The last round of national league fixtures is normally a drama-filled day, with enough complex mathematical permutations to make Einstein’s head spin.
Last Sunday was no different. Mayo going up to Ballybofey was the big showdown in Division 1 and something had to give.
Kevin McLoughlin has long been one of their key men. Unheralded perhaps, but I’ve always seen his game as honest as the day is long. He works diligently for the cause; tackles, carries ball, and chips in with useful and timely scores off his trusty left peg.
Despite the unwavering support in their team, even the most ardent of the Mayo ultras must have been peaking through their fingers as the energetic wing-forward lined up a 40-yard bomb off his weaker right foot to try and rescue a draw and their division one status.
It was a ballsy move and shows the kind of confidence he has in his own ability to even take on the responsibility.
With that score at the death, it sent Donegal tumbling down the rabbit hole to Division 2 football.
They had been the better side and looked in control for the majority of the game, but with Paddy McBrearty’s late effort falling short, it left the door open for McLoughlin and Mayo to fashion the most dramatic of finishes to save their souls.
By now, it seems nearly an annual occurrence to be writing off Mayo after yet another mediocre league campaign.
Rivals Galway cruised into the final after an unbeaten campaign and will have the benefit of a further Croke Park assessment by the Dubs to highlight any weakness ahead of the colossal Connacht championship showdown around the corner.
I’ve seen Dublin supporters griping during the week seeking their pound of flesh for what they perceive as a double-standard by the GAA over the contrasting disciplinary sanctions and media reaction dished out to Diarmuid Connolly last year compared to Mayo’s Andy Moran after a similar incident in a recent league defeat to Tyrone.
Moran reacted to a foul call by appearing to bump the referee with his chest and you sensed right away he was in big trouble. After referee Maurice Deegan showed him a black card, it was obvious by his apologetic handshake that he knew he had messed up.
Was there much difference between his reaction to the referee and what Connolly had done to the linesman a year previous?
Neither was anything resembling a brutal assault, but for the Dublin maestro, it carried a 12-week suspension; for Moran, well, he was playing again the following week.
Cue the sense of Dublin injustice.
The main difference between the incidents was that the reigning footballer of the year was issued with a black card immediately and consequently it wouldn’t be revisited by the CCCC as the referee was deemed to have dealt with it.
Diarmuid Connolly received no sanction at the time of his indiscretion.
Of course, Pat Spillane is getting a shellacking for not reciting the rule book as vehemently as he had done in 2017, when Connolly was the perpetrator in the dock. There wasn’t so much as a mention of the incident on the Sunday evening highlight show.
In terms of the coverage, obviously one was a championship game on live television and the other was a three-minute highlight package of a March league game.
Last year, Dublin supporters felt the media frenzy had contributed significantly to the suspension that came down the tracks for their man. They branded it a witch hunt, a view copper-fastened by the apparent inaction against Andy Moran last week.
But more than any trial by media, what this situation has highlighted once again are the huge inadequacies and inconsistencies in our disciplinary system. How one person can get banned for three months and another gets nothing for much the same offence is a complete farce.
All anybody wants in terms of refereeing or the application of the rules in general
is that they are applied as consistently as possible across the board regardless of who you are or who you play with. That certainly didn’t seem to be the case here, and receiving a card at the time shouldn’t act as some shield of immunity.
There’s no question, given the recent precedent, that Moran dodged a huge bullet here and its because of these instances where the rules appear to be interpreted or applied inconsistently that leaves everybody hugely frustrated and disgruntled with the process.
That process is the problem here, not the absence or abundance of attention shined on an incident. Connolly got suspended last year because he did something he shouldn’t have done. He was wrong.
Moran got away with virtually the same offence this time around because of a hole in the system. That’s the simple and ridiculous truth of the matter.
Away from the glamour of high-profile incidents, I was on with the Second Captains crew last Friday as they were chatting with Daniel St Ledger about the struggle and triumph of being a Carlow footballer.
It was hard not to be swept up in the euphoric undertone of his words. He was measured and calm, but you could sense the pride as he spoke. He was part of a group that achieved something special for Carlow football.
This is his 11th season playing senior football in the basement division of the
inter-county game, and the first time since 1985 that the county have climbed up the league ladder.
There were pictures and videos bouncing around social media; beers on a bus and an impromptu sing-song are always solid indicators of a goal accomplished and a good night ahead.
St Ledger spoke of muted celebrations, and interestingly how they had met and refocused on the next challenge ahead, anxious that they would keep surfing the wave of momentum all the way into the Division 4 league final against Laois in a week’s time. Heady days.
Next week’s national final will offer him and his teammates an opportunity to
play in Croke Park with a piece of silverware up for grabs.
And while that final won’t demand huge media attention, it is colossal for a county punching above its weight and on the brink of winning something meaningful to bring back to their borders.
To that end, it remains a mystery to me why counties in Division 3 and 4 aren’t screaming out for a tiered championship structure to create a more level competition where they can compete against more evenly matched teams with a more realistic opportunity to progress and actually achieve success during the summer.
For a lot of counties out there, March 25 and the final round of league fixtures
represented the last day of meaningful football competition they will have until next season.
Surely in 2018, there must be appetite for change, or at least a dialogue around it.
Too many teams running in a race they can’t win.