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Provincial straitjacket remains for now but Tailteann Cup offers teams a second way

This weekend the Tailteann Cup semi-finals are given the prime time platform in Croke Park with no other senior men’s football games taking place, highlighting the push the GAA are making for the Tier 2 system. Photo: Sportsfile

Ciarán Whelan

It was not long after I had retired from inter-county action in 2009 that I first expressed the view that the structures of the provincial and All-Ireland series were not fit for purpose.

Year in, year out, the weaker counties took a hammering in the provincial championships and the qualifiers provided the stronger teams with a second chance if they had underperformed or had got caught out cold in their respective provincial games.

In my naivety back then, and my lack of know-how of the political minefield that is the GAA’s structures and appetite for change, I thought the future could be shaped much easier than is the case.

Over the years I learned that the abolishment of the provincial championships was actually a fairytale, something of a mission impossible, and that serious change there would never happen, not in the short term anyway.

Every year after the annual beatings were handed out there would be the debate and call for change to the championship structures. To be honest, in the last few years I was bored listening to the same calls, same problems and same debates until John Horan, during his tenure as GAA president, set out his stall to bring forward a meaningful secondary competition.

Mind you, whatever changes were going to be made Gaelic football was going to be held hostage to the provincial championships (for now).

Fast-forward a few years and the voices in opposition to the advent of the Tailteann Cup mainly focused on the past failures of the Tommy Murphy Cup. Times have changed though, I hope!

The one-sided nature of games for weaker counties in recent years has had a significant impact in the debate. The constant turnover of players from the end of one season to the start of the next has stalled development in some counties. Players have opted out with the view “sure what’s the point” and felt they were sitting ducks just turning up to be outclassed with no genuine ambition of winning anything.

Up to six weeks ago, there was a lot of scepticism around the Tailteann Cup and that was a major worry.

The lack of promotion and the split between north and south conferences were held up as indicators that competition could be doomed before they really got the opportunity to grow roots.

There was also uncertainty about how some counties would approach the competition after their provincial defeat. However, what has happened is quite the opposite, thankfully.

Managements, and more importantly players, have ‘bought into’ this Tier 2 competition and hopefully attendances will grow.

This weekend the semi-finals are given the prime time platform in Croke Park with no other senior men’s football games taking place over the weekend.

The TV coverage and promotion of the games in the mainstream media and on various GAA podcasts has already embellished the profile of the competition while a separate All-Stars awards scheme has added to the profile of the players involved.

Finally, the weaker teams have more of a structure to their sporting calendar. They have their chance at Sam, in theory, and if they win a provincial championship game or two that is great progress. But if they lose they still have a purposeful goal. Something to go after and win.

The spirit and approach of the teams, as epitomised in some great games, especially the clash of Sligo and Leitrim underlined the fact that the Tailteann Cup is here to stay.

For those that watched or were in attendance they saw one of the most entertaining games of the year. End-to-end action, chance after chance at either end, the game ebbed and flowed with both teams having periods of dominance. It brilliantly illustrated what the Tailteann Cup is all about. Yes, there were plenty of mistakes made by the players but anyone who moaned in recent weeks about teams and managers not doing enough to create a proper spectacle and entertain supporters would have embraced this game.

Keith Beirne – Leitrim’s impressive forward – delivered one of the best individual performances the championship had seen this year, kicking great scores when under pressure in a tour de force exhibition. It had everything and if this was David Clifford or Con O’Callaghan, the masses would have genuflecting at their feet.

Beirne is just one of a number of talented players who have showcased their skills in the Tailteann Cup – and I’ve no doubt we’ll see plenty more examples on Sunday when Cavan, Sligo, Westmeath and Offaly take to the hallowed turf on Jones’ Road.

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