JOHN FOGARTY: A tiered championship remains a viable option

If you turned on the heat in your home last Thursday evening it may have had as much to do with the football championship draw you were watching as the drop in temperature.

There is little warmth in provincial draws and when Connacht and Munster amounted to pretty much the same as last year it amounted to a snooze.

Ulster, at least, offers an element of unpredictability even if Tyrone are strongly fancied to do the three-in-a-row. Leinster, meanwhile, reads as the fait accompli it has been the past five years. Their council provide quarter-final byes to the four semi-finalists from the previous season but ascribing parity to Kildare, Meath, and Westmeath alongside Dublin is artificial. Some have suggested an open draw in Leinster but it would be far healthier for the province to give counties a running start via a round-robin series before they face Dublin.

That’s not tricking up the system but altering it so that there is a chance of it becoming more competitive. And let’s face it – the provincial championships, for all their faults and failings, remain an attainable goal for several in Ulster, half of Connacht and half of Munster. Depriving a county that opportunity wouldn’t be right.

Denying them the chance to win an All-Ireland, though? Well, what chance is there to deny when there is no chance? As soon as the likes of Leitrim or Waterford exit their respective provincial competitions, their race is all but run. They are also-rans in the present structure. At senior inter-county level, it shouldn’t be all about participation. Carlow, as they predicted, weren’t going to let their noble defeat to Dublin stop them from advancing into July but their 2017 may have climaxed with silverware had they been playing in a competition they could actually win.

Our concerns about the Super 8 and the glass ceiling it will put on developing teams remain but it will advance the argument for a tiered championship, which would not be elitist but reflective of the landscape in football since the introduction of the qualifiers.

There are those who scoff at the idea, pointing out the democracy of the current championship system, but drawing parallels between Dublin and Wicklow and the chances of emulating Huddersfield Town’s win over Manchester United at the weekend are erroneous given the relative parity in central payments. The bottom club in the Premier League earns 62% of what the winners pick up. In 2015, Wicklow’s team spending (€277,000) was less than 18% of Dublin’s €1.556 million outlay.

Of course, the GAA should do everything in its power to try and equalise its funding to ensure more counties are competitive. Telling counties to be more like Dublin is rich when no other county has their capabilities and we’re not just talking the financials.

At the same time, Croke Park can’t simply throw cash at those who are regularly falling short for fear they could grow into the habit of picking up cheques rather than wins.

Unlike the NFL or AFL, there is no draft system whereby the GAA could designate the best up-and-coming players to the poorest performing teams. So if there is to be a genuine process of balancing the game it must be done via a careful distribution of funding and amending competition structure. A tiered championship, as initially envisaged by the football development group during Seán Kelly’s presidency, remains a viable option providing it is made worthwhile.

Hurling still has plenty to learn about valuing its lower-tiered competitions but ranking the game hasn’t damaged its competitiveness. At this moment, there are more genuine All-Ireland contenders for its premier championship than football, which is an egregious indictment of the bigger ball code. Galway’s hurlers along with Cork, Kilkenny, Tipperary, and Waterford can rightly look towards 2018 with anticipation. Clare, because by the time it comes around will not have played in Croke Park in five years, Limerick, and Wexford will cast their eyes forward more in hope as will Dublin.

Over half of the Liam MacCarthy Cup participants can more than aspire to claiming the silverware next year. Even though it is the GAA’s predominant game, even though it’s the association’s game of preference, football wishes it could be so lucky. There is every chance the four All-Ireland semi-finalists will the same as they have been the previous two seasons and even at that the only challengers to Dublin remain Mayo.

Expect a myriad of changes to the football championship in the coming years as the GAA comes around to realising football has become almost as unequal as hurling. Tiers may be regarded as a submission of sorts but acceptance of that kind is surely better than the insanity of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

It’s too quiet in Waterford

On a couple of fronts, there has been silence in Waterford. Derek McGrath’s future, for one. Walsh Park being the other.

In both cases, it’s not the positive type of quietness although there is speculation Croke Park could make as much as a €5m contribution to redeveloping the Waterford city ground with the aim of it being a viable Munster championship venue.

McGrath’s future isn’t so clear-cut. Stephen Rochford’s third season in charge of Mayo should be confirmed in the coming days and Sligo last night named Tyrone man Cathal Corey but there are now strong doubts about the De La Salle man receiving sufficient backing from the board to advance. After what Waterford have achieved under McGrath these past three seasons, you would think support would be easily forthcoming but it doesn’t appear everyone is on the same page.

The subject of a team holiday might soon be addressed although there were fears that discussion would run into difficulty when county chairman Paddy Joe Ryan was visibly unimpressed after John Mullane called for a “tropical” holiday for the players on RTÉ’s Up For The Match programme. Ryan was sitting in the audience.

Walsh Parl
Walsh Parl

Players’ support for the new provincial championship also went unheeded by the executive as Ryan at Special Congress declared that it would be “one of the worst decisions in GAA history”.

Ryan later revealed the board had not studied the other hurling proposals, a startling admission that wasn’t lost on central GAA officials in the room at the time. And yet Waterford now stand to benefit from the structure they condemned as cash will soon be forwarded from central GAA funds for improvements at Walsh Park.

It begs the question : Does the county board know a good thing when they see it? That point obviously applies to McGrath too.

Meyler will tell it like it is

‘Cork hurlers’ and ‘player unrest’ are two phrases that thankfully haven’t met in quite some time, although new coach John Meyler has felt the sting of the latter in the past. Nine years ago, he was ousted from the equivalent role in Wexford much to the disappointment of Damien Fitzhenry who backed him to the hilt.

A tiered championship remains a viable option

In an interview in 2010, the legendary Wexford goalkeeper was ashamed by the way Meyler was forced out of the position. “‘That man put hours and hours into it, from driving from Cork to training, to being on the phone, to helping lads behind the scenes. The way he was treated was an absolute scandal and an absolute disaster. I came out in favour of John Meyler at the time. It was absolutely nothing to do with me, the way he was treated was absolutely scandalous.

“Probably the biggest regret I would have over the years I played for Wexford was the way John Meyler was dealt with. To see a man that was so interested in the game to be dealt with in that way – that would be the lowest point in my hurling career with Wexford.”

Meyler doesn’t sugar-coat his comments, which may be at odds with how some modern-day players like their feedback, but there is little doubt that he has earned the stripes he was given last week. From Wexford to Kerry to Carlow, he has been an evangelist of the game.

He has acknowledged himself that he would have preferred had Kieran Kingston stayed on but Cork now have a more than able alternative.


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