Martin Breheny: Success for so many counties an impossible dream
The divide between top, middle and lower tiers is clearly defined in four of this weekend's games but does it always have to be like that? Less successful counties show great pride in what they do but will it continue when rewards for players are so obviously loaded in favour of those who are already privileged?
Brian Fenton is in his fourth season with Dublin, having already won three All-Ireland, three Leinster, three Allianz League titles and two All-Star awards. He was also nominated for the Footballer of the Year award in 2016.
He has been around the world on team holidays, he benefits from the profile that comes with being on the best Dublin team in the county's history and, at the age of 25, can look forward confidently to several more years of enjoying the good life.
He has played 22 championship games, without ever once experiencing defeat, the draws against Mayo in 2015 and 2016 being the only times he didn't leave the pitch as a winner.
Thomas O'Gorman is in his 12th season with Waterford, having never missed a championship season since making his debut against Clare in 2007. Waterford won that day, tempting the-then 21-yearold full-back to dream of even bigger days.
Reality hit quickly as Kerry beat Waterford by 17 points in the Munster semi-final. Since then, Waterford have won only three championship games, beating Clare in the 2010 Munster quarter-final, London in the 2011 qualifiers and Wexford in this year's qualifiers.
Today, Waterford host Monaghan in Fraher Field when O'Gorman (32) will make his 24th championship appearance. Fenton was only 14 years old when O'Gorman made his debut, yet by tomorrow the Dublin midfielder will have played only one championship game less than him.
Fenton's trophy cabinet is already over-flowing, whereas O'Gorman's biggest successes came in 2010 when Waterford were promoted to Division 3 (remaining for one season only) and 2015 when he captained them to a McGrath Cup title.
O'Gorman hasn't been sought after by the media, or indeed by International Rules managers throughout his long career. Fenton, meanwhile, turned down an invitation from Joe Kernan to join the Irish squad for the series in Australia last year, citing work commitments.
Around the same time Fenton urged the GAA to pay inter-county players to stay at home during the summer, rather than head for the US, where they are looked after by clubs in various cities
Obviously, it's not something that impacts on Dublin players, whose championship campaigns extend all summer.
So it appears that Fenton was making a case for the less privileged, albeit one that comes under the 'non-runner' heading, since he proposed zapping the amateur ethos.
"When a county is knocked out of the championship early on many players head off but, if they were to get a fee for playing on at home, it would, I believe, encourage many to remain. The GAA is not short of money," said Fenton.
The comments attracted attention because they came from a high-profile player. O'Gorman and his likes aren't canvassed for their views because they ply their trade at a lower level, having been dispatched there by geographical circumstances, rather than a lack of talent.
Players from stronger counties have their voices heard because many of them are aboard the gravy train where, as part of product endorsement deals, they conduct media interviews, albeit mostly of a variety which call for a re-definition of the word 'bland'.
It's all part of an inherent inequality, which is becoming more pronounced all the time. Tomorrow, Fenton (and I'm using him purely as an example of the difference between being on a successful team and others who are less privileged) will line up against John O'Loughlin, the Laois midfielder who, at the age of 29, is in his 11th championship.
It was his bad luck that he arrived on the scene just as the Laois were heading into decline. This will be his first outing in a Leinster final, whereas they reached four in five seasons in 2003-2007. O'Loughlin has been consistently effective for a decade but has little to show for it other than the satisfaction of squeezing what he can from his career. It's most unlikely that he will win even a Leinster title, since there's no sign of Laois closing the gap with Dublin.
That hasn't deterred him from maintaining the highest possible standards, no more than it has dulled Ross Munnelly's desire to win a second provincial title at the age of 35. It would be easy for them - and indeed their Laois colleagues and the rest of the Leinster counties - to be disheartened by the distance they have fallen behind Dublin.
Even the system comes against them, with Dublin having home advantage in Croke Park for all games up to a few years ago and for all but Leinster quarter-finals nowadays.
Even when Laois were paired with Dublin in 2016, the game was played in Nowlan Park, rather than O'Moore Park, while Carlow also had to travel to Portlaoise to play the Dubs last year.
That's not Dublin's fault but there's something wrong with a system that bestows home advantage on the top team for all except one game, which is played at a neutral venue. Ulster use a fairer venue rotation, one that no doubt helped Fermanagh to launch what has turned into a season of huge anticipation as they head for their first Ulster final in ten years.
If they were to win the title for the first time tomorrow, it would rank as one of the great feats of modern times, having come from Division 3 to beat three Division 1 teams.
It's a story of sheer persistence, a stubborn refusal to accept that because they are operating under so many disadvantages they should accept their fate. Carlow have done the same in recent years, building slowly but solidly under Turlough O'Brien before finally making their way out of Division 3.
It was followed by a win over Kildare, before Laois ended their provincial run, directing them into Round 2 of the qualifiers. That's where their luck ran out as the draw pitted them against Tyrone, when much easier alternatives could have come their way.
Not that they are complaining, no more than Waterford, who got an equally tough draw against a Monaghan team still hurting from the Ulster semi-final setback.
That's the thing about the so-called weaker counties - their pride in what they do is as unquestioned as among those who have a genuine chance of landing big prizes.
Nothing illustrates the challenge facing less successful counties more than the odds against a Carlow, Waterford, Laois, Fermanagh four-timer this weekend. It comes in at 6,006/1, whereas a Tyrone, Monaghan, Donegal, Dublin four-timer is 11/8.
There's no short-term means of correcting that type of imbalance but where's the long-range plan? Or does anyone really care, except the small dedicated band of loyalists who continue to drive forward, irrespective of how the system remains skewed against them.
"People will always keep going but you wish - for the players most of all - that the system had more equality in championship structures etc.
"Will it ever happen? I don't know, but it should," said Waterford manager, Tom McGlinchey.
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