Tuesday 17 September 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Gallagher and Mac Niallais exits should set alarm bells ringing'

Key Longford and Donegal men miss championship for different reasons

Darren Gallagher had an outstanding league campaign for Longford, scoring 2-22, and will be missed by his county this summer. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Darren Gallagher had an outstanding league campaign for Longford, scoring 2-22, and will be missed by his county this summer. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Breheny Beat: Martin Breheny

Darren Gallagher won't be playing for Longford in this year's football championship; neither will Odhrán Mac Niallais be aboard the Donegal team.

Gallagher, described in last week's 'Longford Leader' by sports editor Padraic O'Brien as "probably the main reason why Longford survived in Division 3", is heading away for the summer while Mac Niallais has opted out because he has "no real interest in football at the moment".

And so, two counties with vastly contrasting championship prospects will be missing major midfield talent, albeit for different reasons.

Gallagher wants to spend the summer in the US while Mac Niallais's heart just isn't in the game at present.

"Growing up, football was everything to me and that's fading a bit now. It's hard to explain but I just don't have the enjoyment and desire to play," said Mac Niallais.

"Football in the last few years is not as enjoyable as it used to be with the way that it's played and that's part of it too.

"The commitment levels with Donegal and all county teams are through the roof and I just don't have the hunger and desire to put it in."

It's a stark explanation of why he won't be involved, even if critics will, no doubt, sneer at the idea of a top player from a leading county not having the motivation to drive on.

Odhrán Mac Niallais has opted out because he has “no real interest in football at the moment”. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Odhrán Mac Niallais has opted out because he has “no real interest in football at the moment”. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

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Mac Niallais is being honest and if that's the way he feels, then he's right to sign off rather than staying on with a half-hearted approach.

Still, when a player of his status mentions the way the game is being played as part of the explanation for his departure, it needs to be examined.

Why is that the case? How many other players feel the same? Is there a discontented wall of silence out there with players deeply disillusioned over the way football has evolved, but reluctant to articulate it, lest they be accused of whinging or, worse still, of mental weakness?

Mac Niallais talks of commitment levels going "through the roof", a view shared by most other players.

It extends way beyond training schedules impacting their private time, where they are required to apply ridiculously strict regimes that even professionals don't live by.

Imagine if a county player was seen in his local pub having a few drinks last weekend. It would be all over social media inside the hour, accompanied by a vicious level of hostility.

How many GAA managers tell their players to go out and enjoy themselves after winning a game, even if their next outing isn't for a few weeks?

Contrast that with rugby, specifically Connacht after securing a place in the knock-out stages of the PRO14 last Saturday, a win that also booked a spot in next season's Champions Cup.

Coach Andy Friend invited them afterwards to "go out and enjoy themselves tonight" and told 'Morning Ireland' on Monday that 'Sunday was a long, slow day but well worth it'. We can take it that a good time was had by all.

One might have thought that a monastic lifestyle would be more in keeping with a professional game, but no, it's the GAA's amateurs who are expected to avoid any socialising until the season is over.

How did that oppressive culture take hold? What impact is it having on players? How long before there's a rebellion?

And how long before players from lower-ranked counties declare war on a system that's beyond unfair?

Gallagher obviously has his own reasons for heading to the US rather than staying around for the championship, but one wonders if the reality of Longford's position played a part.

The midfielder had an outstanding league campaign, scoring 2-22 (2-6 from play) in seven games, where he averaged 8.2 in the Irish Independent player ratings.

Longford finished fifth in Division 3. They now move on to the championship where they will, in all probability, play Kildare, who are fancied to beat Wicklow in the first round.

Longford have only beaten Kildare twice in championship history but if they were to end that bad run, Dublin (in all likelihood) would await them in the semi-final. Longford lost to Dublin by 19 points last year.

"How do you explain to some alien that comes down to earth that there are 12 counties and 11 of them play football in one province (Leinster) and five or six play in others and nine in another? How do you explain that and say it's an equal competition? It sure as hell isn't," said Denis Connerton, the then Longford manager after the trimming by Dublin.

Structurally, the championship is unfair, outdated and dispiriting for many players, yet there's no sign whatsoever of dismantling the lopsided provincial system.

A secondary competition for lower-ranked counties after they are eliminated from the provincial championships is under consideration, but will only get support if it's packaged properly, rather than put forward as a sop, which was the case with the All-Ireland 'B' championship and Tommy Murphy Cup in the past.

At the very least, that requires playing the final on All-Ireland day, replacing the minor decider as the curtain-raiser.

It's disappointing for Longford to be without Gallagher for the championship but they respect his position.

He's a high-profile absentee but what about the many players in several counties who declined to commit in the first place because they felt the slim possibility of reward didn't justify the commitment required?

There will always be a variation in standards between counties but there's no excuse for having a championship system that is so blatantly unfair.

Suspension shows up rulebook flaws

So, Seamus Harnedy and Conor Delaney are free to play in the first round of the provincial hurling championships next month, having won their case that they had served one-match bans in the Cork-Kilkenny play-off last month.

The initial stages of the disciplinary system held that the game didn’t count for suspension purposes and that they would instead have to miss a championship game.

The Central Appeals Committee disagreed with that interpretation and cleared the pair for immediate action.

Logic suggested that the play-off should count for suspension purposes, yet the players and their county boards had to go through a time-consuming process to prove it.

Sometimes the rulebook can be a complete ass, this being a particularly good example.

Even then, one would have thought that even if there was some degree of uncertainty about interpretation, the benefit of the doubt would go to the players. 

It didn’t initially but at least it ended well.

How much lower can Cork sink?

Who would have foreseen it, the day when the odds against Cork footballers winning the All-Ireland title stretched out to 250/1? That’s exactly where they find themselves after dropping into Division 3.

It leaves them as 12th favourites, a fair reflection of their current status.

However generous the price may look, there still won’t be many takers, no more than there will be for their 9/1 to win Munster.

The decline on Leeside over the past four years has been as sharp as it’s been inexplicable and since there was no sign of the bottom being reached in the recent Allianz League, there are genuine fears that the worst is not over.

Indeed, it would be no big surprise if Cork failed to reach the Munster final.

Meanwhile, Down, who ran Cork to a point in the 2010 All-Ireland final, are 500/1 for the All-Ireland and 5/1 sixth favourites to win Ulster for the first time in 25 years.

All of which goes to show that not even All-Ireland finalists are immune from a slump if they take their eyes off the ball.

Irish Independent

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