Friday 23 March 2018

The demise of middle Ireland

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

LET Mullingar be your starting point. Head west to Longford, then on to Roscommon. Swing north to Carrick-on-Shannon, then north-east for Enniskillen and back south to Cavan.

You will have travelled 150 miles through six counties in three provinces. It's traditional Gaelic football territory although, as it happens, the hurlers from Leitrim, Fermanagh, Westmeath, Longford, Roscommon and Cavan have won more games than their football counterparts in this year's National Leagues.

Since those six counties split evenly, two each between Leinster, Connacht and Ulster, they traverse different championship routes, initially at least, and while they may clash in the All-Ireland championship, it's more likely to be in the early qualifier rounds than at the Croke Park stages.

In a sense then, their only link is that they wrap around each other and are surrounded by more powerful forces. They are, in many ways, middle Ireland. Sometimes they rise above that on the football fields but, so far this year, they have been on a downward spin, having won just nine of 36 league games between them.


None of them are in Division 1; indeed by next year, four will be in Division 4 and two (probably) in Division 3. Cavan still have a chance of promotion to Division 2 but need to beat Fermanagh and have the three others results in the group go their way in the final round of games to finish in the top two. Their maximum points return is eight, which is rarely enough to win promotion.

All this week there has been extensive analysis of Kerry, Tyrone (football) and Kilkenny (hurling) with the question of why things are going wrong for them so far this year being addressed in detail. It's an interesting topic but it's also part of a conditioning process.

Nobody expects Kerry, Tyrone and Kilkenny to struggle and when they do it becomes a major topic. It's different when six counties, geographically linked in the north midlands and west, return a series of disappointing results.

It shouldn't be like that. What's happening in those six counties should be of wider concern. The dramatic decline in the fortunes of Westmeath, Fermanagh and Roscommon is alarming; the fact that Cavan have only Antrim ranked behind them in the Ulster championship betting (and that's because Antrim play Tyrone in the quarter-final) says it all about the view of Breffni land.

Longford should be doing better than tickling Division 4's lower underbelly, having won just one of six games after starting the campaign among the favourites for promotion, while Leitrim seem stuck in one of those frustrating cycles where they can't get any traction.

Only the economy has imploded with more ferocity than Westmeath and Fermanagh. Two years ago, Westmeath beat Dublin in the Division 2 final, ran them to two points in the Leinster semi-final, followed by a close call against eventual All-Ireland champions Tyrone in the qualifiers.

Since then, Westmeath have lost 13 consecutive league games by an average of nine points, were demolished by 27 points by Dublin in the 2009 championship and have slid from Divisions 1 to 3. Meanwhile, two of the best forwards in the country, Dessie Dolan and Denis Glennon, are not on the panel. Admittedly, that's of their own volition, but questions always have to be asked when top performers don't want to play for their county.

Notwithstanding the encouraging signs emerging from the U-21 team which play Dublin in the Leinster final tomorrow, the danger for Westmeath is that they will find it very difficult to escape from Division 3 next year.

It's a different world from the one they occupied early in the last decade, when Luke Dempsey was taking them on a new adventure which came so close to yielding an All-Ireland semi-final place in 2001. Three years later, Paidi O Se presided over the best year in Westmeath's history when they won the Leinster title for the first time.

Six years ago, Fermanagh were unlucky not to reach the All-Ireland final; three years ago they were in Division 1A and two years ago they came so close to winning the Ulster title (they lost the final to Armagh in a replay). Now, they are headed for Division 4, having dropped down from Division 2 to 3 last spring. They have lost 11 of their last 14 league games.

They have, of course, been the victims of an injustice which shows what can happen to counties who lack the profile and influence enjoyed by the more successful powers. For the seventh time in eight seasons, the league schedule handed Fermanagh four away and three home games.

Can you imagine that programme being presented to Tyrone, Kerry, Dublin or Galway? And if it were, their screaming objections would leave the Hogan Stand shuddering. Fermanagh complained but were told that it was just downright bad luck. They raised it at Central Council but got nowhere. The statistics show that, on average, the ratio of home to away wins is 2 to 1, so it's quite likely that Fermanagh's slide down the Divisions over the years was influenced by their lopsided programme.

Roscommon had four away ties but their relegation fate has already been sealed before they their final game against Sligo tomorrow week.

Roscommon in Division 4? It doesn't sound quite right, especially when you consider that in 2002, they topped Division 1A, which also included Tyrone, Galway, Dublin, Donegal, Cork, Offaly and Westmeath. A year earlier, Roscommon won the Connacht title.

Heady times indeed. And while the graph line dipped from there on, Roscommon finished second in Division 2A with five wins from seven games in 2007. Since then, they have won just five of 20 league games and have taken some terrible championship beatings too.

Longford stretched Kerry to the limit in last year's All-Ireland qualifiers, leaving them highly rated as promotion contenders this year.

But their current campaign has been exceptionally poor, winning just once (v Kilkenny) from six games while they were effectively robbed of victory against Limerick when a late goal was disallowed in the wrong. Still, that was only their second game so they would have got back on track if they were good enough. Instead, they will finish Division 4 in seventh position with only London and Kilkenny behind them, giving them a national rating of 31 out of 33.

Longford have a small population base but it was no bigger three years ago when they finished third in 2A or in '03 when they were promoted to Division 1.

Leitrim have a small population too but are not doing as well as they did for much of the last decade and are nowhere near the heights they reached in the 1990s.

In theory, Cavan could still be promoted from Division 3, even if they have won only three of six games so far. All very different to '02 when they reached the Division 1 final.

The case histories of Westmeath, Longford, Roscommon, Leitrim, Fermanagh and Cavan presents an interesting, if worrying, snapshot of six neighbouring counties in three provinces who are starting the new decade at lower levels than they averaged in the last decade. In many cases, the slump has been quite severe.

It's not good for those counties, nor is it good for the GAA. It's all very fine teasing out why Tyrone and Kerry are in relegation trouble but we all know it's a temporary blip and, come summer, both will be back at the top of the championship market. The same can't be said of the north midlands six.

Irish Independent

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