Sport

Danny Hughes: League deserves its place in GAA calendar for its competitiveness

The Allianz League offers the competitiveness which the provincial Championships and beyond largely lack, especially for counties such as Antrim. The fact that these competitive games from Division One right through to Division Four are being played at this time of the year in poor conditions is a source of frustration which should figure high on the radar of a new GAA director-general Picture by Cliff Donaldson

THE one thing we can guarantee from the Allianz League is competitiveness. I have always been a vocal advocate of retaining the provincial Championships. However, I regularly find myself reviewing the reasons as to why I feel like this.

Each year, you see the benefit of similar quality teams competing with one another. And while the weather and pitches may not be of the highest quality at this time of the year, match-ups such as Kerry v Donegal give me every reason to change my mind.

Let us get one thing straight first. The provincial councils will never give up their power base. This is a fact.

They have been around for too long and are as much a part of the fabric as those structured in Headquarters at Croke Park.

Therefore, the new director-general will have to chart these waters carefully from day one.

Now, if the director-general were to influence the disbandment of [early season] competitions in the GAA like the McKenna Cup, McGrath Cup, etc, I suppose it would be a start.

In his last director-general’s report, Paraic Duffy took the stage with his very own list of gripes.

I always felt that, at times, Paraic was swimming against the tide. He has faced some very familiar issues with mixed results.

Before I get back to matters on the field, I fail to see why Croke Park and the director-general cannot stand up to our provincial councils in matters of national interest.

And why can we not play Championship games across Ireland on any given Friday night, Saturday or indeed Sunday?

I know there were serious objections from the players in the past to Friday night games but I feel strongly that it should be revisited.

If the games are televised, fine.

If they are on the radio, great.

What is stopping The Sunday Game on RTÉ or Sky from extending their Championship programme to facilitate a round-up of all the action from the weekend’s games?

It works very well in all other sports, for instance, with soccer and Match of the Day.

It will allow the main Championship to be run off quicker and allow us to re-emphasise our focus on club football during the better months in better weather.

When you watch the weekly action in the Allianz Leagues, the most obvious thing in the world, in my view, is to follow suit in the Championship. My frustration at this point boils down to the fact that the best and most competitive matches in inter-county football are now being played at the worst time of the year when the fields are soaking and the weather is poor.

For some counties, the National League is now their Championship, while The Anglo-Celt is their Sam Maguire.

Moreover, as for the All-Ireland, the Holy Grail, let us just say that even Indiana Jones would have his work cut out to harbour a realistic chance of attaining this particular piece of treasure.

Sam Maguire will never be a possibility for counties such as Fermanagh, Antrim or Carlow in the current Championship format.

The moods of the players of these three latter-named squads and many others will be much more upbeat during the Allianz League season through playing teams of similar quality.

Playing against teams at a similar level can build real confidence in the next two months, with promotions and the winning of a national cup a very real prospect.

However, at the start of May all this changes. It reverts to damage limitation. It reverts to defensive formations, fear and an unwillingness to express themselves when playing against superior opposition who have more resources and are operating at much higher levels.

One heavy defeat and their spirit is broken. This is not a choice, this is a consequence. And for some teams, the national embarrassment of taking a hiding from a Dublin, a Mayo or a Kerry is not what they work their backsides off for 12 months of the year.

We want to see progress and players expressing themselves.

We want to watch players like Odhran Mac Niallais, who gave an exceptional performance at the weekend, continue to display a fine repertoire of Gaelic artistry.

On Donegal, well, they appear in good health, albeit it is still very early, but they are deservedly playing with the big boys now and can count themselves unlucky to have lost by a point.

If they can retain this freshness with Michael Murphy returning, this will only make them much stronger in 2018.

With Tyrone beaten in Galway and with a possible hangover from last season’s Championship still lingering, you wonder now if Donegal can pick up the baton in Ulster.

Mickey Harte will be disappointed with the Red Hands’ showing and Stephen O’Neill’s influence may be needed much earlier than anticipated if they are going to garner the scores required to retain the Anglo-Celt and make an impact on the Dublins of this world.

Down got off to a great start with an away win in Louth which is never easy, trust me.

That bit of class they have, especially in Connaire Harrison and Darragh O’Hanlon, can be a match for anyone. And with Darren O’Hagan continuing where he left off last year, Down can be optimistic of promotion and continued progress this year.

Wins for Antrim and Fermanagh make the tenures of the new management that bit easier, even if it only lasts for a week, but at that level, you take it.

I previously stated that Kieran McGeeney has built a sound base around the Armagh squad for some years now and an impressive first round win against Sligo will

perhaps give them the confidence to finish off teams much more ruthlessly this year.

A punching Monaghan team always grind out results in the League, but they need to be at their best to compete with the top teams so they cannot really afford too many glorious

one-point defeats in the next few weeks.

While many individual performances caught the eye last weekend, the class of Mac Niallais stood out.

His display of ease and brilliance in carrying out even the most basic of skills gives hope to those who contend that there are no flair players developing in the game.

My early punt for the Ulster Championship, even at this early stage is Donegal. Why?

Odhran Mac Niallais for starters.

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