"You can’t be half in the battle while trying to protect yourself from the potential failure that’s ahead and then wonder why you’re frustrated as to why you’re not progressing.”
— Gary Keegan, Institute of Sport Director, December 2014
There’s a lot of football people frustrated right now, not least because too many are half-pregnant when it comes to what Keegan’s speaking about.
Another inter-county season has passed in which the top sides weren’t tested enough and didn’t get to meet enough either, at least in the summer, and when they did collide, the weather tended to conspire against them serving up what the game can be and probably needed.
That’s five years straight now that no one outside the Top Four has beaten Dublin or Mayo in championship and three since Kerry were beaten by anyone else: Cork in 2012.
Donegal alright were beaten by Monaghan this year just as they were in 2013 but other than that, no one else has tripped them up in Ulster since Jim McGuinness hopped a laptop onto a table and declared a revolution and no one else but the other members of the Big Four have beaten them in Croker.
True enough, Tyrone once again made a foray into late August by spoiling Monaghan’s parade, but it’s still seven years since they’ve beaten a big side in the championship.
For football people, it’s not enough. It’s not good enough, that there’s not enough teams challenging the top sides.
The glib and somewhat trendy riposte is to say sport and football has always been like this. But it hasn’t.
While we should all applaud and even treasure the excellence and consistency of the Top Four, we should also belatedly acknowledge and appreciate just how democratic and competitive football was as recently as the noughties.
For eight straight seasons, every All-Ireland may have been won by a member of the then Big Three: Kerry, Tyrone and Armagh.
But there were still plenty of other teams that could stop any of them going all the way without going all the way themselves.
Take all the sides that troubled and even tripped up Tyrone. In 2003 Derry and Down took them to a replay, a fate the current Mayo team have avoided in their own province the last five years.
In 2004 both Donegal and Mayo beat Mickey Harte’s charges with sides a lot less resilient and reliable than today’s versions. In 2006 Derry and Laois comprehensively disposed of them.
In 2007 it was Meath’s turn. Even in 2008 when Tyrone would go on to win the All-Ireland, Down would better them in Ulster. That’s six different non-elite teams that beat Harte’s teams in their All-Ireland-winning era.
There are multiple other measures of just how competitive football’s mid-tier was in the noughties. Laois and Westmeath won Leinster titles. Sligo and Roscommon won Connacht and contested Division One league semi-finals.
Wexford and Fermanagh reached All-Ireland and league semi-finals. Limerick qualified for a league semi-final too and routinely rattled Kerry and Cork in Munster.
That didn’t happen by accident. Those teams got some help from the GAA, just not the kind commentators now speak of. It wasn’t financial. It was structural.
In 1999, the then Football Development Committee devised a league system that exposed 16 counties, not just eight, to Division One football at any one time.
When Fermanagh dumped Sean Boylan’s Meath out of the championship in 2003 and again in 2004 only a couple of years after Trevor Giles and co had played in an All-Ireland final, it was merely a surprise rather than the shock it would have been in the ‘90s.
After all, Fermanagh had beaten Meath in three consecutive league campaigns.
It made no sense to dispense with the Division 1A/1B format in 2007. Or at least not enough sense.
We could see the merit in having a separate division for the bottom eight counties, giving a Tipperary a tangible target to progress and gain promotion, something finishing fifth out of 16 wouldn’t have done.
But now football is paying the price for how it has by design if not intent sealed the top sides away from the rest.
Every spring for the past six years Kerry, Dublin, Mayo and Cork play each other and the likes of Donegal and/or Tyrone week-in week-out.
Each season they’re laying down another layer of geological bedrock that separates them from the rest.
They’re not just playing football at a greater pace from the rest; they inevitably become far more hardened than the rest.
It’s a classic example of the principle of accumulative advantage, where a small advantage compounds over time into an increasingly larger advantage.
Over the last four years, Mayo have played Dublin, Kerry, Cork and Donegal a combined 18 times in the league. Galway in the interim have never played any of them.
Under the old Division 1A/1B format they’d have been ensured of at least eight such competitive games over that timeframe, having, for all their woes, never fallen as low as being relegated to the bottom 16 teams in the country.
Of course you can argue that it’s up to a Galway to get up to Division 1, just like Monaghan have. And that the likes of Mayo and Dublin have won the right to retain their elite status and accumulative advantage.
But whether the GAA realises it or not, the league format as it stands shapes as much as reflects the divide between the top sides and the rest.
Of course the timing of the league is also questionable. Think about it. Managers like to try out some new players in the league. A high number of these are U21.
In February they’re also playing Sigerson. In March they’re also playing U21. They’ve got papers to write, exams to sit.
Come June then when school’s out for summer and the sun is out with them, they mightn’t have a game for five weeks. Very odd. And that’s without mention of whether there should be a league at all.
If the GAA want to help accelerate and increase the level of competitiveness of the mid-tier counties, just as they did for the noughties, they could revert back to the Division 1A/1B format.
Let the likes of Meath, Fermanagh and Laois play Dublin and Cork in the spring, and give Dublin and Cork some break too from playing Mayo and Kerry every spring as well.
As John Allen has pointed out, the main purpose of the league is supposed to prepare sides for the championship. Does the GAA not have an obligation to ensure a better, more equitable programme of games for its teams?
It makes you wonder: why haven’t the GAA spotted this, and made the connection? Why are they being so passive?
Why didn’t Eugene McGee’s FRC not review the success or otherwise of reformatting the league in 2007 instead of poking its nose into ancillary, silly stuff like recommending teams risk forfeiture of championship games if their matchday 26 doesn’t match that given for the match day programme?
To use Keegan’s parlance, the GAA and the FRC have not been high performing when it has come to the question of getting the best out of itself and the sport.
We’ll return next week to how counties can be doing a lot more to help themselves. There’s a lot of stuff that’s within their control.
Altering the format of the league for a better, more competitive championship is largely outside their control.
But it’s within the control of the GAA. If they have the interest and awareness to act on it.