Tuesday 12 December 2017

Sun setting in east: what's happened to Leinster football?

A League tie between Meath and Kildare used to be regarded as a meeting between genuine All-Ireland contenders but that won't be the case when they clash in Navan tonight. Other Leinster counties have slipped back too, leaving Dublin increasing their lead to an embarrassing margin

Sun setting on these Gaelic footballers
Sun setting on these Gaelic footballers
Padraig Fogarty showing the disappointment of last week's defeat to Down
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Around the turn of the Millennium, a Meath v Kildare Allianz League game would have been regarded as a clash between serious All-Ireland contenders.

The counties won five of the six Leinster titles between them from 1996-2001, with Offaly taking the other one.

Meath were All-Ireland champions in 1996 and '99; Kildare were beaten finalists in 1998, a year in which Tommy Lyons steered Offaly to their first Division 1 League title.

Now, it's all so depressingly different. As Meath supporters click their way through the turnstiles in Páirc Tailteann for tonight's game with Kildare (live on Setanta Ireland), they may reflect on the fact that it's nine years since they last saw a Division 1 game in Navan.

Relegated from the top flight in 2006, Meath have been unable to force their way back into the top eight. In fact, they went the other way in 2013, which they spent in Division 3.

Kildare dropped out of Division 2 last season and saw their promotion odds lengthen last Sunday when losing at home to Down. Over in Pearse Stadium, Meath were struggling against Galway.

Meath and Kildare were two of six Leinster teams who lost to opposition from Connacht, Munster and Leinster last weekend. Two others drew, leaving Offaly, who beat London, as the only winners from the province.

One series of results in early February doesn't prove a point, but Leinster's problems extend much further back than last weekend.

Kevin Reilly of Meath looks for medical attention after picking up an injury playing against Kildare in the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship in June.
Kevin Reilly of Meath looks for medical attention after picking up an injury playing against Kildare in the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship in June.

Worrying

While Dublin have pulled ever further ahead, leaving the rest of the provinces as receding specks in their rear view mirrors, there's another worrying trend for the rest of Leinster too.

Their record against opposition from the other three provinces has been dismal. Granted, Leinster enjoyed some success in last year's qualifiers when Longford stunned Derry and Kildare thrashed Down, but overall results tell a much bleaker tale.

Since the start of last year's League, Leinster counties (excluding Dublin) have won only 18 of 74 games against outside opposition.

The power-brokers acknowledge the problem, with new CEO Michael Reynolds referring to the poor standard of competition in Leinster games not involving Dublin.

His predecessor Michael Delaney made similar references over recent years too, but the gap between Dublin and the rest is widening rather than narrowing.

Whether that's helped by the comfort Leinster bestow on Dublin by fixing all their games for Croke Park is a moot point.

In his address to the Leinster Council Convention last weekend, John Horan dismissed the issue as "another hardy annual the media drag up in the silly season."

Urging the media to "move on", he justified the unfairness purely on the basis of money.

"It is obvious that the income generated from the games with Dublin in Croke Park proves a huge benefit to all other counties in the province, with the excess at the year-end being distributed to the counties," he said.

So that's okay then. Dublin in Croke Park equals more money. Case closed.

In any event, all the "excess" that's sloshing around Leinster hasn't done much to drive up standard so that even a few counties can compete with Dublin.

Besides, isn't there more to the GAA than money? Longford's Paul Barden, who announced his retirement this week, said in an interview with this paper last month that whatever about financial considerations, it would benefit other counties if Dublin had to play some games outside Croke Park.

He speaks from experience, having been on the Longford team that ran Dublin to two points in Pearse Park in 2006. That was Dublin's last Leinster game outside Croke Park.

Nobody is suggesting that taking Dublin around Leinster would lead to immediate equality.

Nor is anyone calling for the removal of the Leinster semi-finals or final from Croke Park.

However, would it be such a catastrophic financial loss if Dublin played a quarter-final in Tullamore, Portlaoise or Wexford Park?

And even if the gross yield were down, would it not be more than compensated for by the promotional value of staging a big championship game at a provincial venue? That was always the way Leinster ran their affairs prior to 2006, so why is it such an alien concept now?

Horan wants the media to "move on" from a "silly season" story. Actually, Leinster's real "silly season" has been from May to July, when the championship lumbered on to an inevitable conclusion.

Dublin, who are seeking their 10th provincial title in 11 seasons this summer, have won four of their last six Leinster games over two years by 16 points and all six by an average of 14 points.

Yet, despite that, they now appear to be locked into a permanent home arrangement because of financial considerations.

Perhaps it's time the players and managers from the other counties were allowed in on the decision-making process, rather than leaving it to board officials, who obviously put money first. Unlike racing, where the better horses are handicapped, Leinster loads on the weight to the less talented.

For all that, there's no excusing Meath and Kildare for falling so far behind Dublin. Meath's demise since the glory period of 1986 to 2001 has been truly dramatic. A whole generation of youngsters grew up with the excitement of the Seán Boylan years in what should have been fertile ground for establishing very deep roots.

Instead, Meath have fallen back to the pre-Boylan depression years. The 2010 Leinster title, achieved in bizarre circumstances in the controversial win over Louth, was nothing more than a mirage, which quickly evaporated.

Kildare have declined too. And further back there's little sign of a surge, similar to what Laois and Westmeath produced in 2003-04.

Quite why standards in Leinster, other than Dublin, have dropped is unclear but it should be a matter of concern for the broader GAA since it's the biggest province and should be doing much better.

Despite their problems, Meath and Kildare are next up behind Dublin but there won't be any great sense of a serious renewal around Páirc Tailteann this evening.

As ever, it will be an interesting, well-contested game but, whatever the outcome, neither set of supporters will feel that it's the launch of anything special. The gap is too wide for that.

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