Friday 18 January 2019

Winter wonderland sees common sense left out in the cold

Leinster and Connacht didn't cover themselves in glory last week, says Colm O'Rourke

Longford's Mickey Quinn. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Longford's Mickey Quinn. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

You can usually rely on the GAA to do stupid things at some stage during the year. The media would like this to happen from October on when matches and news are drying up and already this year there have been some early gifts.

It will be hard to beat the Leinster Council for cock-up of the year - and it is still only January. The insistence on playing today's O'Byrne Cup final between Meath and Westmeath in Portlaoise, with a start time of 4.0, defies all logic and common sense. Especially as the official line is that it is to accommodate TG4. The reaction from most people I talked to has been, "you must be having a laugh".

The O'Byrne Cup is a competition to raise funds to help defray costs for injured players. Yet the Leinster Council was insistent last week on the match going ahead at a time and venue which would have wiped at least three or four thousand off the gate. Were TG4 giving €50,000 to make up the deficit in the players' injury fund?

I was at three matches last week in the most biting cold. There is no way I was going to drive a three-hour round trip to see a game which was being shown live. You couldn't make it up. A match in Navan or Mullingar would get a minimum of 5,000 spectators - and with a lot less travel. This is January, not June.

Spokesman Cian Murphy was sent out to bat for the Leinster Council. I felt sorry for him, he is quoted as saying that notice was sent out on January 4 about this and nobody objected. Of course no one said anything because it was not an issue until the final pairing was known and entering into an agreement with TG4 before the competition began was silly in the extreme.

Why should counties dance to the tune of television and play second fiddle to an All-Ireland intermediate semi-final? A junior hurling club championship was fixed for Navan. Why weren't these two games staged as a double-header in Portlaoise and leave Meath and Westmeath free to toss for Mullingar or Navan with a big crowd and a bit of early season atmosphere. Meath even offered to go to Mullingar, but the Leinster Council was not happy with this either.

This was one of those occasions where you needed somebody to shout, "stop digging lads". If Meath and Louth had qualified for the final, or two other counties furthest in distance from Portlaoise, would they still insist on making that trek?

It reminded me of the Leinster under 21 final a few years ago between Meath and Dublin, when Meath wanted to toss for home or away but Dublin weren't agreeable so the match was played in Portlaoise on a week-night in front of a small attendance. The Leinster Council should have insisted on a toss then too, so history just repeats itself.

If the Leinster Council was shovelling manure, the Connacht Council decided to follow suit. Roscommon and Galway have already qualified for the FBD League final and wanted this weekend's dead rubber to be the final rather than to have a repeat exercise on a weekend in February when there is a break from league action. Players need a rest at that stage having played a lot of games in bad weather on heavy pitches but there doesn't appear to be any consideration of player welfare. It's as if finances override all other considerations. What will happen, of course, is that two shadow teams will play now or in the final.

Who cares anyway? These early season competitions in the bitter month of January are going nowhere. The re-organisation of the playing calendar is making most county teams play the vast majority of their games in the worst of weather. And it will cause carnage to clubs as well. It will only take a year for the chickens to come home to roost.

Meanwhile, last Sunday's free-kick shoot-out in Navan is a good way of finishing a game on the day as it puts a premium on what the game is supposed to be about - kicking. It may seem a long way out but kicking a point from the 45-metre line with a following wind is not the most difficult thing in the world. Perhaps it should have been a bit closer because Meath scored two and Longford one, which shows how few players can kick accurately.

The reason for this is that they don't need to anymore. I would say that quite a few players got 20 possessions last Sunday and never kicked the ball. The only players who kicked regularly were those going for scores. Longford's Mickey Quinn showed that a good kicker of the ball is still a valuable asset, but most others took the easy route and shovelled it along.

A couple of other things stood out in Navan last Sunday. Half-time in league games should be reduced to 10 minutes and if sides are level at the end of normal time there should be a very quick turnaround. The bitter cold last week meant everyone was frozen by the time it all ended. The match started at 2.0, the shoot-out began at 4.20 and we nearly had to put on our phones for a bit of light. Everyone who stuck it out to the end, a two-and-a-half-hour gig, should get a free ticket for the All-Ireland final.

Normally when players announce retirements I get a pain reading the prepared statements. Last week Mark Breheny of Sligo retired. He deserved every bit of praise he got. A man who laboured well off Broadway for almost all his career. I do not know how many times he played in Croke Park, but it must have been very few. It is players like him who should get to perform in the main arena at least a couple of times every year instead of a few times over 17 years.

Are Mark Breheny, and counties like Sligo, not deserving of more respect and a championship where they could play and win in Croke Park? The Super 8 was never going to worry Mark Breheny. Sligo are not part of the rich man's club. He was gracious in tone when departing but players of such loyalty and commitment who toil away in the lower leagues deserve more. Much more. The system failed him.

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