The Focus Of The GAA Should Be Brought Back To Club Level.
There was a lot of talk this week about the current structure of the hurling championship, as the first of the vanquished counties were consigned to a long summer. I’d like to take issue with some of the comments. Ollie Baker wants a complete overhaul of the hurling qualifiers and Kevin Ryan, the Antrim manager, wants rid of the Interprovincial championships entirely. I’m not sure Baker has worked out an alternative, but it definitely means more games and with it, more money. These arguments remind me of the HSE during the Celtic Tiger, throw an abundance of money and resources at the problem and things will improve of their own accord.
If we are looking to distribute the Liam McCarthy Cup more evenly, the All Ireland qualifiers have taught us that you might catch the big boys on a given day, but you’re unlikely to repeat the feat in the same year. The big problem with a league style championship format, apart from the inherent advantage it would afford the traditional big three, is that it could ultimately lead to an AIL v province style divide in our county players, as is seen in rugby. Where the likes of Paul O’ Connell who is nominally a Young Munster club player, but only lines out as part of his ever increasing rehabilitation. I’m not sure the club scene can endure many more additional inter county fixtures. The height of the summer is a frustrating time for average club players, whose lives become hostage to the success of their county team, with fixtures being dictated to County Secretary’s. Seasons begin in January and end in October or November. The GAA love to perpetuate the romantic notion that the local community is the be all and end all of our wonderful association, but the facts don’t support this argument and it just looks like a neat marketing angle.
Munster hurling has long been the jewel in the crown of the provincial series and hurling in Leinster is undergoing a renaissance and is as competitive as it has been since Brian Whelehan was in his pomp. Provincial titles often offer the best chance of meaningful success and this should be discarded so that teams can play more often, in the hope that this might narrow the gap between the best and the rest? Liam Sheedy suggested that Offaly consider remaining in training until next September, so as not to fall further adrift in the coming months. But a top down approach won’t provide this Offaly team with an All Ireland. It’s rather clichéd to say that the focus should be on underage development, but Clare are just the latest example of how success at underage can feed into the senior hurling team. Baker’s time would be better served taking three club minor hurling training sessions a week in rotation, throughout the county and improve the standard at this grade!
Some of the best hurling coaches in Ireland are employed as ‘Games & Development Officers’ working with schools all over Ireland. But they are prohibited from coaching inside or outside their own county at club level. I can understand the logic of the exclusion from coaching in your own county, but there are few enough elite hurling coaches in Ireland without placing a restriction on their utilisation. The best coaches in Kilkenny, Tipperary & Cork should be encouraged to coach club teams in Laois, Carlow & Antrim. Billy Walsh brought his boxers to Russian training camps to learn from the best, why can’t this model be mimicked? Some of the weaker counties could be linked with Division 1 hurling teams, so that they can observe the best and bring that knowledge back to their own county. This could be replicated at club level in time, and with greater preparation and coaching, the standard of hurling in weaker counties will improve. The focus of our association should be brought back to club level, not further away.
The ‘real’ All Ireland begins on Friday night when the first of the 2013 knock out games takes place in Dr. Cullen Park.
All the criticism of the provincial system seems to disappear when the qualifiers begin. A cocktail of added pressure, home venues and cross-country matches closes the ‘gap’ between the strong and the weak counties.
Since it’s introduction in 2001, the qualifiers have proven a successful path for teams trying to win the All Ireland. What is hasn’t been is a springboard for a weaker county to lift Sam Maguire. If we are to look at it cynically, all the backdoor does is delay the inevitable for any county outside of the top 8 in the country.
It’s for the romantics, those who believe in the fairytale run, the against all odds story. The greatest backdoor anecdotes belong to Fermanagh and Wexford, the former coming agonisingly close to reaching an All-Ireland Final in 2004, eventually losing to Mayo in a replay. They beat Meath, Cork, Donegal and Armagh before the Mayo game. Wexford, after being humiliated by Dublin in the Leinster Final, managed to regroup, beat Armagh and run Tyrone close in the last four.
But for the lower ranked inter-county teams the qualifiers aren’t a route to the All Ireland Final, they are a chance to prolong a summer and pick up a scalp or two along the way. I asked the good people of the Twitter world about the greatest upsets in qualifiers history and some of the answers I got were Laois beating AI Champions Tyrone in 2006, Longford beating Mayo in 2010, Sligo beating Tyrone in 2002, Limerick hammering Meath in 2008 and Antrim beating Galway last year.
Did any of these teams go on to achieve much those years? No, none even made the last 4, but what they did do was give themselves and their supporters renewed hope in the championship system.
By the time round three comes around I would argue that you would rather be a team with two qualifier wins under your belt, then a side who have just been knocked out of the provincial championship. We all know how big a pitfall the fourth round of the qualifiers is for the provincial final losers. To survive the ambushes you have to be a strong team, you look at Kerry, they have been a whisker away from being knocked out in the qualifiers by the likes of Sligo and Westmeath, but often they’ve survived, gained momentum and gone on to challenge on All Ireland Final Day.
Location aside, were Offaly versus Tyrone a provincial game it would more than likely be a one-sided affair. Division one finalists taking on Division four winners, the gulf in class is quite large. But this weekend is much harder to call. The game is in Tullamore, there is a knockout element and the old saying ‘anything can happen on a given day.’ If Mickey Harte’s side are going to progress, it won’t be by much. The qualifiers closes the gap, it doesn’t eradicate it but it does bring teams a lot closer.
Then you have the likes of Derry vs Sligo or Louth vs Antrim. These types of games are intriguing, two evenly enough matched teams, playing a once off game. It is impossible to know how teams are going to react to the qualifiers but it is often the underdogs that embrace it and thrive on it. What the system does is add glamour to these types of games.
Of the teams competing in the qualifiers this weekend only Tyrone have realistic ambitions of lifting Sam in September. For the others the real ambition is to create a story that can be told in years to come…. “Remember that day in Dr. Cullen, jeez they didn’t know what they were getting themselves in for….”
Leitrim vs London Sunday 15:40
Hands up who saw last weekend's result coming! I had predicted a Leitrim win but that London would push them all the way to the final whistle. What I did not see coming was Leitrim stealing a draw from the Exiles. That game should have been televised, for novelty alone, and the same can be said of this weekend's replay. Shame on RTE, BBC and TV3 for not sending commentators and cameras to Carrick on Shannon or Roscommon.
Paul Coggins side came into the game with nothing to lose and left with their credentials enhanced further. In three weeks I could be sitting here talking about a London vs Mayo Connaught final and not one person would begrudge that game or be surprised by the novelty of it.
The potential loss of Mark Gottsche, London's inspirational midfielder could have a serious effect on the team but Sean Kelly, London's goalscoring hero in Carrick-on-Shannon, believes that the strength of the London panel means they can cope. "we have 36 lads and a good few of them didn't make the 26 and its massive for the lads in the 26 and the 15 that there are other lads in the panel to push them on." the Mayo student said during the week.
Leitrim also have their own injury worries ahead of the replay, not least of which is their mercurial captain Emlyn Mulligan who had to be substituted after 15 minutes of the drawn game and was probably the difference between Leitrim drawing the game and winning it. Mulligan is worth 10 points a game to Leitrim and unlike a county like Mayo or Kerry there are no ready made replacements for that kind of player in the Leitrim set up. The four players dropped from the panel for disciplinary reasons are also still gone and the Leitrim management should be commended for sticking by their guns in that situation, regardless of how small the Leitrim pool of talent may be.
This is a hard game to call. Many people believe London left their best chance of victory behind them last weekend but I believe that they still have it in them. Having to forgo home advantage and travel to the West of Ireland once again for the replay will give them an added impetus to come out on top. Two years ago London had Mayo on the ropes and defeated Fermanagh in the qualifiers, this year they have defeated Sligo and drawn with Leitrim. under Coggins the Exiles are sprinting in the right direction and I believe that forward movement will continue in the managers home county this Sunday.
That novelty final of Mayo vs London should not shock many people when it happens.
Leinster Football Championship Semi-Finals
Meath vs Wexford (Croke Park, Sunday 14:00)
This is my choice for football game of the weekend. It won't have the star power of Dublin vs Kildare or the skill set of Galway vs Tipperary, but it will have alot of heart and passion.
Wexford have come close to that elusive Leinster title over the past decade. Outside of Meath they are probably the one team who has come closest to ending Dublin's dominance of the province since 2005. Ask any Dublin fan and they will tell you that the Wexford game in 2011 was the making of their All-Ireland winning season.
The last day out Wexford deservedly overcame a highly fancied Louth side away from home. The yellowbellies have lost Mattie Forde in recent seasons to retirement but in Redmond Barry, Lee Chin, PJ Banville and Ciaran Lyng they have some of the best footballers in the province. Football is no longer the weaker relation in the sunny south-east.
Meath also overcame difficult opponents away from home when they dispatched Wicklow from Leinster in Aughrim. A missed penalty and scored goal in a 10 second period in the first half proved the clincher of that game and Mick O'Dowd's new approach with Meath football has paid dividends so far. Seamus Kenny returns to the starting line up while Stephen Bray and Brian Meade will provide the impetus up front. Being able to call on a player of Joe Sheridan's caliber from the bench could be the decisive factor in this game.
Wexford looked far more impressive than Meath in their quarter final victory but that does not necessarily translate to success in a semi-final. the Slaneysiders have a good record in the Leinster championship in recent seasons and have pulled off some notable victories. Meath won the province in unceremonious circumstances in 2010 and will want another crack at reclaiming the trophy.
A great game is in store for those that make their way into Croker early on Sunday. It is a hard one to call but I cannot look past the presence of Joe Sheridan on the Meath bench. I believe he could be decisive in the outcome of this game but a stronger feeling prevails that Wexford will be too far ahead by the time he is sprung into action. The yellowbellies should get another crack at a Leinster title in three weeks.
Dublin vs Kildare (Croke Park, Sunday 16:00)
This is undoubtedly the big game of the weekend. The reigning league and Leinster champions, with aspirations of a second All-Ireland in three seasons up against their biggest rivals in Leinster over the past few seasons and would be pretenders to their throne as Leinster kingpins.
In fairness, Kildare may fancy themselves as Dublin's biggest rivals in Leinster but that is probably overstretching the mark a little.
bit. Wexford have come closer to beating the metropolitans while Kildare have only reached one Leinster final in their current incarnation under Kieran McGeeney.
They did look impressive, following a sluggish start, against Offaly in their Leinster quarter final and had a successful league where they finished third in Division One. However, the loss of Dermot Earley has weakened their midfield, they have still not replaced him after two years on the sideline, and their U-21's are just not good enough yet to make a successful step up to senior level, much like Galway.
Dublin on the other hand won Division One at a relative canter, hammering Mayo, Kildare, Kerry and Cork along the way, and know that they are a better team than Kildare. The only thing that can stop Jim Gavin's men this Sunday is complacency and I don't see that happening.
I said before their quarter final with Westmeath that if the midlanders got into the faces of the men from the capital they could make things difficult for them and push them all the way. Instead Westmeath stood off Dublin and McCauley, Mannion and Andrews ran riot. Kildare cannot make the same mistake. Stand off the Dubs and the game is over by half time, but get in their face and take the game to them and Dublin can be rattled. You only have to look at last year's semi-final against Mayo to see how easily the Hill will turn on their side and if the Lilywhites can make that happen then they could see off the Dubs.
Having said that, I find it hard to see happening. I fully believe that Johnny Doyle and his teammates will push Dublin all the way and the 4 point handicap being offered by the bookies probably wont be beaten by Dublin. The Dubs don't lose too often on their home ground and Brogan et al will need to be on form to see off Kildare but I believe they will come through a tough battle.
I would like to add that I don't see this as the 'real' Leinster final that many pundits and other people are calling it. That is highly disrespectful to Meath and Wexford who would both fancy their chances of beating either Dublin or Kildare in Croke Park.