Monday 17 June 2019

Hurling's list of contenders shows up football woe

Why does small ball have twice as many realistic title hopefuls?

Galway captain David Burke prepares to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup last September as the Tribesmen became the fourth different county in five years to win the All-Ireland title. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Galway captain David Burke prepares to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup last September as the Tribesmen became the fourth different county in five years to win the All-Ireland title. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Ten years ago this year, Wexford footballers reached the Leinster final and All-Ireland semi-final for the first time in 52 years; Westmeath ran Dublin to two points in front of a crowd of 67,075 in the Leinster semi-final; Cork, who were stretched all the way by Limerick in the Munster semi-final, beat Kerry by five points in the final and took them to a replay in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Fermanagh, managed by Malachy O'Rourke, who is now doing an excellent job with Monaghan, were unlucky not to win the Ulster final for the first time.

Jonny Cooper throws the Sam Maguire up in the air as Dublin make it four All-Irelands from five years. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jonny Cooper throws the Sam Maguire up in the air as Dublin make it four All-Irelands from five years. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

They held Armagh to a draw after a powerful finish before losing the replay; Down beat Tyrone, who later went on to win the All-Ireland title, in the Ulster quarter-final and Wicklow were making rapid progress under Mick O'Dwyer.

A year earlier, Sligo won the Connacht title for the first time in 32 years; Meath took Dublin to a replay in the Leinster quarter-final and later reached the All-Ireland semi-final; Laois reached the Leinster final for the fourth time in five years and Derry beat Mayo in the All-Ireland qualifiers.

That's an extensive list of interesting results over two championships. And there were several others too, in terms of margins where favourites were stretched to the limit.

Hurling was much less competitive in 2008, certainly in Leinster where the average winning margin in five games was 19 points, while the All-Ireland final was one of the least competitive in history as Kilkenny secured the three-in-a-row with a 23-point win over Waterford.

'Kevin Martin will do a good job as manager but he can only work with what’s available.' Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
'Kevin Martin will do a good job as manager but he can only work with what’s available.' Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Fast forward a decade and the landscape has changed dramatically.

The number of genuine All-Ireland hurling contenders has increased dramatically, unlike football where few believe that Sam Maguire's possible destination list extends beyond Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone.

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Even then, there are many who believe that, barring an internal implosion in Dublin, the four-in-a-row is a formality. The early Allianz League form of the other trio has done nothing to suggest otherwise.

Kerry have lost two of four games so far and, worryingly from their perspective after the experiences last year, are conceding heavily (average of almost 18 points per game).

Tyrone and Mayo have had worse starts, each losing three of four games and now looking at relegation battles, rather than challenging for a place in the final.

Galway, four wins from four games, and Monaghan (three wins) have become the form teams alongside Dublin, but are either good enough to be in Croke Park in September?


Obviously, any team can get there if they improve sufficiently but, in Monaghan's case, there's a feeling that a top-four finish is probably the best they can hope for.

As for Galway, who knows? History has shown that their peak and valley periods run in cycles.

Their most recent All-Ireland wins in 1998 and 2001 came after winning only one Connacht title in ten seasons (1988-'97).

They arrived quickly, stayed around for a few years before departing speedily. Who would have thought when they beat Meath by nine points in the 2001 All-Ireland final that 17 years later they would be looking for their next championship win in Croke Park?

It's a dismal return, but, as they showed in 1998, they are capable of turning things around quite quickly.

Their early league form has certainly been impressive, but in terms of All-Ireland prospects, it's no more than Exhibit A in a case that will require a whole lot more evidence before convincing the jury.

Still, they have taken a long stride in the right direction. In a wider context, Galway's improvement is to be welcomed since there are few enough signs of others making the sort of progress required to remove the sense of certainty that surrounds the championship race.

Even if Galway are added to the list of possible All-Ireland football contenders, it's still well behind its hurling counterpart, where a solid argument can be made for no fewer than eight counties - Galway, Tipperary, Kilkenny, Waterford, Wexford, Cork, Clare and Limerick. Dublin have dropped off that list, but even that may be temporary.

After building carefully and solidly for so long, their decline over the last year has been alarming but the fundamentals are still sound so it's more likely that they will rejoin the contenders' list than slip into oblivion over the next few seasons.

It would be nice to think the same applied to Offaly, but that's taking optimism too far. Kevin Martin will do a good job as manager but he can only work with what's available.

Offaly are a longer-term project, just as Wexford were some years ago. Now, they are back at a level where supporters genuinely believe that an All-Ireland title is a realistic target over the next few seasons.

Based on the rate of progress displayed over the last year, there's no reason why Wexford should not be thinking big. It's the same with Limerick, where the talent flow has been growing stronger for quite some time.

There's an understandable tendency to be sceptical of Limerick, where many bright mornings have turned into wet afternoons.

That was very much the case after winning the 2013 Munster final, which was supposed to provide the sense of liberation needed to help them break through other frontiers.

It didn't. Nor did the close call against Kilkenny in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final. They lost by two points, but appeared to be building something really substantial. Unfortunately for them, it wasn't completed.

Still, quite a lot has happened since then, not least winning two of the last three All-Ireland U-21 titles.

And while Limerick have more experience than most on how U-21 success guarantees nothing at senior level (three successive All-Ireland U-21 titles in 2000-'01-'02 brought no significant boost to the senior team), it's always encouraging to produce good underage teams. And, in fairness to Limerick's latest crop, they look like the real deal.

Hurling's increasing list of All-Ireland contenders coincides with a decrease in football's equivalent, raising the question - why is that the case?

Why is a sport with a much smaller base than football at the higher end of the competitive market offering more variety?

Presumably, it has much to do with structure and organisation, in which case those involved in football need to take close look at themselves.

That certainly applies in Leinster where, if the current league tables apply at the end of the season, the largest province will have only two counties (Dublin Division 1, Kildare Division 2) in the top 16.

Division 3 would be a virtual Leinster league, with Meath, Louth, Westmeath, Longford, Carlow and Laois making up six of the eight.

Despite being second last in Division 2 at present, Meath may work their way to safety but that scarcely represents much of a success for a county that won four All-Ireland and eight Leinster titles between 1986 and 2001.

The Royals have not been in Division 1 since 2006, which really is a shocking indictment of what has gone on in the county. But then, so many others who should be doing better have fallen down the rankings too.

Why have Laois dropped all the way to Division 4, territory which also housed Westmeath last season? What are Armagh in Division 3 for a second successive season? What's wrong in Cork, who have won only seven of their last 19 league games and who haven't reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals since 2014? Their decline is one of the most baffling of all.

In fairness, Tipperary and Clare have made steady progress, but can either break through the massive psychological barrier which they invariably encounter when playing Kerry?

The divide between hurling and football extends beyond the number of All-Ireland contenders.

Hurling continues to provide exceptional entertainment which, when combined with the uncertain element that applies to all games between the top eight counties, is driving standards higher all the time.

It's very different in football where packing the defence remains the tactic of choice in many counties trying to match the top forces. That may be understandable where the standards divide is very wide but not among those in the middle tier.

They need to be far more creative but appear afraid to take a risk, lest it backfires. It might, but at least it gives them some chance of competing, whereas lining up defensively against the likes of Dublin is tactical nous at its most sterile.

We are led to believe that tactics have never been more sophisticated in football, yet our eyes tell us something completely different.

And, all the time, the gap between a small elite at the top and the rest is widening. It's time big-ball gurus paid more attention to what's happening in hurling, where the base is growing rather than contracting.

Who would have predicted that ten years ago?

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