Friday, May 24, 2024

Seán Moran: All-Ireland football championship draw hastens final curtain for provincials

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Tuesday’s draw for the Sam Maguire group stages refocused attention on how the thread connecting the provincial football championships to the All-Ireland has now frayed to snapping point.

This year’s provincials have provided a few surprise victories, which have gone down well in the counties concerned, and have value in that respect. The higher-end relevance is all but gone.

There has been some talk that teams going into provincial finals might “choose to lose” because of the draw. That was never the most obvious of motivations given that provincial winners last year provided three of the last four and both All-Ireland finalists.

Anyway, next Sunday Galway and Mayo can – if they like – make up their minds either to get into the ring with the losers of Armagh-Donegal plus league winners Derry or take a chance with Dublin (1/100 to beat Louth in the Leinster final) and secure a fond reacquaintance with their Rossie neighbours.

Or simply decide that they might as well have a Connacht title to show for the season – if not quite to sate a ravenous hunger.

Could the draw not have been deferred until the provincial campaigns were over? Unfortunately, the logistics of the new calendar are such that teams need to know their itinerary almost immediately, as mundane items like hotels for away trips have become complicated by the tourist season.

Last year, for instance, before playing Cork in Limerick, Mayo couldn’t get anything any closer than Galway.

If a provincial title no longer confers major advantage, there is the further problem that two of the provinces, Leinster and Munster, have toppled into dysfunction.

Dublin’s scorched earth campaigns in Leinster have the county on 14-in-a-row this year, a feat that, as mentioned above, they are 1 to 100 to achieve. If the province’s hurling championship has been largely a story of Kilkenny against a succession of contenders, their identity changing with time, Dublin occupy the same role in football.

But just as Dublin, Wexford and Offaly eventually all fell away in hurling, necessitating the importation of Galway into the province, so football championship challenges from Offaly, Meath and Kildare atrophied and with no compensatory imports possible, the Leinster championship has withered on the vine.

The lack of competition in Munster isn’t a strictly new phenomenon. In the Mick O’Dwyer era, Kerry were given a bye to the 1980 final, a year after hideously disfiguring Clare in Miltown Malbay but the scale of domination wasn’t new. Cork’s arrival as competitors, currently undergoing a painful rebuild, injected rivalry into the province but it hadn’t always existed.

“Between 1907 and 1943, Cork failed to beat Kerry in any championship game. Between 1945 and 1971, Cork won just six matches,” recalled Cork GAA historian Diarmuid O’Donovan in these pages last September.

At present, Kerry are on course for an 11th title in 12 years – the punctuation coming in November 2020 during the Covid championship when Cork struck late in the rainswept confines of a cavernously empty Páirc Uí Chaoimh, before losing the final to Tipperary.

The impact on the provincial councils has been marked if less so in Munster, where Kerry-Cork hasn’t broken 20,000 at the turnstiles for the past five years, because of the hurling round-robin, a gift that keeps giving.

In Leinster though the effect has been fundamental. Back in 2006, future GAA president Liam O’Neill, speaking about the then health of the Leinster football championship, identified its importance in an era when Dublin regularly attracted crowds of 70,000.

“We’ve invested €1,500,000 plus in games development and because Leinster is a football province, two-thirds of that has gone on football – which is fair because football receipts fund the development drive. If we relied on hurling for revenue, we’d be poorer than Connacht.”

As competition in Leinster declined, Dublin supporters came to the conclusion that it was better to travel hopefully throughout the 2000s than to arrive in the years since.

Connacht and Ulster still provide bona fide provincial championships but traditionally didn’t win much in the way of All-Irelands. Since the introduction of the All-Ireland qualifier system, however, horizons have opened up for all provinces.

This century, Leinster (nine) and Munster (eight) may still top the All-Ireland roll of honour ahead of Ulster (six) and Connacht (one) but in terms of getting to finals there is a greater spread with 10, 17, 10 and 11, respectively.

This isn’t a coincidence. The more counties get to play opponents from different provinces, the more comfortable they become and a hierarchical league structure for the past 16 years has been a further factor in the levelling up.

Unfortunately for both Leinster and Munster, their counties have been pitifully represented in Division One, outside of Kerry (for all 16 years) and Dublin (for 14). This feeds into championship inertia and a consequent loss of interest on the part of the public.

The GAA had to create an All-Ireland that would not be contaminated by underperforming provincial championships, which has largely been achieved. By providing a Tier 2 Tailteann Cup, the intention was to extend the number of counties with some realistic silverware to target.

As soon as the Tailteann settles, there will be a clamour for at least one more tiered championship.

In an ideal world, all counties would be developed to give Sam Maguire their best shot with prospects of occasional competitiveness but the scale of disparity makes that highly aspirational.

As current Mayo manager Kevin McStay wrote when a columnist on these pages: “To deal with the malaise rather than the symptoms would take a decade of funding facilities, structures and personnel and we just don’t have time for long-term solutions because the championship will be dead if we hold our breath too long.”

sean.moran@irishtimes.com

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