mulligan was frustrated by the mocking beat of the draw drum?.

"I'm deflated. It's not the ideal draw," he said. He went on to talk about trying to win promotion from Division 4 and build confidence before returning to the motivation-crushing scale of the challenge awaiting Leitrim next summer. "It's near-impossible to be honest," he said.

Toughest

Mulligan could have danced around the one-game-at-a-time pole but he chose not to. Full marks for that. After more than a decade in the Leitrim jersey, he saw no reason to sugarcoat the stark reality that a squad ranked 29th of 32 in this year's Allianz League had been handed by far the toughest draw of any county in any province.

After the Leinster draw, Costello, holder of five All-Ireland and six Leinster medals at the age of 24 and who has experienced only one defeat in the championship (v Donegal 2014), spoke of the honour it was to play for Dublin and how much they were looking forward to 2019. As he listened to Mulligan talk of Leitrim's situation, you wonder what was running through his mind. Two inter-county footballers in the same room, yet worlds apart for various reasons.

The draw had paired Dublin with Louth (Division 3 next year) or Wexford (Division 4 next year) in the Leinster quarter-final. And with Dublin the only Leinster team in Division 1, the path to the 'Super 8s', via the direct route, looks pretty straight-forward. Well, at least by comparison with Leitrim! Down south, Kerry and Cork were excused from the Munster quarter-final draw and instead ushered into the semi-finals.

They could have been paired there (provided they won their quarter-finals) but, remarkably, for a seventh successive season, they came out on opposite sides of the draw.

Obviously, it's a fair draw and all that, but what are the odds on two counties in a six-team draw coming out on opposite sides seven times in a row?

Why are the Munster finalists (Kerry and Cork most often) excused from the quarter-final draw? Why are the Leinster semi-finalists excused from the first round draw?

A reminder of how unfair the provincial system is as the launch pad for the All-Ireland championship wasn't really needed but it came anyway in the form of Leitrim's draw.

Dublin, Kerry or Tyrone wouldn't fancy being in their shoes but, hey, that's the luck of the draw.

For God's sake, how long more will this nonsense continue? When a player like Emyln Mulligan admits to being deflated, rather than excited, by the championship draw, it's stock-taking time. Actually, it well past that, but better late than never.

Realistically, Leitrim's prospects of reaching the 'Super 8s' under any system are remote at present. But that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be given every chance to advance their cause as best they can. Instead, they are on the same side of the draw as three Division 1 counties while Dublin and Kerry can retain the provincial titles by beating Division 2,3,4 opposition

The main problem, of course, rests with the provincial system. For as long as it's retained as the bedrock of the championship, it's impossible to tackle the rampant inequality which currently applies.

A Tier 2 championship is the latest proposal under consideration, but that applies outside the provincials. Whenever I write about the championship, my inbox overflows with suggested alternatives to the current format, with groups of four usually the most popular suggestion.

There's no way of knowing how that would work without seeing it trialled, something that's very unlikely to happen in the short term at least.

And why? Because, from an administrative perspective, counties and provincial councils like the power that the current system bestows on them. Provincial councils retain gate receipts from their championships, something they will not give up easily.

And so the charade continues, leaving the likes of Leitrim exposed to the unfairness of their situation for next year while Kerry, Dublin and various others are given special privileges.

Surely it's time for a fundamental review of the championship, this time from the bottom up, rather than the top down 'Super 8s' initiative which came in this year?

And where are the GPA is all this? Where are their ideas for reform?

Club finals played pre-Christmas? Not any time soon

As is almost always the case, Ulster are the first to begin their senior football club championship when Scotstown (Monaghan) play Derrygonnelly (Fermanagh) next Sunday.

Leinster start on the weekend after next, followed by Connacht and Munster on November 4. For reasons that are neither logical nor apparent, county finals are, on average, a month later than 15 years ago which, in turn, has pushed back the provincial series.

All of which leaves aspirations to complete the All-Ireland championships pre-Christmas as no more than that. It makes sense on many levels to finish them in the calendar year but there’s little hope of achieving that while county programmes continue to run late.

So instead of playing semi-finals and finals next month or in early December, they will continue in February/March, which is already seriously overcrowded.

Wanted dead or alive – dinner invite down Wicklow way

It's good to see that amid all the  pressures associated with the modern game, players retain their sense of humour. Well, some of them anyway.

One of the questions put to the captains of the senior (Rathnew v St Patrick’s) and intermediate (Carnew v Tinahely) teams for the programme for last Sunday’s Wicklow football finals was: ‘Four people to bring to a meal – dead or alive?’

It certainly left scope for mischief, which two of them gleefully sized upon.

“I prefer to eat with live people. I couldn’t imagine there would be much of an atmosphere with dead people.” – Dean Healy (St Patrick’s).

“Dead would mean more food for me.” – Stephen Dillon (Tinahely), who went on to mention four names: James Corden, Will Ferrell, Will Smith and Gavin Kenny.

Paul Nolan (Carnew) decided that three guests would be enough: Conor McGregor, Thomas ‘Pheasant’ Kennedy and Dingaling Doran. I’m not familiar with the latter two but I’d still have them ahead of McGregor any time.

Irish Independent

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