Tuesday 20 February 2018

Martin Breheny: Dublin's rivals need to wake up and set higher standards

Diarmuid Connolly high-fives team-mate Bernard Brogan (L) after scoring Dublin’s first goal past Longford goalkeeper Paddy McCollum on Sunday SPORTSFILE
Diarmuid Connolly high-fives team-mate Bernard Brogan (L) after scoring Dublin’s first goal past Longford goalkeeper Paddy McCollum on Sunday SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Such has been the hysteria in some of the reaction to Dublin's 27-point win over Longford last Sunday that it would be easy to believe that nothing similar had ever happened before.

That's not the case. Dublin beat Longford by 26 points in a 60-minute championship game in 1960, so it's safe to assume that if it were over 70 minutes, the 30-point winning margin would have been easily surpassed.

No doubt, there were plaintive wailings about Longford's plight after being trimmed by the city bullies and grim predictions of a dismal future for the midlanders.

Eight years later, Longford beat Dublin in the Leinster Championship and repeated it two years later.

In 1978, Dublin beat Carlow by 18 points and finished 24 clear of Louth a year later so Dublin beating smaller Leinster counties by big margins is nothing new.

However, the difference now is that no Leinster opposition appears capable of offering a serious challenge to Dublin. Why that's the case is central to finding a solution for a Leinster Championship now in crisis because of Dublin's total dominance.

The population demographics have always given Dublin an advantage in terms of playing numbers, yet it's only in recent times that it has translated into such overwhelming superiority on the pitch.

Nobody could seriously suggest that the current Dublin team is better than the squad that won three All-Irelands and six successive Leinster crowns in the 1970s, yet they found it much more difficult to win the provincial title than is the case now.

Meath ran Dublin to two and four points respectively in the 1976 and '77 Leinster finals; Offaly came within three points of Dublin in the '78 semi-final and within two points of them in the '79 final.

A year later, Offaly beat them in the Leinster final and added two more titles in the following two years.

Dublin's ever-increasing dominance now is being helped enormously by the slip in standards in Meath, Kildare, Offaly and Laois, opposition that would always have been seen as most likely to trouble them. Sadly, they have all declined.

Dublin apart, no Leinster county is in Division 1. Meath haven't been in the top flight since 2006, and Kildare have now tumbled into Division 3. Laois were next closest to the Division 2 trap-door this year, just ahead of Kildare and Westmeath, both of whom were relegated.

Leinster's decline is clearly illustrated by the make-up for next year's Allianz League where they will have one (Dublin) in Division 1, two (Laois, Meath) in Division 2, four in Division 3 (Kildare, Westmeath, Longford, Offaly) and four (Louth, Wexford, Carlow, Wicklow) in Division 4.

That's ten of 11 Leinster counties (Kilkenny don't compete) ranked outside the top ten (Meath finished 11th overall in this year's league) and eight outside the top 16. Why the surprise then when Dublin, who are enjoying a particularly fertile spell, dominate so easily?

Everyone knows that the provincial system is unfair, but it will remain in place because the counties want it. In most cases, that includes the players, which is why proposals for a secondary championship for the bottom 12 or 16 counties will never win enough support if it interferes with the provincial series.

Re-drawing provincial boundaries to create four groups of eight has merit (presumably Longford would head west and avoid Dublin's tyranny) but that's as far as it can go because there's no real interest in a Champions League-like format. Rightly so, as it would result in lots of meaningless games, which the public would ignore.

The reality is that whatever format is used, nothing will work unless standards rise.

Of course, there's another issue too. For reasons that defy logic, Leinster continues to give Dublin home advantage for every game, a luxury the great team of the 1970s didn't have.

Indeed, they regularly played Leinster quarter- and semi-finals away from Croke Park.

Nobody is suggesting that Longford would have beaten Dublin last Sunday if they had home advantage but it would have helped, just as it would have boosted all the teams that lost to Dublin in quarter-finals over the last eight seasons.

The wider the gap between Dublin and the others, the more difficult it is to close, yet Leinster continue to bestow home advantage on the strongest.

The reason? Money.

It's a betrayal of common sense at a time when Dublin's rivals need all the help they can get to prevent the Blues disappearing over the horizon. Surely, this will be the last year the venue madness continues.

Stoppage time - and how it stops play

The theft of stoppage-time continues. I raised it here last week, arising from the Clare-Limerick Munster hurling tie and it cropped up again in Croke Park last Sunday.

Referee James McGrath called for two additional minutes at the end of the Dublin-Galway game which appeared rather short.

Still, it's what happened to the stoppage time that demands closest attention.

McGrath actually played two minutes, 20 seconds extra - here's how it panned out.

70.00-70.30: Two throw-ins deep in the Galway half were messy and inconclusive.

70.30: Galway's Paul Killeen was fouled and awarded a free.

71.13: The wait between the awarding of the free and Joe Canning taking it ran to 43 seconds.

71.23: Dublin were awarded a free out after Canning's effort dropped close to their goal.

72.20: There was a 57-second delay between the awarding of the Dublin free and Alan Nolan taking it. The referee blew the final whistle as the ball dropped.

Effectively, one minute and 40 seconds of the two minutes and 20 seconds was taken up between the awarding and taking of two frees.

During that period, Dublin and Galway sent on one sub each, which was partially responsible. However, under rule, the referee could not add anything on for that unless there was clear evidence of time-wasting, which didn't apply in either case.

Still, isn't there something deeply unsatisfactory about a situation where the ball is not in play except for 40 seconds of two minutes 20 seconds of added time?

The scores were level, but imagine if one side had been seeking a levelling point, only to have no play for almost three-quarters of the stoppage time? It's yet another example of time-keeping problems.

Time for Galway to leave Leinster's cold house?

By 6.15pm next Saturday, Galway will have played their 18th game on the eastern circuit, spread as follows: Tullamore - 5; Croke Park - 5; Portlaoise - 5; Mullingar - 2; Nowlan Park - 1.

It's an extensive tour of Leinster, missing out only on Wexford.

Meanwhile, not a single Leinster foot has crossed the Shannon over the past six years.

Counties are allowed to enter home-and-away arrangements, an option that most in Leinster have taken up, except when it comes to Galway. None of them will admit it, but there appears to be a tacit agreement that Tullamore remains as far west as they will go to play Galway.

And when Galway sought last year to have their minors and U-21s play in the Leinster Championship, they were politely rejected.

So here's the position then: Leinster counties won't cross the Shannon to play Galway seniors, nor will they allow Galway's minor and U-21s to join their championships.

It's scarcely a partnership of equals now, is it? Leinster are entitled to run their affairs as they see fit, but then so are Galway. And if that includes being treated like second-class citizens in Leinster, then it's time to take a stand.

If Galway threatened to withdraw from Leinster unless the venue and underage issues were addressed, it would become a matter for Central Council, which has responsibility for the All-Ireland format.

That includes Galway playing in Leinster, but it cannot be allowed to continue in such a one-sided deal.

If Leinster is becoming such a cold house for Galway, they should consider checking out. That would bring matters to a head.

Irish Independent

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