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Fears for tiers in football's future

Close tussle: Tyrone’s Ronan McNamee (left) challenges Derry’s Ryan Bell
Close tussle: Tyrone’s Ronan McNamee (left) challenges Derry’s Ryan Bell
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Does football have a problem with mis-matches?

Certainly, the lines from Tomás Ó Sé on The Sunday Game's highlights programme would indicate so.

Reflecting on Limerick's superb win over Tipperary, the former Kerry footballer said that it was only the 17th time in over 2,100 matches that a team from Division Four had beaten one from the top two divisions. It's a pity that statistic wasn't teased out as to what exactly the parameters were, but it sounds significant.

Later in the programme, Roscommon's (Division One this year) 14-point win over Leitrim in Connacht was used as an example of the apparently urgent need for Championship reform, or at least to create a meaningful competition that teams in the lower reaches could aspire to.

There are a number of strands to the argument, so let's start with the margin of victory.

As heavy as Leitrim's defeat was, other sides from Division Four put up credible displays over the weekend. Waterford from the bottom league lost by a single point to Clare, who played their ball in Division Two.

Wicklow were facing Kildare of Division Two. The loss was by two points. Offaly held Meath, promoted to Division One, to two points. While Derry eventually lost to Tyrone by six, they were still holding the lead in that game with seven minutes of normal time left.

You can run your finger across last year's results and spot a trend. In last year's glorious summer, Carlow beat Louth (Div 2) and Kildare (Div 1) on their way through Leinster. Fermanagh (Div 3) got the better of Monaghan (Div 1) in a classic smash and grab Ulster semi-final.

Arguing over something on the basis of a losing margin loses its value when you consider the year Donegal had in defending their All-Ireland title in 2013. They were beaten by six points by Monaghan - then in Division 3 - in the Ulster final before getting smashed in the All-Ireland quarter-final by Mayo, 16 points in it by the end. The fear in some quarters is that the lower tier competition would be seen as an irrelevance.

While those who regularly attend Joe McDonagh Cup games rave about the quality, it doesn't receive a scrap of coverage on television.

To be fair to London manager Ciaran Deely, one man who has contributed meaningfully to the tiers debate, he and his players couldn't give a fiddler's for how much screen time is devoted to their team; they just want a chance of competing realistically for a cup.

Last week's contribution from GAA President John Horan was utterly bizarre when he accused RTÉ of simply looking for high viewer ratings by ignoring hurling's lower tiers. To be fair, he said that it would be a subject for future negotiations.

As it should be. Sky Sports cannot just show Manchester United and Liverpool every week. There has to be a smattering of Brighton v Newcastle to go with it. Those who believe utopia would be reached by a carve-up of football divisions are living in a fool's paradise.

In last year's Joe McDonagh Cup, there were winning margins of 16, 13 and 18 points.

In the Lory Meagher Cup there were two games that finished with the losers 12 points adrift.

At Christy Ring level, the chasm between teams was most pronounced; 24 points, 28 points, 19 points and 28 points was the gap here, with the margin in the final 14 points. The Nicky Rackard Cup had two games with a 20 and 21 point gap.

Has this even helped hurling in weaker counties? It's largely debatable. You couldn't be opposed to an experiment. The GAA are getting better at it. The Munster and Leinster hurling championships are in the middle of a three-year experiment with round robin games and, given the sheer thrill of last year, it's inconceivable they will reverse this for 2021.

Likewise for the Super8s, which will be reviewed after a three-year trial, although it hasn't had the same warm welcome.

Go with a two-tier Championship. Every county, though, needs its 'big day out' in their own province, the local rivalry element that has sustained the competitions from the beginning, but work out a system after that is decided, with an opportunity for an outlier to make a jump up into the top tier that same summer.

The fear in this quarter is that we have heard this song before. The All-Ireland B competition around the turn of the century was a good competition played in the dead of winter.

The Tommy Murphy Cup was derided by some of the very people pushing for tiers now and floundered in a welter of player apathy, most young men deciding to head to America for the summer rather than stay for the thin end of the wedge.

But the sands are shifting. In 2016, the Gaelic Players Association opposed a motion for Congress to introduce a second tier; "serious opposition" as explained by then secretary Paul Flynn.

By October 2018, Flynn said there was "a significant shift in player opinion".

Go for it. Limit the experiment and go all out for the timeframe.

Belfast Telegraph


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