Tommy Conlon: 'The beatings have continued but morale can't be maintained forever'
A fortnight from today, the Leitrim squad that famously won the Connacht football final 25 years ago will be presented to the crowd in Pearse Stadium at this year's renewal, between Galway and Roscommon.
For Leitrim supporters in the crowd it will be a chance to salute an achievement that will probably never come their way again. Not in their lifetime and maybe not their children's either. The 1994 side bridged a gap to the Connacht championship team of 1927. We are now 25 years and counting into that previous 67-year benchmark.
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Brendan Behan allegedly once said the land was so bad in West Breifne that not even a snipe could survive there. But even by these famished standards in general, its GAA folk in particular have had to survive on Siberian rations. We are still dining out on the remaining morsels from '94, and are hardy enough to survive on them for another generation, if needs be.
But by then there may not even be another Connacht title up for grabs to add to the hallowed shrines of '27 and '94. If the county's population (32,000) means that we can only produce a properly competitive team every half-century or so, we could be looking at 2045, in or around, for another bus to arrive. And that's being optimistic.
And will there be a Connacht championship in existence at all by then? Will Leitrim players and supporters be looking at their chances in a Tier 3 All-Ireland campaign, for the bottom 10 or 11 counties? Naturally enough it won't be called the Tier 3 championship because we are much too sensitive these days to be labelling people as red raw useless. So, for argument's sake, let's call it the Packy McGarty Cup. In 2045 will Leitrim's Gaels be gathering in public houses from Manorhamilton to Bornacoola and asking themselves the deathless question, 'How'll we get on in the Packy McGarty this year?'
Judging by the mounting unrest over current competitive structures, and the seemingly intractable fixtures imbroglio, all will have changed and changed utterly by the middle of the 21st century. In fact, it might even have changed by the time next year's season swings into action.
Three weeks ago Roscommon beat Leitrim by 14 points in the quarter-final at Hyde Park - another Connacht championship come and gone in a flash for the Wild Rose County. Last weekend Meath beat Carlow by 15 points, and Dublin put a positively sadistic 5-21 on Louth. The annual slaughter of the seals is well underway. The beatings have continued; morale has not improved.
Last Monday GAA president John Horan reiterated his view that the Association needs to be looking at a two-tier championship, at minimum, and generally opening up the whole issue of how inter-county football competitions should be organised. He is currently in the process of assembling a fixtures' review committee that will have a wide brief and express permission to think creatively, the better to reshape and re-energise a calcified system. The committee will be chaired by Eddie Sullivan, a retired civil service secretary general .
Horan said that "everything is on the table", including the nuclear option that would be the abolition of the provincial championships. Many GAA followers have come round to thinking that it is not a drastic measure at all, but irrefutably logical, given the grotesque mismatches that have been recurring for decades in the provinces. But obviously for the provincial councils themselves, it would constitute a nuclear solution. That is, not a solution at all but a form of mutual annihilation.
The business of streamlining the championship in similar fashion to how the national leagues are run will be a battle between convoluted tradition and contemporary simplicity. The national league is a model of simplicity: four divisions, sorted by merit and performance from top to bottom. The provincial championships with their asymmetrical quantities and wildly lopsided internal standards are a relic of De Valera in the time of Varadkar.
And yet and yet. The Ulster championship still more than justifies its presence because the culture there remains fiercely competitive; an Ulster title is still a hard-earned standalone prize. Connacht, with Roscommon, Mayo and Galway in the mix, retains its credibility despite the forlorn status of its perennial minnows. Obviously Munster, on the other hand, is a bad joke, while Dublin in the last decade have turned Leinster into a wasteland.
If you were to put out the bright side, therefore, you could argue that two out of four ain't bad. And on this basis, that ditching the provincials, even if it were politically feasible, might be throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. In other words, what has stood for over 130 years should not be lightly discarded. And certainly not until everyone is pretty sure that what comes after will stand up just as well.
The other counterintuitive reality is that the minnows enjoy feeling part of the big-time, even if it is usually for one game only, and often results in an unmerciful hosing from one of the big powers. They like to feel part of the big show that is the one and only senior All-Ireland championship. Or at least they used to like it; maybe the romance has worn thin at this stage. But even after they'd been hung, drawn and quartered by the Dubs, Louth manager Wayne Kierans said they still preferred to "have the opportunity to go and experience it."
For teams that are never going to win an All-Ireland, a provincial title still looks realistically attainable, when viewed with a judicious amount of hope. Make that an injudicious amount of hope. They might, then, ask the fixtures' review committee to tread softly because it will be treading on their humble dreams.
It will take a conclave of very wise men and women to sort out the tiers, without too many tears.
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