Ratings show grim face of inequality
It's time for stars from the lower divisions to get fair share of perks and opportunities
I spent most of last Thursday and Friday working through football squads and figures, fitting them together for a specific purpose.
The task was to choose teams and top ten lists from all four divisions in the Allianz League, working exclusively off player ratings, as they appeared in the Irish Independent on Mondays. Uniquely among all newspapers, we carry ratings (out of 10) for every player in all league and championship games.
I concentrated on football for Saturday's paper, while Donnchadh Boyle covered hurling on Monday (ten-out-of-ten for the hard work put in by our colleagues Barry Lennon and Ronan Price in compiling various figures).
The league is much better than the championship for this type of exercise as all counties play the same number of divisional games. Okay, so that wasn't strictly true this year where four Division 4 games were declared void because of weather disruptions, but it generally holds good.
It means that players can be assessed on an equal basis, unlike the championship where there are variations among counties in the number of games played.
Our Division 1 football selections showed Ciáran Kilkenny to be the most consistent performer, averaging 7.9 during Dublin's successful run to another title.
Paddy McBrearty (Donegal), Damien Comer (Galway), Lee Brennan (Tyrone), Brian Fenton (Dublin) and Paul Murphy (Kerry) were little behind him and, of course, all five made the team.
Caolan Mooney (Down), Dara McVeety (Cavan), Conor Sweeney (Tipperary) and Eoin Cleary (Clare) led Division 2, while John Heslin (Westmeath), Michael Quinn (would Longford have been promoted if he were available for the last-round game against Fermanagh?) and Andrew Murnin (Armagh) came out best in Division 3. Gary Walsh (Laois), Keith Beirne (Leitrim) and Carlow pair Brendan Murphy and Paul Broderick led Division 4.
Walsh (8.2) had the best average across all four divisions after scoring 4-41 (4-11 from open play), a total that would have almost certainly increased except for an injudicious tweet about the Belfast rape trial leading to his omission for the final.
Our designers laid out all the divisional teams, complete with county colours, as if they were of equal stature when, of course, there were playing in groups decided by standard.
Yet, when you see them all lined up alongside each other, it makes you think. The divisions may be separated by standards but that does not mean all the individuals are.
Players in Division 1 are elevated by the high quality around them, whereas the reverse can be the case further down the line. Effectively, the heights players can reach are often set by circumstances beyond their control.
Let's take an example. At the age of 25, Dublin midfielder Brian Fenton has accumulated three All-Ireland, three Allianz League and three Leinster medals. He is a double All-Star award winner and has yet to experience a championship defeat after 20 games. Brendan Murphy (29) and John O'Loughlin (29), the two midfielders on our Division 4 team, have no major titles to show for much longer careers. But then they are from Carlow and Laois respectively so big-time opportunities are limited.
So too with Gary Brennan (Clare) and Dáithí Waters (Wexford), two more top-class midfielders operating outside the elite set. Now, if any of that quartet were born in Dublin, Kerry, Mayo or Tyrone, how much success would they have enjoyed? And if Fenton, Kilkenny or Stephen Cluxton had addresses in Carlow or Laois, their title haul and profiles would be much diminished.
Good luck to Fenton and all the others from strong counties - they benefit from the GAA's structure, where limits of achievement are set by geography as much as talent. For as long as the county system lasts, that will be the case but there's more to it than that in the modern game.
Nearly all the perks - and there are many nowadays - go to the players from the strong counties, further widening the divide between them and the rest.
set-piece Scarcely a day goes by without the media being invited to a product endorsement set-piece where high-profile players, usually drawn from a small golden circle, are paid handsomely to attend and give interviews.
It's pure nonsense, of course, since they are so well-coached in the art of talking a lot but saying nothing that even the most straightforward question elicits an answer more akin to the 'name, rank and serial number' routine than genuine engagement..
Players from lower-ranked counties are rarely invited aboard the cash-for-trash gravy train. Nor are there team holidays or All-Star trips, while very few get selected for International Rules duty either.
That too is usually the preserve of the elite, although, curiously, not one Dublin player was available for the Irish squad last year. Ask not what you can do for your country and all that!
The gap between stronger and weaker counties will never be closed in terms of winning titles, but the same need not apply with perks and other opportunities. It's an area where the GPA should involve themselves, driving an agenda to acknowledge and reward players from weaker counties in both codes rather than having the same small minority take all the goodies - on and off the pitch. It hasn't happened up to now but it's never too late to start.