Friday 22 November 2019

Martin Breheny: Offaly and Leinster have been betrayed by system changes that fail fairness and equality tests

Johnny Dooley. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Dooley. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The Faithful hurling community never thought it would come to this. Out of the Leinster hurling championship on the first weekend in June and with no prospect of returning until 2020 at the earliest, it's a grim time down Offaly way.

As their supporters streamed silently out of Parnell Park yesterday, memories of many great days a few miles away in Croke Park would, no doubt, have come flooding back.

They all look a long time ago now, heroic tales from a different age when Offaly won four All-Ireland and nine Leinster titles between 1980 and 1998.

There was another All-Ireland final appearance in 2000 - they lost to Kilkenny - but as the new Millennium warmed up, Offaly grew increasingly barren.

Now, it's scorched earth country at senior level, with yesterday's defeat by Dublin signing the final papers in their expulsion order from the Leinster Championship. Their return for 2020 is dependent on winning the Joe McDonagh Cup next year.

So how has it come to this for Offaly and what impact will it have on them? It's never easy to pinpoint exactly why a county suffers a sharp decline and, in any event, it's irrelevant now in Offaly's case.

There's a lot of good work going on at underage level but the revitalisation process certainly won't be helped by having no senior team in the Leinster Championship.

Johnny Dooley, who epitomised all that was so good in Offaly hurling during his playing days, suggested in an interview with this newspaper on Saturday that banishment from the Leinster Championship might result in some players not joining the county panel next year.

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Offaly hurlers expect to play in Leinster, not in a secondary championship, even if the latter carries entry to the All-Ireland series for the two finalists.

Dooley also argued that it's wrong to confine the Leinster Championship to five counties, one of whom will be relegated every year (unless Kerry win the Joe McDonagh Cup), while there's no automatic drop-out from Munster.

The only way Clare, Cork, Limerick, Tipperary or Waterford can be relegated is if Kerry win the Joe McDonagh Cup, in which case they would play off against the bottom team in the Munster 'round robin'.

"We have two provinces with five teams each, yet automatic relegation applies to one only. That's unfair," said Dooley.

He's right. Leinster have become a permanent home to the mighty power of Galway and will also accommodate Antrim if they win the Joe McDonagh Cup.

That would leave only three slots for Leinster teams in their own event. Of course, it's no longer a genuine Leinster Championship but rather a Rest of Ireland series. In that case, there's no logical reason why it should not have more than five counties, divided into two groups if required.

It's surprising then that there wasn't more resistance to the restructuring proposals that came before Special Congress last September.

Several of the strong counties did object, although not over confining the Liam MacCarthy Cup field to ten, but there was no great outcry against plans for automatic relegation for the bottom team in Leinster.

Even Offaly, who were always likely to be under threat of relegation, didn't kick up a fuss.

In fact, they co-sponsored a motion with Laois and Meath, proposing that the two Joe McDonagh Cup finalists be allowed into the All-Ireland race, via preliminary quarter-finals.

A disconcerting dimension of the proposed hurling championship readjustments was the role played by counties not directly affected.

Central Council drove the five-county Leinster and Munster Championships hard and despite objections from Waterford, Cork, Tipperary, Dublin and reservations from Kilkenny, Special Congress backed it by a substantial majority.

An unusual aspect was that even with so many top hurling counties against the new plan, it was still accepted.

That's where skewed democracy comes in. The All-Ireland format doesn't impact on lower-ranked counties, yet their votes were as important as the top 12.

In effect, Leitrim, Sligo, Cavan and Fermanagh had as much influence as Tipperary, Kilkenny, Cork and Dublin.

History shows that when counties are not impacted on by a proposal, they take their lead from the top table which, in this case, were all enthusiastically supporting the introduction of a system that has now banished Offaly from Leinster.

It's impossible to figure out how anyone can deduce that hurling is well served by relegating the likes of Offaly from the Leinster Championship.

It could have been Dublin, creating the crazy situation where a county that won the Leinster title as recently as 2013 would be prevented from competing next year.

There are those who will claim Offaly's big defeats - especially against Wexford and Dublin - justifies the view that a spell out of the Leinster Championship might be good for Kevin Martin's squad but that's not the point.

The fact remains that they had no choice in the matter.

Other counties - many of whom never have and never will come anywhere close to Offaly's standards - had as much say in the matter as a county who now finds itself barred from competing in its own provincial championship for the first time. Offaly have been let down and hurling everywhere suffers as a result.

A bad day all round then.

Irish Independent

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