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mind the gap Why the GAA has utterly failed to equalise the battle between the best teams and the rest

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Mayo's Jordan Flynn in action against Leitrim's Aaron Hoare, left, and James Mitchell during Sunday's Connacht SFC semi-final match at Elverys MacHale Park, Castlebar. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Mayo's Jordan Flynn in action against Leitrim's Aaron Hoare, left, and James Mitchell during Sunday's Connacht SFC semi-final match at Elverys MacHale Park, Castlebar. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Mayo's Jordan Flynn in action against Leitrim's Aaron Hoare, left, and James Mitchell during Sunday's Connacht SFC semi-final match at Elverys MacHale Park, Castlebar. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

MY laptop crashed in MacHale Park in Castlebar on Sunday evening just as I was about to press the send button and despatch my report on the Connacht championship semi-final between Mayo and Leitrim.

Maybe the laptop sensed my despondent mood and decided to send me into another orbit of despair. The game made painful watching - particularly for anybody with Leitrim blood in their veins.

In boxing terms, it was the equivalent of a fight between Olympians Paddy Barnes and Kenneth Egan. The outcome was pre-ordained. It was just a question of how much damage Mayo would inflict on their unfortunate victims.

It wasn’t as if the outcome wasn’t expected. Indeed, it took the liberty of looking up Leitrim’s previous record defeat in the Connacht championship before I set off for Castlebar. It was 24 points in another provincial semi-final against Mayo in 1973.

That day Mayo were in the mood for goals – scoring seven and winning 7-6 to 0-3. A point from Conor Dolan in the second-last play last Sunday saved Leitrim from creating an unwanted record. It was merely a record-equalling 24-point loss.

Looking up the historic results, what caught my attention was that just three years after that unmerciful mauling in 1973, Leitrim knocked Mayo out of the Connacht championship after a replay in Carrick-on-Shannon.

I was at the game and if memory serves me right it was Mayo native Eddie McHale, then a Garda stationed in Leitrim, who scored a crucial goal for the home side as they secured a historic 2-8 to 0-10 success.

Sadly, the chances of anything similar happening in the next three years or maybe even 13 years are remote.

As expected, Terry Hyland departed as manager on Thursday. So, Leitrim join Laois, Longford and Down in search of a new guru in 2022.

Leitrim is blessed with an efficient County Board and an outstanding Supporters Club who have raised millions over the last 45 years to keep the show on the road.

But in their 30 clashes against Mayo in the Connacht championship they have won just three – in 1959, the aforementioned 1976 replay and most notably the 1994 Connacht final.

Essentially amateur sport is a numbers game. According to the 2016 census Leitrim has a population of 32,044 compared to Mayo’s 130,507. It’s not difficult to figure out why Mayo keep winning these fixtures.

Once in every generation Leitrim will assemble a decent side – they had one in the late 1920s when they won the Connacht championship in 1927; arguably their best ever side was assembled in the latter half of the 1950s when they contested four Connacht finals in a row but lost to Galway in all of them and the team that not only won the Connacht title in 1994 played in the then top flight of the National league.

Even if the GAA signed a cheque for a million euro tomorrow morning to be spent on coaching and strength-and-conditioning education in Leitrim, they could still not win the All-Ireland.

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But what the GAA has utterly failed to do is make any meaningful attempt to equalise the battle between the best and the rest.

Changing competition structures won’t be sufficient anymore. We’re in a crisis now. Traditional inter-county football could implode in the next decade unless the issues are addressed.

Persuading young men in the prime of their lives to devote themselves exclusively to Gaelic football with the prospect of a ritual roasting every year will become an impossible sell before long.

What Gaelic football needs is the equivalent of the Marshall Plan which transformed Europe in the wake of the second World War. It’s a long-term project which is unlikely to yield any tangible results for a decade.

Finance resources have to be diverted away from Dublin - where they have been concentrated for the last 16 years. Instead they must be invested in recruiting, training and deploying coaches at school and club levels in the counties which populate Division 3 and 4. Furthermore, there must be a co-ordinated approach to strength and conditioning in all counties.

Attention to detail is paramount as is a long-term financial commitment. There is no guarantee of success and the reality is that Dublin and Kerry will continue to win most of the All-Ireland titles. But at least the other counties might occasionally have an opportunity to progress.

Sadly, I doubt if the current leadership in the GAA possess sufficient drive to push through such a package. Instead there will have to be a grassroots movement for change.

Otherwise as Terry Hyland predicted last Sunday, the smaller counties will merely become feeders for the bigger units.

Anybody for the new-look All-Ireland with eight teams: Dublin, Kerry, Cork, Galway, Ulster, Rest of Connacht, Rest of Leinster, Rest of Munster?

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