Sunday 23 September 2018

Martin Breheny: System fails many great players

Breheny and his ilk deserve a fairer shot at reaching biggest stage

Mark Breheny has more to be disappointed about than just losing matches. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Mark Breheny has more to be disappointed about than just losing matches. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Mark Breheny's departure path was strewn with words of thanks and appreciation as he announced that after 17 years in the Sligo jersey he had decided to retire and "look forward to the next chapter".

And with that the 36-year-old St Mary's clubman was gone, although it would be no surprise to see him back in a coaching capacity before too long.

There will be no book deals, no testimonial dinners and no 'Late Late' appearances, but then he's not from an All-Ireland-winning county. At the shallow end of the sporting world, the value of a person's opinion tends to be equated to success, rather than intelligence, character and insight.

It's amplified in GAA where achievement - certainly in terms of winning titles - is dependent on the particular strength of a county.

And so the book deals, personal appearances and punditry work go to current and ex-players from successful counties, irrespective of their talents in those fields.

That's the commercial reality and will always remain so. However, recognition for players should be far more even within the GAA itself, which makes competition structures so important.

Having won a Connacht title and played in two All-Ireland quarter-finals, Breheny enjoyed more high-profile action than many others but did not got the chance to share in the great experience of All-Ireland final day. And since Sligo have never reached the final, there can be no optimism that it will change for other in the future.

Indeed, with the gap in resources between the big powers and the rest widening, the prospects for counties like Sligo are not all that encouraging.

Ironically, Sligo hurlers have played in finals in Croke Park three times over the last 10 years.

But then, hurling is structured differently, with counties happy to play in bands appropriate to their status. The football world has been reluctant to accept that, even down in the lower regions of Division 4.

Sligo, who have beaten Galway and Mayo in Connacht over the last eight years, are more advanced than that and often do quite well in the qualifiers, but would they - and many others - not be better off in a secondary competition that they had a chance of winning?

Obviously, they would continue to play in their provincial championships but, if eliminated, would then head for another knockout competition for lower-ranked counties, with the final played as curtain-raiser on All-Ireland final day.

It would need to be given proper status - both in marketing and organisation - and also carry a grant for a holiday, similar to the All-Ireland participants.

If structured and sold in the right way (don't call it the 'B' championship as per the ridiculous Central Council proposal of two years ago and don't play the final on a Saturday evening at an obscure venue) there's every chance that counties would buy into it.

Instead of providing a meaningful competition that would provide Breheny and his likes with a chance to play in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, the GAA will continue with the minor final as curtain-raiser.

And since the age limit has been reduced, it means that U-17s (almost always from stronger counties) will experience Croke Park on the big day while long-serving seniors never get the opportunity. Talk about propagating inequality!

There are other areas where Breheny et al are let down too and this time the blame doesn't lie with the GAA's decision-makers. Instead, journalists - including me - have to carry responsibility for allowing the All-Stars scheme to become virtually the sole preserve of the last eight counties in the All-Ireland race. All 45 nominees usually come from that group, squeezing out those who played well earlier.

Responsibility

It's easy to understand why that's happening but the scheme needs to be more flexible, which is why I will be suggesting a slight change this year. It resulted from a conversation with Carlow manager Turlough O'Brien, who proposed that every county have at least one nomination.

That would require increasing the nominations to over 60 but so what? It ensures that each county would be represented, making it a far more inclusive scheme.

If that applied over the last 17 years, Breheny would have been Sligo's representative on quite a few occasions, just as lots of others away from the elite counties would have been recognised too by the All-Star scheme. It's the least that they deserve.

PS: Since Breheny is a relatively uncommon name, it's important to state that I am not related to Mark Breheny.

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