Friday 18 October 2019

Martin Breheny: 'League lifts Leitrim and Carlow, so is time right to remove summer's glass ceiling and open up a second tier?'

Leitrim captain Declan Darcy celebrates after winning the Connacht SFC Championship against Mayo in 1994. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Leitrim captain Declan Darcy celebrates after winning the Connacht SFC Championship against Mayo in 1994. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Already the talk in Leitrim is of a final in Croke Park. Not among the players or manager Terry Hyland, but wherever supporters meet, Saturday, March 30 is high on the agenda.

That's the date of the Allianz League Division 3 and 4 finals, games which offer four counties from the bottom 16 the chance to enjoy the special Croke Park experience, having earlier secured promotion.

It's a lovely occasion, complete with the feeling of a job already well done and renewed hope for the summer.

Leitrim haven't quite got there yet, but they are within touching distance of ensuring promotion from Division 4. If they beat London tomorrow and Wicklow or Limerick drop a point, a top-two finish is guaranteed.

Leitrim play Derry (away) and Waterford (home) in the last two rounds, so even if they lose tomorrow, there will be more chances to ensure promotion. Still, it's best to avoid mistakes and take the first one that comes their way, which is why the camp have been so careful in their comments.

Winning promotion from Division 4 might look like a small achievement to those at the top end of the market, but it's massive for a county like Leitrim, just as it was for Carlow last year.

Carlow's rise electrified a growing band of supporters, while also increasing interest in football among youngsters, a spin-off of immense importance for the longer term.

A win over Kildare in the Leinster Championship - Carlow's first against the Lilywhites since 1953 - extended the exciting journey and while defeats against Laois and Tyrone followed, the overall season was regarded as a big success for Turlough O'Brien's squad.

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Yet, as they exited the qualifiers on June 23, beaten 10 points by Tyrone, the question arose as to whether they would have been better off in a secondary championship, rather than the qualifiers.

The same issue will arise for Leitrim. They will head into a Connacht campaign where they would have to beat Roscommon, followed most likely by Mayo and Galway to win the title. Leitrim wouldn't be at home for any of those games, leaving them with a schedule that not even Dublin would fancy.

Lower-ranked Leitrim beat Connacht's 'Big 3' when they ended a 67-year wait for a provincial title in 1994, but times are different now. The resources available to stronger counties make it much more difficult for lower-ranked opposition and since Roscommon, Mayo and Galway are all in Division 1, Leitrim look under-priced at 100/1 to win Connacht. All counties will continue compete in their provincials for as long as they remain as the starting blocks for the All-Ireland but it's what happens afterwards that is coming under scrutiny.

O'Brien and many of his players are opposed to a Tier 2 championship, with Paul Broderick, a 2018 All-Star nominee, especially vocal last year.

"I know most of the lads on our panel would be against it. It feels like you're being ushered off to make way for the greater teams on the greater stage.

"It takes away the chance of that day we had against Kildare. If you asked me would I like to play in a second tier championship, the answer would be 'no.' But if you asked me if I think we're going to win the All-Ireland the answer would be 'no' as well," he said.

A Tier 2 championship, a proposal for which was withdrawn by Central Council in 2016 after players threatened a boycott, has returned to the agenda and is likely to be the subject of a Special Congress later in the year.

Those drawing up the proposals should heed what Broderick said because clearly there's misinformation out there. He appeared to be under the misapprehension that a Tier 2 competition would preclude lower-ranked counties from competing in their provincial championships, which is not the case.

His view that some counties would be nudged aside to make way for the strong teams is also a perception issue that any proposal would need to address. A Tier 2 package has no chance unless it's properly marketed and presented all the way to playing the final, possibly even as the curtain-raiser to the All-Ireland final.

There was huge excitement in Carlow when they did so well in the fourth league tier last year, yet they appear to have no enthusiasm for a Tier 2 championship.

Leitrim's attitude to Tier 2 will be interesting if they emerge from Division 4. John Connolly, Sports Editor of the 'Leitrim Observer', and a man with his finger on the county's football pulse for nearly three decades, believes that there's a mood for change.

"I think Leitrim's progress in this league is convincing people that a Tier 2 championship is the way to go. The way bigger counties are organised now makes it very difficult for the rest.

"Leitrim beat Galway, Roscommon and Mayo in 1994 - and we all remember what that did for the county - but it's hard to see it happening again. I know a lot of people in Leitrim who would have been against Tier 2 in the past, but are changing their minds now," he said.

Four wins from four games in recent weeks has sent interest surging in Leitrim, convincing Tier 2 advocates that if a Division 4 league can generate so much excitement, progress in a secondary championship would have a major impact too.

John O'Mahony, Leitrim manager for the Connacht success 25 years ago and who was involved in an advisory capacity in recent seasons, believes that the time is right for Tier 2.

"It's fantastic to see Leitrim doing so well this year. Terry (Hyland) is 100 per cent right to have made promotion the first priority and you can see what it's doing for Leitrim.

"Any success further fuels ambition and if, as now seems highly likely, Leitrim are promoted, it will raise confidence levels even higher. Expectations will go up too and that's where it gets difficult.

"Leitrim is a great football county and they deserve huge credit on so many fronts, including building the Centre of Excellence in Annaduff. Now, they're very close to getting into Division 3.

"The difficulty in the championship is that it's very hard because gaps are wider than they used to be. There was a time when a lower-ranked team could ambush a big power if they were properly prepared. It's much more difficult now because the big counties have moved on. And even when they are beaten, they get a second chance.

"A Tier 2 championship has great potential, provided it's run well. It would give many counties a real chance of winning a title, whereas that's not realistic now," said O'Mahony.

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