Saturday 18 November 2017

The winds of provincial change must be embraced

Keith Barr

I MIGHT only be echoing a chorus at this point, but why is the start of the championship every year so bloody low-key? The All-Ireland champions are in action this weekend and while they are expected to win, the format of the summer season ahead means general interest in the game is minimal.

How many times have you heard over the past fortnight: "Jayzus the championship is starting this weekend, where is the time going?" Hardly a ringing endorsement to get into the car and drive to Celtic Park or Semple Stadium, or even book the couch for the afternoon.

I'm sure Kerry are happy enough to have a low-key opener, it suits them. But it doesn't suit the game. Kerry are the elite county of Gaelic football. Their arrival into the championship every year should be greeted with unconfined hype and razzmatazz.

Okay, I've only asked the question to emphasise a point I've been making for years. Ditch the preamble and allow us to welcome teams like Kerry onto the big stage to kick off the competition properly.

Games promotion isn't about a few pictures in the papers and the odd radio ad. It is about selling the games to punters and drilling their appeal into people's minds. And, to be honest, the job of selling a preamble is almost impossible for the GAA.

Conservatives -- at least that dying breed who believe there is a future to the provincial championships in their current guise -- will argue that it's not about selling games. Well, the GAA know only too well the importance of nurturing the appeal of the championship and I've little doubt they are aware that the provincial campaigns are something of a millstone around their necks.

Provincial championships, as they stand, are dead. They don't inspire. Any decent contests are too quickly forgotten, eclipsed in August and September by the games that matter.

Provincial competitions, of course, could be preserved easily. There is no reason why they can't either become a component of the league or simply an expanded version of competitions like the McGrath or O'Byrne Cups early in the season. It might suit teams to spend the early part of the season in their own province rather than traipsing around the country.

Many new formats for the championship have been suggested, but it appears that the GAA is still trying to serve too many masters. Club football needs adequate space to thrive and must not be starved of oxygen by the inter-county game. But by doing away with the provincials, and condensing the championship into a Champions League-style format, we would be killing two birds with one stone; more relevant games at inter-county level and more free time for club action.

GAA president Christy Cooney reminded us this week that there appears to be no real appetite for change and that they would react to proposals for a better format. I have little doubt the failure of such a proposal to emerge to date is because of the political influence of provincial councils.

Ignoring the need for change is a risky business. In my opinion, the GAA is lucky Thierry Henry handled that ball. He's helped to ensure the Championship is the main show in town this summer.

At the moment, the championship is painfully strung out. I mean, it's a month before my own county enter the fray. And, while Dublin bring impetus to the overall championship by virtue of their support, a sixth Leinster title on the trot, while a great achievement, isn't going to get the punters' pulses racing.


Accepting the provincial campaigns are largely irrelevant, we can make an exception for Ulster, where it is all too relevant but not necessarily in a good way. Ulster remains important because of the significant impact the campaign has on those who emerge from it. Steeled for the competition ahead or a beaten docket from the attrition of the Ulster championship, take your pick. But the Qualifiers look a safer route.

On Sunday, Armagh and Derry will battle it out in the dreaded preliminary-round tie in Ulster from which few teams prosper. For either of these sides to be still involved on the third Sunday in September is too difficult to imagine.

This is a pity for Armagh, who have improved enough during the spring to make a decent impact this summer and will probably win on Sunday. The Orchard men look fresh. New manager, new buzz. They should be able to take the spoils from Celtic Park against a Derry side that has been frustratingly inconsistent in championship football in recent years.

Stevie McDonnell looks to have rediscovered his old form -- and that means one of the best forwards in the modern game is back pulling the strings. Aaron Kernan impressed on the '40' in the Division 2 final against Down and they have made sufficient progress to book a place against Monaghan. Not exactly much of a reward. But that's the Ulster championship -- one dogfight after another.

Tyrone have proven already that they can take either route to September, but I still think Down are the team to break the recent mould in Ulster. Maybe it's because I battled against a great Down team during the peak of my own career that I have a subconscious fancy for them. I know they have been pretty abject over the past decade but, even though the league final was a comedown for them, they are amassing a talented young side and, if they can get past Donegal, they will grow sufficiently in confidence.

If league form is accurate, Armagh and Down should give a decent account of themselves this summer, while Derry look to be tipping in the opposite direction. Tyrone also look to be on the slide, but their pedigree is unquestionable so they cannot be lumped in with the other Ulster counties.

Kerry will be reasonably happy with their league campaign, given it was an opportunity to start compensating for the loss of so many good players so soon in succession. Of course, no other county could sustain such losses and still remain competitive.

Tipp's progress was halted by relegation from Division 2, but they showed enough bottle during the campaign to suggest they'll put up a fight on Sunday. Without the full O Se complement, Kerry will never be quite the same again but they remain a formidable outfit and will book their place against Cork on Sunday when their new foundations will be properly tested.

At 3/1, Carlow, boosted by the return of Thomas Walsh from their opponents on Sunday, are an interesting price to beat Wicklow in Portlaoise. Their young midfielder Brendan Murphy impressed in the U-21 championship clash with Dublin earlier this year, so they should be solid around the middle.

However, derby clashes like this are bread and butter to Micko and I suspect he'll have Wicklow suitably motivated to win this clash and remain in the Leinster campaign on Sunday evening.

If Carlow lose, they will have to sit it out until Saturday, June 26, to return to action. Crazy!

Irish Independent

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