Let’s deal with the depressing stuff first. Some you’re probably familiar with, like the fact that Dublin have won nine of the last ten Leinster senior titles. The corresponding numbers for the U-21 grade in the province are five of the previous seven and it’s four from six in minor. So far, so glum. Even worse is the fact that there is no army amassing that looks likely to break their hold on the east.
Six counties have faced them in senior finals this last decade and all have failed, Meath’s five-goal blitz in 2010 came a round earlier. Eight other counties have made the U21 decider since 2007 and the same number have featured in the minor final since 2005. All of which tells the story of a province fragmented by mediocrity.
No conveyor belt is being cranked up, as was the case in Laois and Westmeath 20 years ago.
Dublin’s dominance in Leinster will be stripped away like wet wallpaper one day, but not any time soon. Theirs is the house in perfect order, it is those of the other eleven counties that are in various states of disrepair and in need of far more than a few licks of paint because, let there be no doubt about it, Leinster football is in an advanced state of decay outside the Pale.
CHILD’S PLAY: Five-year-old Jamie Brogan, son ofDublin star Alan, celebrates after shooting past Stephen Cluxton.
Here’s the really bad news, though you could take it as a positive either. The gap between Dublin and the rest will never be as wide as it is now. Why? Quite simple. Dublin, the county with the greatest resources, is maximising its potential while most of the other 11, less endowed units are falling well short of their capabilities. So, depressing as that is, there is consolation in that things are unlikely to get any worse.
But, then, how could they? Leinster football has reached rock bottom.
You could blame the Dubs for most or all of this. Many have. Fingers have been pointed at the sums received from HQ and blue-chip sponsors this millennium which, allied to the existing demographic arsenal, has made for a juggernaut of limitless force, but take away Dublin and the standard of football would still be abject.
Don’t just take our word for it.
Michael Reynolds assumed the role of Leinster Council CEO this last year and his keynote speech at the annual convention back in January left no-one in any doubt but that these were desperate times indeed and that drastic, if not desperate, measures were required to return the playing field to something closer to an even keel.
“What is, perhaps, more worrying (than Dublin’s dominance) is the rather poor level of competition among many of the other counties in games not involving Dublin,” said Reynolds. “It is clear that there are now three, if not four, levels of standard in the Leinster senior football championship.
“In fairness, most counties have acknowledged that things are at a low ebb at this level and a number of consultations have taken place with the direct stakeholders. Proposals have been drawn up to address the predicament and we await the outcome of further deliberations.”
Now for the good news, embryonic though it is.
Shane Flanagan is Games Development and Structures Manager with the Leinster Council. No-one knows the by-roads of football and hurling in the province like him and he spoke last week - while driving around Wexford trying to find a Feile in Gusserane - about his belief that the future will be brighter than the present or recent past.
“I think it will,” he explained. “It has to. Everything is cyclical. Maybe Dublin will still have unrivalled success in ten years’ time and we will be saying it was all a waste of time (trying to match them), but Dublin aren’t a million miles ahead at minor or U21 now.
“A lot of the county boards are looking at this long-term now. They are making plans and realising there is no magic wand. We are expecting a lot of them to be knocking on the door of the Leinster Council looking for help in taking things to the next level.”
That process is already underway.
Longford are alone in punching above their weight, their minor title in 2010 and three appearances in U-21 deciders since 2006 proof that they are manipulating a small pool of players to full effect. Wicklow, eternal underachievers given their population base, couldn’t persuade a handful of volunteers to get involved a few years ago. They now have 40 involved with their hurling and football academy and developmental squads.
Offaly unveil a Centre of Excellence this week and have put development squads and sport science structures in place. Like Westmeath, they have established a link-up with Athlone IT while Carlow have connected in a similar manner with IT Carlow and Laois, who are already enacting development plans in both codes, are about to follow suit.
Meath, whose underage record has long been deplorable, are finally managing to dig some solid foundations with Sean Boylan is in as Director of Football. Eamon Barry, another former senior boss, is the development chief and Seamus Kenny is operations manager. Colm O’Rourke and Gerry McEntee are also on board helping with the development pathway from U14 up.
“There is a lot of work going on in each county,” says Flanagan. “There is a lot of good work getting the structures right, but there isn’t a coherent development pathway from U14 up through to senior levels. That’s not just a Leinster issue, it’s probably a national one and it’s something that needs looking at. The GAA has been looking at that the last year and there is a massive technical plan being put together in the background identifying what needs to be done from U8s up.”
Other issues have been identified at various levels.
Players being pulled and dragged between various coaches and teams remains an issue, not just because of fears over burnout, but because a constant stream of games leaves less time for technical development and hurling managers at U21 and senior levels are reporting that they have to spend far too much time teaching basics that should by then by down pat.
The evidence is that football is suffering from something similar while an over-emphasis on competition and winning has led to a safety-first culture that promotes the easier hand pass than the more fraught option with the foot. That’s hardly specific to Leinster, but then there is, as Reynolds said, the splintering of standards in the province to factor in, too.
Provincial chairman John Horan put together a committee to look at underage fixtures and how to ensure that youngsters were provided with, not just enough games, but those of a requisite standard. One response has been to establish cross-border club fixtures with Kildare, Meath and Wicklow being tied together in one such project.
Other, less tangible issues include the very real effect the sight of the Dublin jersey is now having on opponents and the tendency for many players to retreat back to the club scene when the inter-county operation isn’t showing enough promise, but these are cultural concerns that no committee or cash will easily fix.
Culture, it seems, is key and it is people who create a culture. Andy Kettle, the sadly departed former Dublin chairman, said as much when rejecting suggestions at the time that the county basically ‘bought’ their 2013 provincial hurling title with extra funding and Flanagan lands on personnel time and again when discussing the lay of the land.
Mention is made of Apple’s dip when Steve Jobs first left and its rebound when he returned and to the influence someone like Sean Dempsey had in Laois when he led them to underage success at minor and U21 level whether provincially and nationally. As Flanagan points out, it doesn’t cost much money to organise an optimum number of games or volunteer a few hours here and there.
“You have to say that Dublin have been value for the money as well,” he adds. “They are at a level now where even they probably didn’t envisage themselves, but they are doing it right. Young players are getting 16 games a year. Players in other counties might be only getting half or a third of that.
“It’s about the people they have involved as well. Jason Sherlock, Paul Griffin, Collie Moran: guys like that are all working with the development squads. They are role models for those young players and they are doing it for the right reasons. It’s a perfect storm really.”
It’s up to the rest now to whip up their own.
Dublin have won nine of the last ten Leinster football titles, five of the last seven U-21 and four of the last six provincial minor titles. Now for the bad news...
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