Friday 27 April 2018

Success not just down to numbers - Monaghan a prime example of how a smaller county can prosper

 

Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke, addressing players during last year’s Championship, has enjoyed remarkable success with a county of just 61,000 Photo: Sportsfile
Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke, addressing players during last year’s Championship, has enjoyed remarkable success with a county of just 61,000 Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Is Malachy O'Rourke as good a manager as Jim Gavin? Is he better than Eamonn Fitzmaurice? If he were in charge of Dublin for the past five years would their trophy cabinet be as jammed as it is?

If he had been in Kerry during the same period would they have more to show than one All-Ireland and one Allianz League title?

How would Turlough O'Brien have done with a stronger team than Carlow? If Colm Collins or Liam Kearns had been at the helm in Cork, would the Rebels have dipped into such a downward spiral?

We will never know, but what we can be certain of is this: not all the excellence, whether on the pitch or on the sideline is confined to the larger and, traditionally, more successful counties. That might appear self-evident but it still needs to be emphasised because power and influence tends to follow glory.

Thus, if Gavin, Fitzmaurice or Mickey Harte issue a state of the nation on some aspect of football, it's given more weight than if the comments came from O'Brien, Collins, Kearns, Colin Kelly, Denis Connerton or others.

The media carry some responsibility for that but since they reflect public attitudes to a large degree, they cannot be blamed totally for the imbalance in power and influence between the successful and the rest.

That's best illustrated by proposed rule changes in football and hurling over the years, where the reaction of managers from successful counties often appeared to exert a disproportionate influence on the decision-makers.

Now the issue of public esteem - whether for managers or players - might appear irrelevant in the wider circuit, but actually it's not. Good players from weaker counties know that they are most unlikely to experience Croke Park in autumn.

Nor will they see their names on All-Star nomination lists, let alone the actual team. And however talented they may be, managers in less successful counties know that they are unlikely to have their wits tested in late summer.

If they are prepared to move to another county, the call is more likely to come from the same level, rather than from higher up.

That pattern for players and managers leads to a conditioning which is difficult to escape. Is it worth the effort when so many obstacles are lined up against us? Why bother?

It's uplifting then when a smaller county ignores its apparent disadvantages and drives on regardless.

Monaghan have been a good example of that in recent years and while Carlow are operating at a lower level, they too have made a big statement of intent by securing promotion to Division 3 for the first time since 1985.

It might not register as important among the strong counties but, in terms of achievement, this is very big for Carlow and their manager.

The progress under O'Brien has been solid, sustainable and underpinned by a county-wide determination to succeed.

Carlow finished bottom of Division 4 in the season before he took over but since then they have moved from fifth to fourth to third to first on the table at present.

Carlow reached Round 3 of the All-Ireland qualifiers for the first time last year, testing Monaghan, who had finished 23 places ahead of them in the league, all the way.

Monaghan's lofty status under O'Rourke is even more remarkable, working off a county with a population of 61,000, which is 4,000 more than Carlow.

Irrespective of how they fare against Dublin in the final round, Monaghan will finish third in Division 1, thus completing their fourth successive season in Division 1, three in the top four.

They won two of the last five Ulster titles and reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals in four of the last five years.

The quarter-final has remained an unbreakable glass ceiling but in terms of maximising their return from their limited resources, it's a massive achievement.

Would Gavin, Harte or Fitzmaurice have got as much out of Monaghan as O'Rourke has?

He also did well in his term with Fermanagh, taking them so close to their first Ulster title in 2008, before losing a replay to Armagh.

Promoted

Longford has the second smallest population (41,000) behind Leitrim but if they draw with Fermanagh in the last round, they will be promoted to Division 2, possibly replacing Meath (population 195,000).

Connerton is doing a good job with a group of players who are obviously rising to the challenge.

Therein rests the key to all this. It's easy to apportion standard differentials to population sizes, either in a resigned fashion in the case of Dublin ('look at the big pick they have') or in self-pitying mode in smaller counties ('sure what chance have we?') but there's a lot more to it than that.

No county is too small to make an impression if the structures and organisation are right. After all, if Monaghan, ranked 29th of the 32 counties population-wise, can be a consistent Division 1 team, why can't others do likewise?

It's not all about numbers in any sport, as England rugby can testify to. They have a lot more players and clubs than Ireland but it didn't do them much good last Saturday.

 

Limerick have answers to send their stock soaring

Limerick’s exploits in recovering from eight and nine-point deficits to win successive games count as possibly the most significant development of the hurling season so far.

That they did it against Galway, the reigning league and All-Ireland champions, and Clare, who have beaten Tipperary, Kilkenny and Cork this year, makes it all the more noteworthy.

Now, critics may question why they twice found themselves in such a predicament but surely the more important angle is how John Kiely’s men had the know-how and confidence to claw their way back.

Remarkably, they have conceded only one goal (v Galway) in six league games, one of which had 30 minutes of extra-time.

They also kept a clean sheet against Clare in the Munster League final.

'John Kiely's men had the confidence and the know-how to claw their way back' Photo: Sportsfile
'John Kiely's men had the confidence and the know-how to claw their way back' Photo: Sportsfile

It underlines the high sense of security the defence and goalkeeper Nickie Quaid are bringing to their game, which is most encouraging for a success-starved squad and supporters,

As for the 65-metre free shoot-out which decided Monday’s clash with Clare, it achieved its purpose in getting winners but a penalty contest would be more appropriate as it’s head-to head rather than firing at an empty goal.

Quarter-finals can’t disguise anomalies

Derek McGrath didn’t look like a man who was all that downcast after Waterford were shown the Division 1A exit door by Cork last Sunday, but then he knows from first-hand experience that life in 1B isn’t a big punishment.

On the contrary, it can be helpful for a manager who wants to experiment extensively, since any county that drops out of 1A is almost certain to reach the quarter-finals from 1B.

Waterford won the Allianz League title outright in 2015 after emerging from 1B, just as Clare did in 2016 and Galway last year.

Limerick have already made an early impression from 1B this year, nudging past Clare in the quarter-final on Monday, while Galway are favourites to make it a double for the lower tier when they play Wexford on Saturday. Mind you, the bookies might have that one wrong.

Offaly came close enough to Kilkenny on Monday to embolden those who see nothing wrong with Divisions 1A and 1B having the same status (four qualifiers from each) in the knock-out stages.

Still, the fundamental inequality which rules that fifth and sixth-placed teams are eliminated from the title race, while seventh to 10th continue, remains a blight on the format.

That will be further highlighted next year when the bottom team from the Galway, Kilkenny, Wexford, Dublin, Offaly round-robin Leinster championship won’t be allowed compete in the provincial campaign, instead being despatched to Tier 2.

Incredibly, they are not deemed good enough for their own provincial championship, yet remain eligible to win the secondary national title, which also features five Munster counties. Despite the obvious anomaly, there seems to be no desire to address it.

Irish Independent

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