All-Star time, the week when both teams are chosen and announced, selectors stand accused of giving idiots a bad name, cases are made for excluded players without identifying who should have been omitted and calls for a radical overhaul get an outing before being quickly forgotten.
It’s all part of the most talked-about award schemes in Irish sport, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. That’s quite a milestone which, in normal circumstances, would have been marked by special celebrations at a glitzy presentation function.
Covid zapped that but it can’t dilute the sense of personal satisfaction which the players will experience when the teams are announced (hurlers on Thursday, footballers ‘live’ on RTÉ 1 on Friday at 7pm).
If there were any doubts as to what the awards mean to players, they are dispelled in interviews in a superbly compiled book, All-Star Gazing by Moira and Eileen Dunne, whose late father Mick, then RTÉ GAA correspondent, played such a major part in launching the scheme in 1971.
As part of their in-depth research into every All-Star angle, they talked to dozens of players, ranging from Damien Martin to Brian Fenton,
Since the hurling team was announced ahead of football in 1971, Martin is recognised as the first All-Star, while Fenton picked up a fifth award last year, leaving him just one behind Jack O’Shea as the most honoured football midfielder.
Fenton is still only 28 so there’s a high probability that he will surpass O’Shea. Indeed, he could well challenge Pat Spillane (nine awards) for outright leadership.
O’Shea brilliantly captured the All-Star spirit by texting Fenton on the night the team was announced last year.
“It was a touch of class. For him to think, ‘I’m going to text that young fella from Dublin.’ It was just lovely. It lifted me completely,” said Fenton.
He was appreciative too of being selected alongside O’Shea on our ‘Best-ever All-Star team’ earlier this year.
“Being named on the Irish Independent All-Star team of the last 50 years in midfield with Jacko, and Spillane on the same team. I know how highly they are regarded and to be in that company is just unbelievable.”
The pride that players feel as All-Stars is widely reflected elsewhere in the book too, effectively banishing the theory that it really doesn’t matter whether or not they win awards.
Henry Shefflin, standing alone as the all-time leader across both codes with 11 awards, believes that kids everywhere dream of being an All-Star from the day they begin to play.
“It’ll get stronger. It still means so much, especially to the weaker counties.”
He may be right about its future health at the top end but mention of the weaker counties raises one issue which has never been solved, possibly because there is no solution.
Still, it remains a blemish on an otherwise excellent concept. Neither Longford nor Carlow have won a single award in either code, a situation that’s unlikely to change any time soon. They don’t figure very much in the nominations either, which is also the case for many other counties.
Limerick, Waterford and Kilkenny have no football awards, while 18 counties are similarly barren in hurling.
The reality is that those who feature at the latter end of the championship dominate the nominations and teams. That was always the case but has become far more pronounced over the last 20 years.
The four All-Ireland semi-finalists (Dublin, Mayo, Cavan and Tipperary) made up all of last year’s football team while five counties featured in 2019.
That’s quite a contrast with the first football team in 1971 when nine counties were represented, including Antrim (Andy McCallin) and Sligo (Mickey Kearins).
With so much emphasis on the latter stages of the championship nowadays, it’s unlikely there will be a return to the broader-based teams, unless of course the selection system is changed to award players points on a month-by-month basis.
Another option to make the All-Stars more inclusive would be to ensure that every county received at least one nomination. It wouldn’t come at the expense of the 45, as currently selected, but rather as an addition.
It would recognise the best player from all counties not included in the 45 nominations. And no, it wouldn’t be in any way patronising, but rather a recognition that the only thing stopping that player from being a genuine All-Star contender was geography and a lack of opportunity to showcase his talents at the latter end of the championship.
Reminder: Here are the Irish Independent ‘Best of’ All-Star teams as selected earlier this year.
Football: S Cluxton; R O’Malley, J O’Keeffe, K Higgins; T Ó Sé, J McCarthy, S Moynihan; J O’Shea, B Fenton; M Connor, L Tompkins, P Spillane; M Sheehy, P Canavan, C Cooper.
Hurling: N Skehan; F Larkin, P Hartigan, JJ Delaney; T Walsh, S McMahon, B Whelahan; F Cummins, J Fenton; N English, H Shefflin, DJ Carey; E Kelly, J Canning, E Keher.
It’s beginning to happen and about time, too! Dublin CEO John Costello is the latest to raise the question of whether the value of a goal should be increased to four points.
He regards it as especially relevant to hurling where point totals have risen to record levels with a consequent drop in goals.
Hurling’s goal rate has been in decline since the 1980s, a trend driven by a combination of stronger players, lighter sliotars and better hurleys making point-scoring from over 100 metres the norm nowadays.
Football’s goal rate was up this year, but it’s still a long way down on 30/40 years ago. Increasing the value to four – or maybe even five – points would encourage coaches and players to work proactively on ways of creating goals, rather than waiting for the occasional one to come along.
At the very least, let the goal value be debated. There’s nothing as fundamental to a game as the value of scores, so surely it’s time for an analysis in both codes.
Kevin O’Donovan, Cork CEO, described as “a race to the bottom” some of the arguments put forward at Special Congress against the proposals on football championship reform.
As a member of the group that devised them, he had a personal stake in the debate, which may explain the comments, but ‘a race to the bottom’ is surely a touch melodramatic. Another sentence in his annual report is even more interesting.
“Clearly, there were aspects of Proposal B that required simple improvement and correction, but it appeared
to be in the interests of some to block any such adaptions.”
What’s this? The proposal needed improvement and correction? So why wasn’t that done before it came to Congress?
Were delegates supposed to vote for something that would then be subject to tweaks?
Who would do the tweaking? The idea that Congress would make a decision on such an important issue as the football championship format and then have it amended straight away is ridiculous.