Minnows will never enjoy a level playing field

ONE way in which sport mirrors society is that the rich keep getting richer while the poor keep getting kicked and trampled upon.

Well, that’s how it seems to those of us with footprints on the back of our donkey jackets.

Call me sad, bitter and twisted if you want, but why can the traditional superpowers like Kerry and Meath pick up provincial titles with the ease that aristocrats live off the interest from their savings?

On Sunday, Meath got a dodgy decision that granted them their 21st Leinster senior football title. Such luck always seems to elude minnows like Louth, seeking their first provincial crown in 53 years.

The previous Sunday, Tomás O Sé ran around Fitzgerald Stadium committing the type of fouls which earn red cards for non-Kerry residents. But different rules seem to apply to the green and gold so Limerick played the whole game against 15 men, and their wait for a Munster football title will extend to 115 years.

Given the GAA’s culture of protecting the wealthy, it’s no surprise that there is such a massive turnover of players among the game’s poorer counties.

It’s easier to keep turning out for training and to keep pushing for a place in the team when there is a reasonable chance of success.

But it’s a different proposition when the only guarantee at the end of every season is disappointment.

Most counties will change at least half the starting team over the course of a three-year period.

Injuries, age and form will account for only some of those changes. In many cases, good players simply become disenchanted.

When you invest so much and receive so little, it’s only natural.

Consider a few examples. Two short years ago, 15 Fermanagh men were on the brink of achieving ever-lasting glory.

They came within seconds of winning a maiden Ulster title.

They lost. From the team that started the 2008 final, only three lined out against Armagh on Sunday.

Derry are another example.

NFL champions in 2008, the side that beat Kerry in that final has changed radically. Only seven players who started the League final of ‘08 lined out against Westmeath on Saturday.

It can’t be stressed enough that teams like Derry and Fermanagh are the norm. And this is why Monaghan are such an extraordinary outfit. While subjected to the same ravaging misfortunes as every other team trying to make a breakthrough, Monaghan have stood bloody but unbowed.

Their dedication and steadfast refusal to quit is truly remarkable.

Beaten in an Ulster final by Tyrone three years ago, it would have been understandable if Monaghan had suffered a decline similar to Fermanagh’s. But this is where Monaghan buck the trend. Eleven of the team that started the ‘07 final lined out against Armagh in the first round of this year’s Championship. The four players (Shane Duffy, Dessie Mone, Donal Morgan and Rory Woods) who didn’t make that team remain part of the squad.

Manager Seamus McEnaney deserves due credit. He has got his players to follow him in his crusade for the greater glory of Monaghan football. They amassed a total of 1-39 in their two wins over Armagh and Fermanagh. At times, their football has been breathtaking in its fluidity.

The synchronicity of their passing provides testimony to the benefits of players staying together.

They now have the chemistry to match their commitment.

As it’s now 12 years since a team other than Tyrone or Armagh won the Anglo-Celt Cup, it’s safe to say that most neutrals will be cheering for the Farneymen on Sunday.

Right now, all across the North, there are arches, banners and flags exhorting us to ‘Remember 1690’. How could we possibly forget? The Battle of the Boyne took place 320 years ago but, by Irish standards, that’s modern history. The Famine seems like yesterday. As a people, we have the longest memories of any nation in the world and the GAA typifies our genius for dredging up the past.

And it is for this reason that I am totally astonished at Martin Sludden’s decision to allow Joe Sheridan’s ‘try’ to stand as a goal.

If one game ever shaped the direction, purpose and playing style of Mickey Harte’s teams, then it was that All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Meath in 1996. Battered, bullied, thumped and kicked, Art McRory’s Red Hands left Croke Park in bandages.

The defeat was so psychologically damaging that it crushed a Tyrone side that had just won back-to-back Ulster titles, the first to do so since Derry did it back in 1975 and 1976.

It was a game when Meath played like 15 Mark Van Bommels and were widely exonerated for doing so. Tyrone were damned for not being fit to withstand the abuse and serve up some of their own. Since then, Tyrone men tend to go a tad apoplectic when asked to defend some of the methods they employ to win a game.

Wind the clock forward to last Sunday and Tyrone whistler Martin Sludden had a wonderful chance to exact some measure of revenge for the injustices to Peter Canavan, Brian Dooher and Ciaran McBride. Instead, Sludden tried to make the right decision. Unfortunately for him, it was the wrong one. He will have been called many things over the past few days, but Sludden certainly cannot be accused of being biased, as he is probably the only Tyrone man on the planet who has shown a willingness to forgive and forget Meath for their sins of 96.

p.heaney@irishnews.com


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