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No desire for All-Ireland B

By Declan Bogue

Published 20/01/2016

Comeback kings: Owen Gallagher and Patrick McBride celebrate Antrim’s All-Ireland qualifier win over Laois in Portlaois after the Saffrons had found themselves eight points behind
Comeback kings: Owen Gallagher and Patrick McBride celebrate Antrim’s All-Ireland qualifier win over Laois in Portlaois after the Saffrons had found themselves eight points behind

It was in the half-light after his playing career when Martin McHugh brought a bit of an edge to Championship coverage on television in the mid-90s.

Previously, the punditry on UTV and BBCNI was almost Match of the Day cosy. McHugh changed that by opening fire after a Fermanagh defeat, suggesting that they didn't deserve a place in the Ulster Championship and that an All-Ireland B would be a much more appropriate tournament.

The GAA kept nosing their way into the debate. An All-Ireland B was introduced. Fermanagh won it after a replay in Carrick-on-Shannon in 1997 and they partied hard at the homecoming in Lisnaskea.

Some of that team were still playing when the Ernesiders made it to an All-Ireland semi-final seven years later.

In 1999, Antrim beat Fermanagh in the final. Anto Finnegan was captain and he recalled the afterglow of success: "As a team afterwards in the changing rooms, we looked around the players in our team and felt it was an opportunity for us to be much better."

Several months later, Antrim came within a ball caught over the crossbar by Derry's Anthony Tohill of reaching the Ulster final, having put to bed almost two decades without a win in the province by beating Down on a day of thunder, lightning and scorching sun in Casement Park.

Neither of those two sets of players could deny that they used that success as a springboard to better things. Yet ask either to play in one now and you would be met with fierce resistance.

In Ulster, we are effectively blind when we look at the situation. Our own provincial football Championship has never been more popular and every game counts. So caught up in our own success, few of us have considered how we would feel about the existing structures if we were in, say, Munster.

'We eat the same spuds and do the same training as anyone else' is the prevailing mood among counties that find themselves at the bottom of the food chain. They want to be part of the All-Ireland Championship but if they were being really honest with themselves, they would - and rightly so - put more into their National League campaign to climb the ladder.

In the club game, tiered competitions work beautifully. There is almost a majesty to the likes of a small community such as Creggan, Loughinisland, Rockcorry and Coleraine bidding to make it to Croke Park for an All-Ireland final, as these clubs will be this weekend.

Last month, the hurlers of Fermanagh actually held a most enjoyable dinner-dance and medal presentation for the team that won the Lory Meagher Cup. Grizzled veterans of that scene could hardly believe they were part of such an event.

Tiered competitions not only work in the GAA, they work stupendously well, spreading joy to the most unlikely corners.

County football is the last fortification against it. When contacted yesterday, a number of Antrim GAA figures were aghast at the prospect of playing in a secondary competition. To some extent, we can see their point.

Antrim made the Tommy Murphy Cup final - an updated version of the All-Ireland B - in 2007 and 2008, winning at the second attempt in Croke Park.

Heralded as the competition that would give weaker counties respect, that 2008 final was thrown in at 12.15pm. The Antrim bus was not permitted into the stadium, meaning players and officials had to drag all their gear from the road to the cramped juvenile dressing rooms.

You can see how easy it became to label it the 'Tommy Cooper Cup'. It was never contested again.

At the back of the resistance to change lies the notion that on any given day, any team can be beaten. And the best and most dangerous place for that to happen is a qualifier game that flies under the radar of most.

Take Longford beating Mayo in 2010 - the side that would reach two All-Ireland finals and three semi-finals every year since - as an example. Or even Antrim themselves. Demoralised by a convincing defeat in Ulster last year and without the services of some of their best players after the famous St Gall's hurling row, they came back from eight points down to beat Laois in the qualifiers.

The good news for them is that the GAA have no real intention of imposing a Tommy Murphy Cup Mark II. All of this is an exercise in appeasing the annual debate among sections of the media.

If the GAA had really wanted to carve up the Championship, they would have appointed another committee to make the proposals, staffing it with credible names so that it is not seen as just another group of faceless bureaucrats.

You only have to recall the efforts of the Football Review Committee to realise that.

The proposal that will be debated at Congress in Carlow next month? Merely a kite flying in the wind.

Belfast Telegraph

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