Friday 19 July 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Laois hurlers' stunning win a setback for two-tier football plan'


Gary Brennan of Clare in action against Padraic Harnan of Meath during their Round 4 qualifier in Portlaoise last Sunday. Under the proposed new championship structure, Clare
would have been forced into Tier 2 this season. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Gary Brennan of Clare in action against Padraic Harnan of Meath during their Round 4 qualifier in Portlaoise last Sunday. Under the proposed new championship structure, Clare would have been forced into Tier 2 this season. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

By the time O'Moore Park became an emotional gusher that launched the whole of Laois into orbit last Sunday, Clare footballers were on their way home, their season ended by a one-point defeat to Meath.

Their memory of the day will be very different to what is guaranteed to remain forever imprinted in the minds of the Laois hurling squad.

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As for the Laois public, they are still somewhere up in the stratosphere, contemplating when they need to begin the return journey in order to be in Croke Park next Sunday for the quarter-final date with Tipperary.

This is the best week Laois supporters have enjoyed since the footballers won the 2003 Leinster final. Rightly, they are savouring every last drop of joy from an occasion made all the more special because it was so unexpected.

We'll let them get on with the celebration of what is regarded as the rebirth of Laois hurling after going through many tough times. It's never that simple, of course.

Optimism soared in Offaly early last year when the hurlers beat Dublin by 13 points in their opening Allianz League game. It was hailed as a new beginning, but it turned out to be no more than a one-off freak result.

Since then, Offaly have lost 17 of 19 League, Leinster SHC and Joe McDonagh Cup games and dropped to Division 2 and Christy Ring level.

Laois are most unlikely to suffer a similar nosedive, but those closely involved know that the next phase well beyond next Sunday will be difficult, demanding even more hard work than what took them this far.

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One almost certain consequence, which will also benefit one other county, is that the number of teams competing in the Leinster Championship will be increased to six in 2021. That would mean no relegation next year, with the Joe McDonagh Cup winners being promoted to make up six contenders in two years' time.

The change was being mooted anyway, but is now virtually guaranteed after last Sunday's dramatic turn of events. That's one obvious by-product of the Laois win, but there could be others too, and not in hurling either.

That brings us back to Clare footballers, who won three games (Waterford, Leitrim, Westmeath) and lost two (Kerry, Meath) in this year's championship. Earlier, they completed a third season in Division 2, underlining their stature as a consistent top 16 team.

Indeed, they came very close to the Super 8s, only to be nudged out Meath in a hectic finish last Sunday.

Yet, if a proposal for a Tier 2 championship is accepted at a Special Congress in October, Clare wouldn't even be allowed into next year's qualifiers if the circumstances were the same as this season. They finished sixth in Division 2, ahead of Cork and Tipperary, both of whom were relegated. Under one of the proposals for Tier 2, a Division 3 or 4 county which reached (and lost) the provincial final would be eligible for the qualifiers.

Cork would have been deemed Division 3 this year, but still got a place in the qualifiers as Munster runner-up. In order to have 16 teams in Tier 2, the next lowest-ranked team in Division 2 would not be allowed into the qualifiers.

So Clare, who finished sixth, would have been forced into Tier 2, while Cork, who were relegated, would be allowed into the qualifiers. Now that wouldn't have gone down well in Banner-land. Nor should it. Even if that part of the proposal is discarded, there are other elements which make Tier 2, as proposed by Central Council, a hard sell. And if that were the case before last Sunday, the Laois hurlers have made it all the more difficult.

Unlike hurling, where both Joe McDonagh Cup finalists enter the All-Ireland championships, there is no provision in football for any Tier 2 teams to rejoin the Sam Maguire Cup race in that particular year. That won't go down well.

Apart from that, Clare, Tipperary, Down, Louth, Longford, Offaly, Carlow, Sligo and Derry would be among those ineligible for the qualifiers this year. How many would be happy with that? They would all believe that their chances of beating higher-ranked opposition were better than Laois hurlers' prospects against Dublin.

Benny Coulter, former Down forward and current selector, has already predicted that if counties at that level are forced out of the qualifiers, they will ignore the Tier 2 championship.

Central Council doesn't want Division 3 and 4 teams in the qualifiers, followed by Tier 2, claiming that it would cause problems for club fixtures. If they insist on that, the Tier 2 proposal could be heading for defeat.

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