Tuesday 24 October 2017

The Great Debate: Is the gap between football's elite and the rest at an all-time high?

Dublin’s Dean Rock is fouled by Kildare’s Mark Donnellan resulting in a black card and penalty in their comfortable Leinster SFC semi-final victory
Dublin’s Dean Rock is fouled by Kildare’s Mark Donnellan resulting in a black card and penalty in their comfortable Leinster SFC semi-final victory

Yes, says Jackie Cahill

The aggregate winning margin for Dublin in their two Leinster Championship outings this summer is 46 points. Yes, you've read that right.We fear for Westmeath in the provincial decider.

Two years ago, Dublin beat Kildare in the Leinster Championship by 16 points. The margin between the sides last Sunday was 19.

In 2013, Dublin defeated Westmeath by 15 points. That line of form suggests that the Lake County are in for a trimming later this month.

In Munster, it's highly unlikely that Cork will do anything to disturb Kerry's reign as champions on Sunday. It's Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney, the Kingdom's back yard, and Cork's chances are slim.

At Páirc Uí Chaoimh last year, in a game dripping with significance ahead of a demolition job on the crumbling bowl, Kerry handed their arch-rivals a 12-point hiding. It's a gap that won't be made up in a year.

West of the Shannon, Mayo are on the verge of a fifth successive Connacht crown. If they take care of Sligo, as expected, Mayo will have claimed six of the last seven.

Are you beginning to notice a trend here?

In Ulster, victory for Donegal over Monaghan will see them crowned provincial winners for the fourth time in five seasons. We hold out hope for Monaghan in this one but Donegal are a better bet to win the All-Ireland.

Irrefutable statistical evidence suggests a growing divide between the game's haves and have nots.

Dublin's vast pool of talent and their financial clout means that for the rest in Leinster, a provincial title is a pipe dream.

Mayo are still in something of a transitional phase following James Horan's departure last year but remain a step ahead of the rest in Connacht.

Kerry, with a real depth in their squad, are out in front in Munster. They won the All-Ireland last year without Colm 'Gooch' Cooper, Tommy Walsh and Paul Galvin, absent for various reasons. All three are back in harness now.

Having contested just one All-Ireland final in their history prior to 2012, Donegal have appeared in two of the last three.

It's a golden age for the county, and while Derry presented stiff resistance in the Ulster semi-final last month, it's the test that Rory Gallagher's men needed and will only make them stronger.

The race for Sam Maguire boils down to three counties - Dublin, Kerry and Donegal.

In the last 11 seasons, Kerry and Dublin have won seven All-Irelands between them. They've also lifted Sam Maguire a combined 61 times.

Gaelic Football's status quo will remain this year - and for some time to come.

No, says Martin Breheny

So what constitutes the elite? For argument purposes, let's stretch it to the top seven in the All-Ireland betting: Dublin, Kerry, Donegal, Mayo, Cork, Monaghan, Tyrone.

So have they pulled so far ahead of the rest as to constitute an unprecedented gap? No.

The big problem centres on how far Dublin have stretched clear of their Leinster rivals. Remove that and where's the evidence of domination by an elite now, as opposed to any time in the past?

Kerry and Cork have always been top dogs in Munster, with the others offering varying degree of challenges from time to time.

By comparison, check back 20 years to 1995. Kerry beat Limerick by 18 points and Tipperary by 16 points after hitting them for 7-12. Cork beat Waterford by 14 points. Apart from sporadic acts of rebellion by the other four, Kerry and Cork have always ruled Munster.

Connacht are bidding for the five-in-a-row in Connacht this year. It's scarcely ideal from a variety viewpoint, but then neither was Galway's dominance when they won nine of 11 titles from 1956-66.

Galway ran Mayo to four points this year, Roscommon held Mayo to a point last year and Sligo came up two short in 2012, so it's hardly a walkover wasteland.

As for Ulster, it remains as competitive as ever, if not even more so. Donegal and Monaghan have been the dominant forces for the past few years but they're not so far ahead of the rest that it's necessary to declare an emergency.

After all, Donegal had only two points to spare against Derry last weekend and Cavan ran Monaghan to a point in May.

The big change has been in Leinster, where Dublin are bidding for their 10th title in 11 seasons. They still haven't matched the six-in-a-row they racked up in 1974-79, but there's a significant difference in that Kevin Heffernan's group was challenged strongly every year, whereas the current crop are driving ever further ahead.

That puts the spotlight on Meath and Kildare, in particular. They should have the resources to be competitive, even at a time when Dublin are thriving. It's an indictment of them that they're not. However, those failures should not be allowed to distort the overall picture.

Kerry, Dublin and Offaly won 17 of 18 All-Ireland titles between 1969 and 1986, with Cork taking the other one.

Eight counties - Meath, Kerry, Galway, Armagh, Tyrone, Cork, Dublin and Donegal - have shared the last 18 titles.

It's a decent spread so there's no need to panic just yet just because Dublin have Leinster in such a tight grip.

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