Friday 20 April 2018

Martin Breheny: Fairness departs the football landscape in April... and doesn't return until January

Breheny Beat

Mayo manager Stephen Rochford addressing his players in their final league game in which they saved themselves from relegation with a dramatic draw against Donegal. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo manager Stephen Rochford addressing his players in their final league game in which they saved themselves from relegation with a dramatic draw against Donegal. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Croke Park, Sunday 5.30pm. That's where and when equality ended and privilege began in football.

Anthony Nolan's final whistle in the Dublin-Galway game signalled the end of the Allianz Football Leagues, complete with an unquestionable fairness.

It's unfortunate and unnecessary that four games remain unplayed in Division 4 but, other than the impact they may have had on the bottom five, all placings for the 32 teams are based purely on how they performed since the end of January.

The Division 1 title, plus the promotion places in the three other divisions, are attractive prizes, while six counties must now react to the disappointment of being relegated. They can have no complaints, having played the exact same number of games as their peers.

Farewell then to League 2018 - you served the game well, just as your predecessors have done. Now, let's look forward to the 'main event', the All-Ireland championships. They are still almost six weeks away, but the build-up will start quite soon.

In some respects, it began last weekend, with various managers referencing the big summer adventures. Commenting on Dublin's latest league success, Jim Gavin suggested it offered no indication of what's to come.

"Does it have any relevance to the championship? Not really," he said. Wittingly or otherwise - and one suspects the former - he appeared to be implying that Dublin had not yet even approached cruising pace.

Pleased to have taken 13 of a possible 14 points in the Division 1 group games before testing Dublin all the way in the final, Galway manager Kevin Walsh said the experience "can only stand us in good stead going into the championship".

He also insisted that they hadn't thought of next month's big clash with Mayo - not in any detail anyway - because of the busy league schedule.

Roscommon boss Kevin McStay said that "today game wasn't championship so we weren't going to be showing our hand too much" after the Division 2 final win over Cavan.

He also referred to the 'big, big match' that awaits them in their first Connacht outing. He was leaving nothing to chance in the respect stakes, but the 'big, big match' is against Leitrim or New York.

For a second successive year, Roscommon will be in the Connacht final (and an automatic place in the All-Ireland last 12) if they beat Leitrim, who won only two of five games in Division 4, or New York, who have never won a Connacht Championship game.

It's a gentle pathway that Walsh and Stephen Rochford would love to have ahead of them, rather than starting with the blockbuster on May 13.

The Galway-Mayo winners play Sligo or London in the semi-final, while the losers head for the first round of the qualifiers, leaving them a very long way from Croke Park.

So how's this for unfairness? The winners of a clash between two top teams (Galway and Mayo), who were in Division 1 this year, have to win a second game to reach the Connacht final, whereas Roscommon can get there with a win over Leitrim or New York.

And where is the equality in what lies ahead in their first outings for Galway/Mayo in comparison with Dublin. Galway v Mayo will be a real heavyweight contest, whereas Dublin begin their campaign against Offaly (sixth in Division 3) or Wicklow, who won none of their six games in Division 4.

When Dublin pop over that fence, they will meet Meath (fifth in Division 2) or Longford (third in Division 3) in the semi-final. If, as expected, they win that, the highest-ranked opposition they can meet in the Leinster final is Kildare, who lost all seven Division 1 games.

How would Dublin fancy a first round clash 'away' to Mayo or Galway? And how would Kerry and Cork, who were waved through to the Munster semi-finals by a seeded draw, like to be in the Ulster Championship where Cavan and Donegal clash for a place in the last eight? Monaghan and Tyrone, who finished third and fourth respectively in Division 1, are paired in the Ulster quarter-final.

For all their success and tradition, Dublin and Kerry would be happy to avoid the Omagh challenge that awaits Monaghan. Instead, Dublin (and the three others who reached last year's Leinster quarter-final) are kept out of the first round draw, while Kerry and Cork weren't even in the pot for the Munster quarter-final pairings.

The wildly contrasting differences in the size of counties have always made the championship unfair but there's nothing that can be done about that. In those circumstances, it's even more important to apply a format that's fair and equitable from a competition viewpoint. Instead, the GAA persists with the hopelessly lopsided provincial system and, in the case of Munster and Leinster, have added to the unfairness by seeding the draws.

Groups of four - perhaps based on league placings - or an open draw with re-entry through the qualifiers are two possible replacements for the provincial championships as the starting point for the All-Ireland series.

Anything that makes the championship equitable is worth consideration but, as things stand, change is not on any official agenda. Meanwhile, fairness and equality depart the scene in the first week in April and won't return until next January.

How crazy is that?

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