Thursday 18 January 2018

Radical reform needed to end the slaughter

Tweaking formats won't cure plague of mismatches – but merging weaker counties could level the playing field

Westmeath players (l-r) Kieran Gavin, Denis Glennon and Gary Connaughton leave the pitch after their heavy defeat to Dublin at Croke Park on Saturday
Westmeath players (l-r) Kieran Gavin, Denis Glennon and Gary Connaughton leave the pitch after their heavy defeat to Dublin at Croke Park on Saturday
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Tony McTague prepared the ground for what was coming by acknowledging that some people might feel he wasn't thinking straight.

"I'm sure a lot of people might think, 'what's that fella talking about? Is he drunk?" he laughed before delivering arguably the most radical suggestion yet to cure the perceived ills of inter-county competitions structure.

McTague was Offaly's legendary free-taker as they swept to All-Ireland titles in 1971 and '72, and on the afternoon of his induction into the GAA Museum's 'Hall of Fame' in February, McTague threw out a suggestion that would be, he accepted, treated as "heresy."

The basis of McTague's vision for a better future for inter-county Gaelic football was the merging of counties. And he was keen to start with his own Offaly and neighbouring Laois.

"All counties have their pride, but they should have the option to amalgamate because it's unequal now, and it doesn't make sense," reasoned McTague.

"Laois and Offaly are, politically, the one constituency. Obviously, Offaly have been successful to some extent, but I don't see anything wrong with it. I know I'll be shot down by 99.9pc, however."

AMALGAMATE

"The idea of weak counties ever appearing again on the big stage is over. I think that weaker counties should be given an option, even though some might not take it up, of amalgamating with a county that borders them, to have a realistic chance of taking on the big guys.

"The back-door system was brought in to have All-Ireland quarter-finals and semi-finals. Now weak counties are beaten twice in one year and the strong counties get two chances."

McTague's view of the world sprang to mind as Dublin put the finishing touches to a 16-point Leinster quarter final win for the second successive year, this time over Westmeath, just a few minutes before Kerry wrapped up their 26-point win over Waterford, bringing their cumulative winning margin for two Munster championship games in six days to a staggering 43 points.

Factor in Cork's trouncing of Division 4 champions Limerick by 18 points in the other Munster quarter-final and Mayo's 17-point hammering of Galway in Connacht, and you can see why there have been so many calls for change.

But how can change in structures, unless they are as radical as McTague's proposal, bring an end to these ritual beatings?

Galway's defeat was perhaps an anomaly, a nadir on their path to recovery, but for the rest is there really a future under a different system, whether that's the favoured Champions League-style format involving eight groups of four teams, or a shift to four provincial groups of eight?

Would asking Wexford to ply their trade in a Munster football championship, or Longford or Westmeath to move across the Shannon avoid the growing disparity?

Even the establishment of a 'B' championship (reviled in the past, as was the concept of the Tommy Murphy Cup designed for weaker teams in Division 4 who exited their provincial championships) for teams rated from 17 to 32 (Divisions 3 and 4) in any order of merit at the beginning of a season would not steer the likes of Westmeath and Louth away from the beatings they have got from Dublin in the last two seasons.

The renewed debate which has opened up on the back of results over the first three weekends of the championship is grist to the mill for the Football Review Committee, which parked their findings on the mood for structural change among those surveyed last summer to pursue change in the playing rules as a priority.

The FRC appreciate that change in competition structures is far more seismic than the introduction of a mark, or even a black card in Gaelic football. But over 65pc of those who responded expressed an opinion that they would like to see some change in how the competitions are run. Reacting to results over the last three weekends in isolation would be wrong because it doesn't provide an accurate trend.

An analysis of results in the provincial championships and the qualifiers over the previous three years does give greater clarity, however, and throws up an interesting statistic.

The average winning margin in the 89 provincial games between 2010 and 2012 is slightly less – six points – than the average winning margin in the 74 qualifiers, which is 6.09.

The perception has always been that qualifiers are tighter and more competitive, and this evidence is routinely held up as an argument for a Champions League style format.

But there have been almost as many draws and one-point wins (10) in 33 Leinster championships games over those three years than there have been in the 74 qualifiers, where there have been 12 (one draw).

These are the statistics – the novelty value of a fresh approach would of course feel much different. At least for a while. But how quickly would it revert to type, with the rich getting richer?

The weak have, by and large, always been weak in Gaelic football. Kerry did after all beat Clare in the 1979 Munster championship by 9-21 to 1-9, a game commonly referred to as the 'Miltown Massacre'.

Long-term, it is the county structures themselves that will continue to come under pressure.

As long as some counties continue to act in isolation, then the scale of some of these beatings will continue. And to change that it will take a leap of faith and radical thinking along the lines of McTague's suggestion thatare quite simply beyond this generation. Anything else will provide only temporary respite from disparity.

The inter-county structure is so often the GAA's greatest virtue, but at this time of year it is one of its great weaknesses too.

Irish Independent

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