Saturday 20 January 2018

They wonder why players show so little loyalty now

The championship's provincial format is just not working, says Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The exodus predicted here last week has taken hold in a few counties. Laois and Offaly are caught up in the whirlwind and when a couple leave for the faraway hills, which are always greener, others get itchy feet.

Every club in America's big cities are hot out of the traps on Monday mornings after championship matches in Ireland. They make their minds up on Sunday evening who they would like and usually have someone in their club from that county who is able to make personal contact.

Students in particular, who are the best players on their county teams, may have multiple offers to go to the US for the summer. What are managers or county boards supposed to do? Get the players to sign up to staying around for a lost cause? If the GAA want to stop the player drain then the only way to do it is provide a championship which is fit for purpose. That means some type of league format where teams are graded in the same way as in club football – senior, intermediate and junior or whatever fancy names you might want to call them.

If there were three such divisions with promotion and relegation, there would be a planned schedule of games through the whole summer for all counties which would also give certainty to club fixtures. After playing ten games – five home and five away – the top teams would play off for their respective All-Irelands with all these big games in Croke Park. As the competition would not need to start until spring, it would remove the logjam of fixtures early in the year when under 21, colleges and league football completely squeeze out club football.

It is hardly rocket science to come up with this fairly simple solution, but of course the provincial championships intervene. They are the great scourge of progress in the GAA. And whatever chance there is of making changes in three provinces, you can be certain that Ulster will say no, and then no again. At least they are consistent, but it shouldn't mean everyone has to dance to this tune.

The majority of counties plough through the muck of winter and get two games in the summer – and people wonder why players don't show more loyalty. That is fine and dandy if you are from Dublin, Donegal, Tyrone, Mayo, Cork or Kerry. If you are a student and could do with a few dollars to put yourself through college next year, and you're not from one of the above counties, then the decision is very easy. Form an orderly queue at the check-in desk please. If, however, there was a guarantee of five or six county games during the summer then that might change a few minds.

There is a myth peddled every year that the championship is competitive, but what is happening at the moment is merely shadow boxing until the real games begin at the quarter-final stage. It will be a major surprise if any of the above are not there, unless they meet in a qualifier game.

This is not a recent phenomenon. In the 1970s, Dublin and Kerry enjoyed even greater domination. After the mid '80s it was similar with Meath and Cork. The '90s saw some variety, but it was back to certainties in the last decade with Tyrone and Kerry. The point is there are very few contenders at any time and the present format exaggerates that. The back door ensures a good team can be caught once, but . . .

Hopefully that football review committee, which made a lot of sense with some of their proposals earlier in the year, can tackle the great elephant in the room. Anyone who thinks the present system, which I was party to concocting, is serving the best interests of counties, clubs and players needs to wake up and smell the roses. It's time to begin again with a blank canvas. The emperor, in the form of fixtures, has no clothes.

Yet the music plays on. In Drogheda, where Louth and Wexford meet, and in Casement Park which hosts Antrim and Monaghan, the players will certainly not be thinking of the unfairness of the system. Maybe some might be thinking of the great bird in the sky if things go wrong, but they won't be saying it. That would be looked on as treachery. Yet a good general might preach one thing, while keeping all options open.

There will be a small crowd in Drogheda today as it was decided that GAA supporters can't be trusted to stand on grass banks.

I have played in that ground before big crowds and there is a great atmosphere with the crowd close to the pitch. All without incident. Yet, a few miles away, there will be a big concert in Slane next Saturday where you can drink your head off then stand, fall or lie on much steeper banks in much bigger numbers than will be at the game today and there won't be a word about it.

Somebody in the GAA must have told a prominent health and safety officer to take a running jump to warrant some of the rubbish that is going on.

The big prize on offer today for the winners is the realistic prospect of playing in the Leinster final, as they avoid both Kildare and Dublin. Wexford have plenty of recent experience of getting to Leinster finals in which they gave a very good account of themselves by pushing Dublin hard. But the bottom line, when you strip away the niceties, is that they did not win any of those games.

The big surprise from Louth was not to beat Laois, but to hammer them. If form means anything then it has to be Louth today as Aidan O'Rourke seems to be in charge of a camp which is fit, focused and progressive.

Anything other than a smooth Monaghan win in Belfast would be a big surprise. Antrim cause the odd upset in the qualifiers, as they did against Galway last year, but Monaghan are very organised and are Division 3 league champions.

They have a particular style and are very difficult to play against and I am very impressed with the Hughes brothers, Paul Finlay and Conor McManus. And any pair that beat Dick Clerkin and Owen Lennon in the middle of the field will have a good day's work done and will probably be fairly sore after it as well. Monaghan won the league meeting fairly easily and I expect the same again today.

Some teams for the qualifiers and some players for the Big Apple. Collect your ticket at the desk.

Irish Independent

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