Monday 23 September 2019

No-one dreams of second-tier glory

Carlow’s Conor Lawlor celebrates after scoring a late goal in the win over Kildare in the Leinster championship last Sunday. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Carlow’s Conor Lawlor celebrates after scoring a late goal in the win over Kildare in the Leinster championship last Sunday. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

God love the advocates of a two-tier football championship. Their arrival, like that of the swallow, announces that summer is here. Their distinctive mating calls, 'it'shardtoseewhatgoodthatwilldothelosers' or 'wouldn'theybebetteroffplayingteamslikethemselves' echo through the land. Should Dublin give Longford a pasting in the Leinster semi-final and do the same to Laois or Carlow in the final those chirps will grow to a crescendo.

If that happens it will be hard to disagree that a two-tier championship is a good idea in an abstract sense. But football isn't played in the abstract. While you can easily make the case that an awful lot of counties don't belong in the same tier as Dublin, it's much harder to find counties who do.

For starters last Sunday's results prove that right now Carlow and Longford are better than Kildare and Meath. Yet whereas almost everyone who touts a two-tier system believe it's the proper place for the likes of Carlow and Longford, few of them believe the Royals or the Lilywhites belong there.

And when they talk about counties who'd really benefit from an extended run in a B championship I suspect that they're also thinking of Carlow and Longford rather than Kildare and Meath. That's because their ideal top tier contains quite a few counties who though actually weak are theoretically strong. Imaginary Meath are there along with Imaginary Kildare, Imaginary Armagh, Imaginary Derry and Imaginary Down. All of these imaginary teams would easily beat Carlow, Longford, Fermanagh, Tipperary and Clare and obviously belong in a top tier.

The reality is very different. How many real first-tier teams do we have? Dublin and Kerry for sure. Probably Galway. Mayo, though they needed extra-time to beat Derry last year. Monaghan, though Longford knocked them out two years ago. Tyrone, I suppose, though they're far from a cert to beat that Meath team which lost to Longford. Maybe Cork, if you want to believe their win over Tipperary outweighs the other evidence of the last two years. Would you back Donegal against Fermanagh in Enniskillen? Anyone mentioning Roscommon has to take into account their defeat by Clare in the qualifiers two years ago and their humiliation by Mayo in last year's quarter-final replay when at least one tier seemed to separate the sides.

Face it. There are three tiers in football. A top one with around six teams in it. A bottom one with the same number. And a vast middle ground where on a given day an upset is always possible. Imagining two neatly divided tiers is nice and symmetrical but doesn't correspond with reality. Even a three-tier system doesn't really stack up properly. This time last year Kildare were regarded as being close to the top tier and Carlow as being near the bottom. Yet the latter are now able to beat the former by seven points.

I suspect some of the two-tier fans think Longford and Carlow's victories should not have been allowed. In the words of Flann O'Brien, "gur spile se an effect". By their reasoning Dublin might beat Meath by as much as they'd beat Longford but somehow this isn't as bad because it's, y'know, Dublin v Meath. Like the penniless Anglo-Irish aristocrats of yore whose old bailiwicks dot their local landscapes, Meath and Kildare mightn't be good for much but they have the breeding.

The great thing about the championships is that we have a failsafe measure of judging the actual worth of a county. It's called 'results', and provides a far truer picture than either historical achievement or population stats. Results tell us Carlow don't deserve to be playing in a lesser championship than Kildare at the moment.

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Small counties, like small countries, are always condescended to. I can remember during the failed experiment of the Tommy Murphy Cup the great Eamonn O'Hara explaining that he had no interest in the competition. Sligo were at rock bottom when O'Hara began his career yet he managed to win a Connacht title, play in several provincial finals, defeat Mayo and Galway in Connacht and Tyrone and Kildare in Croke Park and almost defeat the Armagh team which went on to win the 2002 All-Ireland final. What could a second-tier competition offer a player like him.

Carlow manager Turlough O'Brien feels the same way, declaring last year: "I see no merit in it. Whatever you call it or whatever way you dress it up, it will still be a B competition. The players or the public won't go for that." But when someone from a 'weaker county' speaks like this, the finger is wagged at them. You don't know what's best for you, they're told, you just think you do. We know what's best for you. You might not want to hear this Turlough but your lads simply don't belong on the same pitch as a team like Kildare.

Look at Carlow now. A first win over Kildare in 65 years and just 70 minutes away from a first Leinster final since 1944. Does anyone really think they'd be in such a frenzied state of excitement if they were preparing for a B championship quarter-final against Antrim? They will be talking about the 2018 championship in Carlow long after it's been forgotten in most counties.

So what if Carlow have no hope of winning the All-Ireland? Neither do most counties. In the last 60 years only 11 have won the football championship. But the counties which haven't won it have enjoyed an awful lot of great moments along the way. La Liga is probably the world's finest professional league but has had only five different champions since 1984. There is more to any competition than the denouement.

When the Super 8s come round, if Carlow aren't there let's not forget the achievement of Turlough O'Brien. A recurrent figure in ESPN's great 30 for 30 documentaries is the coach who takes over a team at the bottom of the heap and against all predictions propels them upwards. That kind of story is rarer in the GAA, where managers are confined to playing the demographic hand they've been dealt.

When O'Brien got the Carlow job in 2014 he inherited a team which had lost to Meath by 7-13 to 0-6 in that year's Leinster Championship and by 4-26 to 2-13 to Clare in the qualifiers. They'd just finished bottom of Division 4. Winners of just four of their last 23 competitive games, Carlow were the very definition of a hopeless case. In 2015 they won two games out of nine but their points difference in the league improved from -58 to -12. In 2016 they won four games out of nine.

Last year attention started to be paid to Carlow. They won three championship games for the first time in 73 years and just as importantly gave Dublin bags of it in Portlaoise. A massacre of horrible proportions had been predicted but Carlow frustrated the Dubs and were just four points down with 20 minutes left when the sending off of Brendan Murphy made their task impossible. Even then a 12-point loss with no goal conceded was an honourable effort, with the 0-19 Dublin scored their lowest tally of the championship.

It was the most gallant of efforts yet Carlow found themselves the subject of criticism by pundits who apparently expected them to adopt the open approach which a couple of weeks later condemned Westmeath to a 31-point defeat by Dublin. That's the kind of nonsense you have to put up with when you come from a small county.

When Fermanagh did play attacking football against Dublin in 2015 and scored 2-15 they were lambasted for being too happy on the bus home.

Carlow have kicked on this year, earning promotion from to Division 3 before turning over Kildare last Sunday. They didn't kick a single wide in that game, an unprecedented feat in the championship and a statistic which suggests that their manager has instilled an extraordinary discipline and self-belief in his players.

Something important is going on in Carlow and bigger counties with more impressive traditions would do well to heed it. In the end all the structures, plans and systems in the world are no use if you don't have the right man at the helm of your county senior team. O'Brien is bullish in dismissing his critics and has earned the right to be.

Let's give talk about the two-tier championship a rest. It's a dead duck. Carlow and Longford buried it last Sunday.

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