How can the other Leinster counties stop playing in Dublin’s shadow?

Leinster football is at a low ebb outside of Dublin right now as the rest of the province tries to keep the All-Ireland champions in reach. How can other counties bridge that yawning gap?

How can the other Leinster counties stop playing in Dublin’s shadow?

Abbotsown. Louth manager Colin Kelly almost snorts when he hears the word.

The National Sports Campus on Dublin’s west side is evolving into a world-class, multi-sport facility and one that could well be the difference between some of Ireland’s best and brightest Olympians making the podium at the Games in Brazil later this summer.

Yet the addition to that transformative landscape of the GAA’s €12m National Centre of Excellence in recent months has been met with derision and anger by a wide phalanx of the GAA community that sees it as just another weapon in Dublin’s arsenal.

It doesn’t matter that Jim Gavin has declared that his all-conquering side will not be availing of its undoubted charms. Perception has already solidified into accepted fact, but it is difficult to counter the argument that at least some of the money could have been better allocated elsewhere.

Every one of the 11 counties chasing Leinster’s Delaney Cup, Dublin included, either operate their own centres of excellence already or have some manner of plans underway to build one. Louth’s facility in Darver was among the first builds.

“When I hear people talk about Abbotstown — that doesn’t do it for me,” says Kelly. “We have our own Abbotstown. We have a centre of excellence with six floodlit pitches, a fully equipped gym, six or seven dressing rooms, two video rooms.” It’s an hour from Darver to the NSC. That’s on a good day. Even Navan in Meath, the closest of the surrounding county towns, is 48 minutes distant and that via the bottleneck that is the M3. Approaches from Carlow, Kildare, Wicklow are just as unattractive.

No, Kelly has little doubt but that the money could have been better used elsewhere.

“Absolutely. All those problems are there to be discussed and it isn’t going to be solved overnight. Lesser counties do need a hand. A Louth player is working as hard as any county player. He needs a break, a bit of luck.” It isn’t difficult to understand his frustration and that of others in a Leinster Championship that begins this weekend and for whom the overweening financial and demographic might of Dublin is a constant reminder of their dwindling status and expectations.

Kelly’s great grandfather Larry McCormack won an All-Ireland with Louth in 1912. He has uncles with provincial medals from the 50s and he fell one hurdle short of a provincial final seven times in a 14-year career in the red and white himself.

You have to wonder what is in it for your average county player in Leinster these days. Kelly said as much last July, after his side lost by 23 points to Tipperary, when he bemoaned the standards in the province and called for a two-tier championship.

He compared Louth’s presence in the All-Ireland then to “trying to win a senior club championship with a junior team” and Dublin’s dominance in Leinster is such that the same could be said of the Wee County in the narrower context of Leinster itself.

What can be the motivation for those players?

“You’ll always have the real traditional GAA person who wants to play for the jersey because his father played and his grandfather played,” says Kelly.

“His whole life revolves around the GAA. There still is that person who will play under any circumstances. But there are an awful lot of people who look at it as well and ask ‘right, what’s all the commitment about here?’

“If every other manager in the province is completely honest, for them to be speaking about winning Leinster Championships with the present Dublin team…” The rest goes without saying.

Fans of the current championship structure have always leaned on the argument that most counties can at least target a possible assault for a provincial title, but Kelly believes the carrots for sides like his must now be sought in distant fields.

“You have teams who have got to the semi-final of the All-Ireland series in the past. Fermanagh had a serious run last year. There are other rewards for players when that happens. There are All Stars with that progression and it can be a great stepping stone for the next year and for morale.”

Maybe, but that’s a long and unlikely road in itself.

Offaly manager Pat Flanagan gave an interview last January in which he proclaimed that he had all the raw materials required to make the county a meaningful force in Gaelic football again. Kelly says the same of Louth, but that holds only up to a point.

Dublin spent more than €1.5m on their hurling and football teams last year. Louth coughed up less than €300,000 and Offaly in and around double that. Added to that is the fact that the €1.46m the Dubs received in games development was more than the other 31 counties combined.

It’s David versus Goliath stuff and these Davids have no sling. People talk of the other Leinster counties playing catch-up. They’re not, they’re falling ever further adrift. Finance is clearly playing a part in that and you wonder what Flanagan or Kelly could do were a blank cheque thrust into their hand for a few years on the spin.

“I would love to be in a position to know that,” the former laughs. “You are given a budget at the start of the year and the ones that are spending the most money are at the top of the table. There is no point in saying any differently. We would definitely benefit an awful lot from more finance. Going from the likes of gym equipment to how we train, how they perform as far as getting things like diet right all come down to finances. If you had that blank cheque, then your players would improve a certain percentage. It’s a dream thing. You have what you have.”

Less fanciful should be the prospect of receiving a more equitable cut of the pie from Croke Park. Even Pauric Duffy, the GAA’s Director General, admitted earlier this year that maybe it was time to reexamine the breakdown of the funding model.

“The onus is on Croke Park as well to have a good serious look at this and assist in closing the gap,” says Flanagan. “The pressure is on the county boards to keep things ticking over, especially over the last number of years when times were tough.

“There are counties that are far wealthier than others and maybe if Croke Park started looking at that and started putting in extra coaching systems into weaker counties, maybe we would see if they could get up a level.”

That said, both he and Kelly accept they must start by helping themselves. Dublin were the only Leinster team playing Division One football this season. Meath and Laois contested the second tier while the eight others inhabited the lower two rungs of the ladder. It makes the argument about competing with Dublin more spurious if the likes of Offaly and Louth can’t first reach the same plateau inhabited by Fermanagh and Derry.

Do that and their cases for a fairer footing become more compelling.

“I would love the challenge every day of the week of playing Dublin,” says Flanagan. “I admire them greatly and I was delighted that they won the All-Ireland. They are definitely the benchmark. They are the team that play the best style of football.

“From a players’ point of view, they want to be playing football and they want to be playing the best. At this moment in time Dublin are the best and every young player in this country should at least strive to play against them.

“I said this when I was at Westmeath and I’m saying it again now with Offaly: the aim is to get to the highest level as far as the league is concerned, to be playing the best teams week in, week out. If you can do that, then and maintain that standard, that makes you more competitive.”

The prospects look bleak now, but the day will come when Dublin are beaten in the province again, as was last the case in 2010. The question is: which of their distant pursuers will be positioned best to take advantage?

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