Monday 23 April 2018

Martin Breheny: League shows what a real championship could be like

Spring campaign scores under every heading before attention must turn to summer misfit

Judging by Cillian O'Connor's intensity last weekend, shown tussling with Eoghan Kerin of Galway, players value the league Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Judging by Cillian O'Connor's intensity last weekend, shown tussling with Eoghan Kerin of Galway, players value the league Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

They pulled and dragged, jostled and jabbed and then went to ground, whereupon they started all over again. Numbers swelled beyond 20 and when the nonsense eventually subsided, referee Anthony Nolan booked four players.

Several others could have joined them but, in fairness, there's a limit to how much a referee can absorb in an all-in situation.

When hostilities resumed again shortly afterwards, Nolan lost his patience. Galway's Paul Conroy took a second yellow card and headed for the bench.

Even that didn't cool tempers and over the new few minutes, the O'Connor brothers, Cillian (straight red) and Diarmuid (second yellow) were both sent off.

By the end, several gardaí had gathered at the entrance to the tunnel area as a pre-emptive measure, fearing that some hothead supporters might attempt to extend the unpleasantness.

They didn't, opting instead to exit a bitterly cold Pearse Stadium as quickly as possible, no doubt reminding each other to make early arrangements for the Mayo-Galway championship clash in Castlebar on May 13.

Meanwhile, in Newbridge, Kildare manager Cian O'Neill was bemoaning his side's bad luck after the one-point defeat by Tyrone and pointing to 'things that went against us and some of them weren't our fault'.

Longford manager Denis Connerton was more explicit after the one-point defeat by Armagh.

"We feel really let down by the officials today. It's not the first time this has happened to us. You need the officials to perform at a better level than they did today," he said.

Reduced A week earlier, Kerry were reduced to 13 men for the final 20 minutes against Mayo. Lee Keegan later described a tackle on Evan Regan, which left him with a broken jaw, as 'very dirty'. Kerry boss Eamonn Fitzmaurice refuted that, claiming that Keegan was 'way off the mark'.

We are repeatedly told that the leagues aren't all that important in the greater scheme of things but it certainly doesn't look like that, judging by the intensity levels they generate on the pitch and the subsequent comments from the participants. Obviously, squads are not as well-tuned as they will be later on and are also playing on slower surfaces, but nobody can question the commitment levels.

But then, everything about the league is fair and equitable, with counties playing at a level decided by how they performed in the previous season. They are not reliant on the luck of the draw to decide who and where they play; nor do they have a different number of games, as applies in the championship.

The provincial football championships are so full of anomalies that they defy all logic. Leinster and Munster apply protectionism, effectively making life easier for the stronger counties by keeping them out of the first round draws. Leinster seed the four semi-finalists into the following year's quarter-finals and then adds another layer of protectionism by ensuring that they cannot be paired against each other. Munster keeps the provincial winners out of the quarter-final draw.

Ulster applies a full open draw, while Connacht operates a rota system whereby each of the five 'home' counties play New York and London in sequence, but otherwise it's an open draw, which means that the previous year's finalists can be paired in the quarter-final.

A perfect illustration of how the league is so much fairer than the championship comes from the contrasting experiences of Dublin and Mayo, who have contested three of the last five All-Ireland finals. Mayo left Pearse Stadium last Sunday, knowing that their entry to the Connacht Championship would be against a Galway team that had just beaten them by five points.

Galway also beat Mayo in the last two championships and are now back in Division 1. As it happens, Mayo will have home advantage in May, but last year they were away to Galway. It's a very tough start for both counties.

Meanwhile, Dublin, safeguarded by Leinster's draw restrictions, will begin their Leinster campaign against either Wicklow (Division 4) or Offaly (Division 3). Wicklow have never beaten Dublin in league or championship, while Offaly haven't beaten them in the championship since 1982. And it's not as if Wicklow and Offaly are showing signs of a surge, since neither has won a league game so far this season.

So while Mayo and Galway look ahead to a major Division 1 showdown in the championship, Dublin can plan for a clash with Division 3 or Division 4 opposition (indeed Offaly might also have dropped to Division 4 by then too).

Kerry won't even have to bother with a Munster quarter-final, instead waiting for Clare or Limerick in the semi-final.

There will always be a difference in standards between counties, which makes it all the more important to have a competition structure that's fair to everyone.

The leagues do exactly that, but because of timing, history and tradition, they can't compete with the championship in the public or players' affections.

Of course, there's no logical reason why their structures can't be applied to the championships. Instead, the provincials remain in place, complete with the inequalities that make a mockery of fair play. That, in turn, damages the integrity of the competition, surely the ultimate betrayal in any sport.

The success of the leagues is there for all to see, yet the championship's busted flush provincial format remains in place.

Addressing it isn't even on the agenda. Instead, it was bypassed in favour of the 'Super 8', which is also based on inequality.

Irish Independent

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