Sunday 18 November 2018

Martin Breheny: Donegal only have themselves to blame for Dubs' home advantage

Complaints about Croker call are valid so why not object before system was introduced?

The Donegal team stand together for the national anthem ahead of their 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin at Croke Park. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
The Donegal team stand together for the national anthem ahead of their 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin at Croke Park. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Martin Breheny

As Donegal county board officers prepare to meet senior Croke Park officials today to discuss their objections to Dublin having two 'Super 8' games in Croke Park, the unmistakeable irony of their position can hardly be lost on them or the rest of the GAA world.

Despite being among the most enthusiastic backers of the new system at last year's Congress, Donegal are now demanding clarification on how 'any county may use a ground as both a neutral and a home venue', which will be Dublin's happy experience in the coming weeks.

Donegal, who play the Dubs in the 'Super 8' first round on Saturday week in Croke Park, raised the issue 'to ensure a level playing field for every team who qualify for the All-Ireland quarter-final group stage and ensure that no team has any advantage over any other team'.

Under the rota system, the four provincial winners play in Croke Park in the first round, travel to a qualifying county for the second round and have a home game in the final round.

Since Dublin have used Croke Park as their match base for several years, that effectively gives them two home games, while the other seven will have one each.

However justified Donegal's case may be, it comes with a clear contradiction, since they gave unqualified support for the 'Super 8s', complete with the venue anomaly, at last year's Congress.

The motion to introduce the ‘Super 8s’ format passed with a large majority at last year’s GAA Congress
The motion to introduce the ‘Super 8s’ format passed with a large majority at last year’s GAA Congress

In fact, they considered the package so exciting that two of them spoke, one to formally propose its introduction, the other to wholeheartedly endorse it.

Step forward, Niall Erskine and Seán Dunnion. Erskine, a GAA trustee at the time and now chairman of the World Games Committee, was handed the task of putting the case for the new format on behalf of the Management Committee and Central Council.

Dunnion, the-then Donegal chairman and now chairman of the GAA's IT Committee, joined in later on, also advocating a 'yes' vote.

Erskine was more forceful, explaining the many perceived advantages of change and challenging any would-be opponents to come up with an alternative.

Donegal man Niall Erskine presented the case for the ‘Super 8’ format
Donegal man Niall Erskine presented the case for the ‘Super 8’ format

He pointed out that it had encountered little opposition at three Central Council meetings.

He may have been representing Management and Central Council but, as a Donegal man, he would have been aware of his county's supportive position.

Two Donegal accents lavishing praise on the 'Super 8s' left no one in any doubt where the county stood. Until 17 months later that is, when they are no longer happy with the new arrangement. That's understandable, since they will be the first to experience the blatant unfairness in a format which gives Dublin a sizeable advantage.

So were they and other counties misled as to the precise terms of the 'Super 8' venue pattern? Actually, no.

Former Donegal chairman Seán Dunnion speaking in support of the motion
Former Donegal chairman Seán Dunnion speaking in support of the motion

The motion clearly referred to Croke Park as the venue for all Round 1 action, followed by a home and away game for each county, so it was clear that when Dublin were involved they would be heading down Jones's Road way twice.

And since Dublin, who are enjoying the most glorious phase in their history, have missed the last eight only once (2003) in the past 17 years, it was a fair assumption that they would be consistent 'Super 8' contenders.

Páraic Duffy, the then-director-general and main architect of the project, had even referred to Dublin's perceived advantage in various briefings documents circulated to interested parties. He also visited nine counties to discuss the package.

Duffy explained the Dublin situation on the basis that under the new arrangement, they would have to play one game down the country whereas all their previous quarter-finals were in Croke Park.

That flagged the clear advantage bestowed on Dublin, inviting Congress to address it if delegates so wished. They didn't.

Páraic Duffy. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Páraic Duffy. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Of the 15 contributors to the 40-minute discussion, Dermot Earley, the-then GPA CEO, was the only one to oppose the introduction of the 'Super 8'.

Delegates from Galway, Cavan, Kerry, Meath, Donegal, Mayo and Monaghan spoke in favour, as did former president Seán Kelly, Connacht Council secretary John Prenty and Rules Committee chairman Jarlath Burns.

Earley said that GPA members were opposed, claiming there had been a lack of consultation. He also queried why the needs of lower-ranked counties had not been addressed. Before calling for a vote, then-president Aogán Ó Fearghaíl asked if anyone else wanted to speak against the motion. There were no takers and it was passed on a 76-24pc majority.

Format

That's the background to how the 'Super 8' format was introduced as a three-year trial. It was first mooted in August 2016, six months before Congress, giving all parties plenty of time to reflect. All the details were thrashed out in the media, including the privileged position Dublin would enjoy.

Despite that, not a single delegate raised it at Congress. Now Donegal, perhaps emboldened by Kildare's hardball stance over venues last week, have made the grand gesture by publicly calling for a meeting with Croke Park.

Kildare had a rule to support their demand, whereas Donegal - or any other county who complain about Dublin's advantage - do not.

They voted three-to-one for the 'Super 8' as outlined, so if they are now unhappy with aspects of it they only have themselves to blame.

It's yet another example of how decisions with a longer-term implementation date only register when they are about to come into effect and the precise implications become apparent to all.

Irish Independent

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