Thursday 22 August 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Dubs live it up in GAA's parallel universe'

What's the future for the inter-county game in an environment where a Dublin player can demand €6,000 for a product launch while other counties can't even hold on to their players?

Kildare boss Cian O’Neill
Kildare boss Cian O’Neill
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Following Kildare's runaway win over Longford in a replay last Sunday, Cian O'Neill gave the only answer he could when asked if he would settle for a good performance against Dublin tomorrow.

In normal circumstances, a manager would bristle at the implication that avoiding a heavy defeat could be seen as a decent outcome. Of course, there's nothing normal about Leinster football, not just this year, but for a long time.

Thirteen Dublin titles in 14 championships, the most recent secured by an average winning margin of 20 points, has knocked the heart and soul from a campaign that used to be so competitive.

So, when a manager is effectively asked if avoiding another embarrassing defeat would somehow be regarded as satisfactory, he can either act insulted or be practical. O'Neill chose the latter option, topped up with positives.

"You have to go into every match believing you can win it. The nature of the game is that any day you perform to your best, you are in with a shot," he said.

He didn't mention the win by Andy Ruiz Jr over Anthony Joshua for his world heavyweight titles the previous night, but it's the sort of comparison that comes to mind when looking at how any of Dublin's rivals in Leinster might upset the mountainous odds against them.

Dublin and the rest of Leinster are orbiting parallel universes, one seeking to reach levels no county anywhere has achieved, the other not even represented in the top nine All-Ireland contenders.

One has individuals who are charging up €6,000 for corporate engagements, the other has players who wouldn't even be recognised by many supporters in their own counties.

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One takes its squad on exotic post-Christmas holidays to destinations for the super-rich, lapping up the luxury, while their ambitious understudies tick the O'Byrne Cup boxes. Some other counties can't even play all their top players in the championship, having lost them to a summer of easy living in the US.

One has a man (Brian Fenton) who, in his fifth season, doesn't know what it's like to lose a championship game, the other has lots of players who know little of summer wins.

Those are the facts, the comparisons and the contradictions, all of which combine to present a picture that has become hideously distorted.

The situation is different outside Leinster, where the other three provinces have teams who genuinely believe they can beat Dublin in the championship.

It has happened only once in the past six seasons, but Dublin's success hasn't left the best in Connacht, Munster and Ulster with the sort of inferiority complex which infects the rest of Leinster.

Problem

Where there's a problem, there will always be suggested solutions, some sensible, some crackpot and others in between.

Two Dublin teams, one north, one south - sensible or crackpot?

Slash Dublin's funding and pour more money into the other counties - sensible or crackpot?

Scrap the provincial championships and reconstruct the All-Ireland competition on the basis of equality of opportunity - sensible or crackpot?

It's 17 years since a major Strategic Review Committee (SRC) report, set up by then-president Seán McCague and chaired by former president Peter Quinn, recommended that Dublin have two senior football teams in the championship by 2005.

The committee also wanted two separate county boards. The rationale was that as Dublin's population continued to increase, fielding two teams was a logical response, while the proposal for administrative change held that one county board was insufficient.

Dividing Dublin didn't even get to the debating stage, having been crushed under the weight of opposition.

Effectively, the challenge faced by Dublin's growing population was ignored because the main solution put forward proved so unpopular.

Of course, the problem remained - indeed it has grown in line with population trends since then - but nothing is being done about it.

Seventeen years on from the controversial SRC report, any mention of splitting Dublin meets with precisely the same emotional reaction as in 2002. There's no rational analysis, no examination of how it might work and no assessment of what impact Dublin's overwhelming domination is having on other counties.

It takes no great insight to realise that unfairness exists if the cost of Dublin's annual squad holiday is considerably more than the combined sponsorship income of several smaller counties in Leinster and elsewhere.

With the division of Dublin off the agenda, funding continues to be controversial, with claims that a disproportionate amount goes to the capital.

Per head of population, that's not strictly true, but when the figures for games development are published every year, other counties see Dublin getting vast sums by comparison to them. It's divisive and, frankly, not well explained.

Slashing central funding for Dublin would be easy and popular, but what impact would it have on the GAA? One of the Association's greatest fears in the early 1970s was that it risked losing the battle for the hearts and minds of young people in Dublin.

There are no concerns now, but if there were to be a dramatic cut in funding, how long before the impact would be noticed at a time when rugby, in particular, is working hard on expanding its base?

The Dublin question apart, the biggest problem for Leinster has been the decline of so many counties, especially Meath and Kildare, traditionally two big forces. Meath spent 13 seasons in Division 2, prior to being promoted this year, while Kildare have moved between Divisions 1 and 3 in the same period.

Offaly, Laois and Westmeath have also dropped back at the very time that Dublin are enjoying the best run in their history.

There's an argument that Dublin's giant shadow is stunting growth elsewhere in Leinster, but how real is that?

It's improbable that there are talented young players not committing in other counties because they perceive it to be futile while Dublin are on such a high. And if that is the case, it's unlikely they would have the mental fortitude to survive at the top level anyway.

That brings us to the championship format, which has created the perfect storm for Leinster and the wider GAA.

That Dublin should be on a record high while the rest of Leinster is struggling compounds the problem. It makes Dublin's advance to the 'Super 8s' quite easy, certainly by comparison with Ulster and Connacht.

Rebalancing

That's where the rebalancing should start. Continuing with a geographically-based system, which includes having the strongest team in the country in the weakest area, is not only unsustainable, it's also unfair.

Roscommon beat one Division 1 team to reach the Connacht final and now face another one, whereas Dublin can win Leinster without playing any Division 1 opposition.

Cavan beat Monaghan (Division 1) in the Ulster quarter-final and are now facing a replay against Armagh (Division 2). If they win, their opponents in the final will be Tyrone (Division 1) or Donegal (Division 2), the defending Ulster champions, who spent one season out of the top flight.

An outsider studying the championship for the first time would be aghast at a system where one of the best teams of all time has a much easier run to the quarter-finals than rivals elsewhere.

Despite that, there appears to be no appetite for addressing the obvious inequality among the provinces.

The Leinster public are reacting with a show of indifference.

There was a time when a Dublin v Kildare and Meath v Laois double-header would attract more than 70,000 to Croke Park, but the Leinster Council have acknowledged that tomorrow's attendance is likely to be less than half that.

The voices from the empty seats should be heard because they are sending a clear message.

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