Sport GAA

Friday 18 October 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Time for a radical plan to overhaul structure - here is my new-look football championship'

Focus on Dublin funding ignores the bigger issue of a lopsided championship

Brian Fenton, left, and Ciarán Kilkenny of Dublin celebrate with the Sam Maguire following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Brian Fenton, left, and Ciarán Kilkenny of Dublin celebrate with the Sam Maguire following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Oh, the beautiful simplicity of it all. Money, money, money - the root of all evil in the sad tale of how the Leinster Football Championship is no more than a training ground for Dublin.

And not a very competitive one either. Slash the funding to Dublin and watch the rest of Leinster thrive.

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Give it a few years and we'll have a Wicklow-Longford final after Carlow and Louth were beaten in thrilling semi-finals. The obvious solution to a difficulty isn't always the right one. If it were, the issue probably wouldn't have arisen in the first place.

In the case of Dublin's funding from central GAA finances, it's being portrayed by critics as the equivalent of spreading fertiliser around a giant oak tree to encourage even stronger root development.

As the tree continues to grow, it shuts out light in the vicinity, stunting all other growth. In effect, the big tree is creating a barren area all around it.

That is not the case with Dublin. Or at least it shouldn't be. Irrespective of how many Leinster or All-Ireland titles they win, there's no reason why neighbours Meath and Kildare, traditionally their biggest rivals, aren't doing a lot better.

Both have slipped way down from where they were at the turn of the Millennium and, in Meath's case, for the previous 15 years.

It's the same in much of Leinster. Laois, Offaly, Westmeath, Wexford and Wicklow are well behind where they were at various periods over the last 20 years. What has that to do with Dublin? The argument will be put forward that Dublin's dominance has knocked the heart out of other counties, leaving everyone so dispirited that they can't find a way out of the slump.

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If that's case, why aren't they revolting against Dublin's funding? Why aren't they calling for change to the championship system, so that they can get away from Dublin's iron hand, at least in the early stages of the campaign?

Far from that, they have shown no appetite whatsoever for championship reform, certainly if it involves scrapping the provincials. Nor have they made an issue of the funding.

The same applies to counties in other provinces. So if Dublin's games development and coaching grants are perceived to be giving them a big advantage, why the silence from the rest of the country?

Why aren't smaller counties, many of whom earn considerably less from sponsorship than some big Dublin clubs, not calling for a rebalancing of income? Dublin also have several lucrative commercial deals, a factor which should be taken into account when funding from Croke Park is being allocated.

Re-assessing funding to Dublin and the rest of the country is relatively straight-forward, but claiming that it would sort out the Leinster Championship's predicament is daft. There's a lot more than finance involved there.

Money had nothing to do with Meath missing simple frees, ballooning wides or dropping ball gently into Stephen Cluxton's hands in a first half where they created more chances than Dublin. You wouldn't have seen Giles, Geraghty, O'Rourke, Stafford or Flynn doing that.

Of course, it's valid to question the amount of funding Dublin receives, but to ascribe their success purely to money is over-simplistic.

Nobody claimed pots of gold were behind Kerry's golden era in the 1970-80s, when they won eight All-Irelands and 11 Munster titles in 12 seasons or when Kilkenny hurlers won 11 All-Irelands and 13 Leinster titles between 2000 and 2015.

Having said all that, Dublin's overwhelming dominance in Leinster is unhealthy, not only for the province, but for the entire championship, which is seriously flawed anyway.

If the largest limb is malfunctioning, it has a knock-on impact in terms of the stature and integrity of the overall championship.

Against that background, now would be a good time for a real experiment, one that involves scrapping the provincial championships as the basis for the All-Ireland.

Replace it with eight groups of four (one from each division) in a 'round robin' format. The top two (16 in all) in each group advance to the Sam Maguire tier for a knock-out championship while the bottom 16 play a similar format in Tier 2. Why not try it for two years? Unlike the current model, it's fair and equitable, plus the streamlined nature would make for an easier fixtures' grid, which would benefit clubs.

Of course, we all know that the prospects of scrapping the provincials, even temporarily, are virtually nil.

Apart from the many vested interests in administration, who fear that it would erode their power base, there's still a great affinity with the provincials.

So instead of debating something that would actually benefit the championship as a whole, the focus will remain on Dublin's money. But then, it's always easier to avoid the big issues.

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