Wednesday 23 October 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Hurling 12 Football 2 - the simple scoreline that highlights why there's only one code in town'

The number of marquee clashes between Division 1 teams provides a simple scoreline to why there's only one code in town in the opening five weeks of championship action and viewing figures show exactly what the market wants

Páirc life: There have been strong crowds in the opening two weekends of the hurling championships including the battle of Cork and Tipperary at Páirc Uí Chaoimh last weekend. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Páirc life: There have been strong crowds in the opening two weekends of the hurling championships including the battle of Cork and Tipperary at Páirc Uí Chaoimh last weekend. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Poor old football, it can't win, certainly not during this part of the season anyway. In fact, it can't even draw because, well, another form of draw forms a large part of the problem.

Hurling is bouncing off the early summer surfaces, rolling out the big attractions in front of big crowds as the top 10 teams play each other over 20 games on six weekends.

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By the end of it, each will have played four times and four counties will be heading for the provincial finals, which carry direct entry to the All-Ireland semi-finals for the winners.

The third-placed sides will also remain in All-Ireland contention and a further two will come up from the next level to test their progress.

As well as being neat, fair and efficient, it's PR gold, certainly by comparison with football, which is struggling for attention.

In terms of the actual games, comparing hurling and football is a daft exercise. Nobody links soccer and hockey, yet there are regular diatribes on the perceived glory of hurling as opposed to the stodginess of football.

The only relationship between them comes from their administration - otherwise they are totally different.

Control

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Still, since they are under common control, you would expect a cohesive approach, so that one sport didn't prosper at the other's expense.

It has never happened. With relatively few exceptions, hurling or football has always been predominant in the various counties.

Football leads in the majority of cases, but is now being easily outshone for much of the championship season.

While hurling delivers the glamour, football plods through the provincials, hoping to mine the occasional nugget from the earlier digs.

Even the schedules are bizarre. For example, Galway or Sligo, who meet next Sunday, will book their provincial final spot in the same week that 10 counties, including All-Ireland champions Dublin, play their opening games.

Galway and Mayo had their first games four weeks before Kerry and Cork enter the action.

Rooted in a provincial system which has wide disparities in standard, and several numerical imbalances, the provincial championships are sport's ultimate camel, high on humps and not especially pleasing on the eye.

That has always been the case, but it's more relevant than ever now as it trundles behind a sleek hurling counterpart. Inevitably, hurling is dominating live TV as well as coverage in all the other media.

GAA president John Horan raised the issue last week, noting that "it's predominantly hurling matches for the first four or five weeks" and suggesting that the next round of TV rights negotiations - with RTÉ in particular - should limit flexibility on what games are shown live.

Obviously, if the GAA adopt that policy, broadcast income will decline sharply on the basis that TV companies factor advertising revenue in to their bids.

The less they take in, the less they pay the GAA.

However much Croke Park might like a more equal football-hurling spread during the provincials, the reality is that the market, as proven by viewing figures, has no doubt what it wants.

With due respect to next Sunday's football games - Galway v Sligo and Down v Armagh - they don't compare in overall public interest with the Tipperary v Waterford and Limerick v Cork Munster hurling games.

If, as is the case in hurling, football had its top 10 teams playing each other, then it would be altogether different.

Dublin v Mayo, Tyrone, Kerry, Galway, Donegal or Monaghan (and indeed several other combinations too) would rival the Munster games, making a one-one hurling/football split the obvious TV option. As it stands, there's no competition.

Over the first five weekends of the football championship, Cavan v Monaghan and Mayo v Roscommon are the only two games featuring two Division 1 teams from this season while Kerry v Clare is the sole Division 1 v Division 2 clash.

Hurling has 12 Division 1 clashes in the same period.

The irony is that the round-robin system in Leinster and Munster hurling arose essentially from fears that the introduction of the 'Super 8s' would give football a dominating presence later in the championship.

Numerically, that may be the case in July-August but, in terms of quality and coverage, hurling remains well represented by the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final.

Meanwhile, back at start of the championships, it enjoys near-total dominance.

That's damaging football's profile and, by extension, the game itself.

But that's how it will remain for as long as the football is run off on a system which has neither fairness nor logic at its core.

There might be some point in maintaining it if the public interest was well-served, but of course that's not the case.

There was a time when the hurling fraternity railed (and rightly so) against how their beloved sport was being downgraded.

The same is now happening in football for a sizable chunk of championship time. Part of it is down the entertainment levels but a far higher proportion results from the format.

That's fixable so where are the repair crews?

Orchard craving sweet success

How much pressure is on Kieran McGeeney and Armagh to beat Down next Sunday?

Without a win in Ulster in the four seasons he has been in charge, it's Armagh's worst run since 1966-'70 when they went five seasons without a provincial victory.

There were no second chances back then, unlike nowadays when a season can be rescued in the qualifiers.

Armagh captain Rory Grugan claims that their recent record in the qualifiers (seven wins in the last two years) suggests they are better than their poor Ulster form shows, so why has it lasted so long?

Only Wexford have a worse record in the provincials, having completed a fifth successive season without a win when losing to Louth last Sunday.

Limerick had also gone four seasons without a win in Munster, but ended the losing run with a great victory over Tipperary last weekend.

Who would have thought a decade ago that Armagh would be in this depressing territory?

Hurlers have say on key to success

What's the most important skill in hurling?

"Striking off both sides," was the answer given by Cork midfielder Bill Cooper in the match programme for last Sunday's clash with Tipperary.

Unfortunately for Cooper, he was unable to hit off either side, having to withdraw just before throw-in due to a back spasm.

It was quite a loss for Cork as his physicality would have been important in an area where they struggled for most of the way.

His opposite number, Tipperary's No 9 Michael Breen, called 'catching' the most important skill.

It certainly played a big part in Tipp's win as they fared much better in the aerial wars, especially in their half-back line, where the three Mahers were excellent, mopping up most of the deliveries that came their way.

On the skills question, the younger generation obviously have a different view of the core requirements, with two members of the minor teams. Luke Horgan (Cork) and Cathal Deely (Tipperary) listing 'first touch' as their top choice.

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