OpinionPat Spillane

It’s time weaker counties stopped blaming current structure

Pat SpillaneBy Pat Spillane
Bernard Brogan
Bernard Brogan

FOR THE third week in a row side issues, rather than actual playing matters, have dominated the media coverage of the provincial championships.

Instead of focussing on some of the excellent football in the Donegal v Tyrone showdown in Ballybofey, it was the sledging that grabbed all the headlines.

Week 2 saw a decent match be­tween Monaghan and Cavan. It wasn’t a classic, but it was played in the right spirit and provided damn good entertainment.

However, Joe Brolly’s cheap attempt at poking fun at Marty Morrissey on The Sunday Game made all the news the following day.

Last Sunday the Dubs rolled into Croke Park for their first champi­onship appearance of the season. This is the only time of the year that the Dublin-based media park their obsession with Irish rugby and soccer and focus on the GAA.

So did the media dwell on the bril­liance of Dublin’s performance? Or the exciting hurling curtain-raiser? Or the fact that the attendance of more than 33,000 made it one of the best attended sports events in Ireland so far this year?

You know the answer! There was scarcely a mention of the brilliance of either Dublin or Tipperary – who hammered Waterford by 22 points in the Munster championship.

Instead, the media focussed on the unfairness of the provincial champi­onship system. It was as if one-sided games were the exclusive preserve of the Gaelic football championship. Come off it!

Hammerings are a fact of life in every team sport; just think of the number of times Ireland have been humiliated by the All Blacks.

There is never the same knee-jerk reaction to those results, but after a couple of one-sided games in the provincial series it’s as if the world is coming to an end.

So permit me to give credit to the Dubs and to Tipperary, whose wonderful displays have been over­shadowed by the debate about the structure of the All-Ireland series.

Longford’s anaemic display should not totally overshadow what was a majestic Dublin performance. Their pace, athleticism, support play, their on and off-the-ball running and an­gles of running were superb

Unlike previous Dublin sides, they played as a team and their use of the kick pass to repeatedly open up the Longford defence was telling.

On average, the ratio between hand and kicked passes is three to one. Not so with the Dubs – while they hand­passed the ball on 202 occasions they executed 116 kick passes.

Think about that statistic! It was almost four times the number of times (31) that Donegal kicked the ball against Tyrone!

Dublin’s forward play was top class – all six had scored from play by the 23rd minute. They kicked 4-21 from play, had 11 different scorers and kicked just six wides. The six substitutes introduced all impressed, which underlines the difficulties Jim Gavin faces when he sits down to pick his team.

Other positives include the return to form of Paul Flynn, the accuracy of Dean Rock’s free-taking and the unselfish, off-the-ball running of Bernard Brogan. I don’t think I ever saw him fitter or work so hard.

The downside is obvious. All the signs are that Dublin will saunter through the Leinster series.

By the time the All-Ireland quar­ter-finals come around they will be undercooked and untested, which could prove fatal when they come up against the big hitters.

Tipp’s performance was just as impressive. They hit 1-21 from play, had 10 different scorers and conceded just three points from play.

Longford were outclassed and were naive beyond belief, but what both­ered me most was that they never got stuck in. They sleepwalked their way through the match.

So what are my thoughts on the hot topic of the week? There are logical reasons for the creation of a so-called two-tier championship structure.

However, the reality is that when it was previously tried in the form

 of the Tommy Murphy Cup it simply didn’t work. Players, managers and fans had no interest in it.

The majority of teams harbour am­bitions of winning a provincial title and every county bar Fermanagh and Wicklow have won provincial titles.

Abolishing the provincial series would effectively disenfranchise about three quarters of the counties who have no chance of ever winning an All-Ireland.

Derby matches in the provincial championship also remain huge crowd pullers.

The definition of success is not universal. For Kerry and Dublin it is winning the All-Ireland. For counties like Leitrim, Clare or Fermanagh it is to win a provincial match.

More importantly, teams don’t im­prove by playing other weak teams; counties will only improve by playing teams of a better standard.

For instance, even though there are four tiers of competition in hurling, nobody can claim that the number of contenders for All-Ireland honours has increased as a result.

Rather than pointing the finger of blame at the system, counties ought to examine how they run their own affairs.

The accepted model of spending a small fortune on recruiting an outside manager, complete with

 bloated back-up team, has failed.

Counties ought to divert more resources into employing coaches to work with development squad within the county. A case in point is Tipperary, who used to be one of the also-ran counties in football.

They put the proper coaching struc­tures in place at underage level and now look set to reap the benefits at senior level.

The other unspoken reality is that some of the better footballers in these counties are not willing to put their lives on hold and commit to inter-county football given that the chances of success are so limited.

For instance, I find it amazing that only three members of the Longford minor team that won the Leinster title in 2010 are now involved in the senior squad.

I believe we need to play more games in order to help the weaker counties. So start the league before Christmas and play the provincial championships in a more condensed time frame.

The four provincial winners would be guaranteed a place in the All-Ire­land quarter-final. The remaining 28 teams – I’m excluding New York because they cannot play in Ireland – would be split into seven groups, each containing four teams, who would meet in a round robin series of games.

Under this system all these teams would be guaranteed at least three games in the new-look All-Ireland. The top seven teams plus the next placed side would meet in a knock-out round with the winners advanc­ing to the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

The next 12 ranked teams would be involved in a second tier competition, while the remaining eight would meet in a third tier knockout series. The finals of these two competitions could be played in Croke Park.

This would provide more and better quality games for all teams and in time standards would improve.

But the bottom line is that tweaking the system will only achieve so much. Counties have to get their own house in order as well.