Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

We must tier Championship to benefit everyone

From the first salvo was fired in early May it has become increasingly clear that the All Ireland senior football championship is anything but a level playing field.

A competition that really only caught fire when title-holders Donegal confronted Tyrone later that month has since provided a litany of results that, while surely helping to fashion the probable destination of provincial trophies, have done rather more than that.

Taken in tandem with the outcome of a series of first round qualifier matches last weekend, the overall results board to date not so much hints but rather demands that the flagship competition should be overhauled.

The time for employed terms such as 'tweak' or 'modify' is past, I feel. A root and branch assessment is required and this can only lead to a formal restructuring of a competition that is clearly losing some of its appeal and gravitas.

Nothing has served to focus minds in this direction more than the catalogue of lop-sided games which have virtually dominated the fixtures menu spanning the past couple of months.

And it's the score lines from these games which persuade me that there is considerable merit in the suggestion tabled by Kevin McStay, the former Mayo player and manager of the St Brigid's (Roscommon) team which won the All-Ireland title this year, that a grading structure should be introduced as soon as possible to the All-Ireland series to erase the embarrassing imbalance which currently blights the competition.

McStay, with whom I do not always agree in his role as an analyst on RTE's 'The Sunday Game' floats the idea that a senior, intermediate and junior All-Ireland series should be initiated, his argument for this bolstered by the fact that such a formula pertains at club level.

Indeed, the All-Ireland senior, intermediate and junior club competitions currently enjoy a huge profile and provide quality entertainment at a time of the year when daylight can be at a premium and the weather inhospitable.

Statistics do not necessarily provide the full narrative on any issue but a cursory analysis of results in Munster, Connacht and Leinster in recent weeks will provide confirmation that remedial action in terms of streamlining the façade of the All-Ireland series is required.

A depressing trend was initiated in Connacht when Leitrim slammed New York by 4-18 to 0-8 before Mayo humbled Galway by 4-16 to 0-11 and the rot was endemic in Munster where Cork destroyed Limerick by 3-17 to 0-8, Kerry overwhelmed Tipperary on a 2-19 to 0-8 score line and then reduced Waterford to rubble in winning by 4-21 to 1-4.

And while Leinster normally offers a more competitive aspect, Westmeath's trouncing of Carlow by 3-15 to 1-10, Dublin's despatching of Westmeath by 1-22 to 0-9 and then their summary execution of Kildare by 4-16 to 1-9 quite simply proved that they operate on a different planet to the rest of the province.

Only in Ulster where the biggest winning margin to date has been six points – Donegal's 2-10 to 0-10 victory over Tyrone – has there been a sustained semblance of respectability.

Last weekend's qualifiers merely replicated the one-way traffic scenario. There were several cringeworthy score lines not least among which were Tyrone 1-27 Offaly 0-8 and Armagh 2-21 Wicklow 0-2.

Match-ups such as these do nothing for football. The suggestion has been made that perceived lesser sides get the chance to produce a shock result via the qualifiers but that is very much the exception rather than the rule.

No, the time has come for the All-Ireland football championship to be tiered in much the same way as the hurling championship in which the Christy Ring Cup and Lory Meagher Cup are on offer to those teams outside the elite bracket.

McStay's blueprint would favour a 16-team top tier, eight teams in an intermediate sphere and eight at junior level. From an Ulster perspective, Tyrone, Down, Donegal and Derry would gain automatic inclusion in the top bracket with other teams perhaps having a little work to do to avoid being drafted into the intermediate bracket.

Antrim though, having fallen into Division Four, have had a wretched championship season losing to Monaghan in Ulster and toppling out of the qualifiers to Louth.

There are a number of fine players in the side – Paddy Cunningham, Kevin Niblock, Justin Crozier, Kevin O'Boyle, Conor Murray and Sean McVeigh among them – but the team as a unit has not quite functioned at full capacity which must be frustrating for hard-working manager Frank Dawson.

Indeed, frustrating is a word with which we have all become rather too familiar as we have watched the championship unfold to date with its bizarre results allied to the occasional pleasant adornment, notably London's arrival in the Connacht final in which they will meet the reigning kingpins Mayo.

Now that's a match in which the final score line might be of somewhat extreme proportions but it would be a callous soul indeed who would deny London their rightful place in the sun after many years spent in a barren wilderness.

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