Down, Derry and Antrim need support from within to arrest their slide
AS the county teams ‘enjoy' their version of the spring break, some have more thinking to do than others.
It has been a while since the fortunes of our counties have been so contrasting. Derry and Down relegated from Division Two and Three respectively, while Antrim remain languishing in Division Four.
Contrast this with Cavan's commendable rebound back up to Division One and Fermanagh and Armagh's promotions to Division Two. Even though Donegal got relegated, their League campaign shows they, along with Tyrone and Monaghan, remain competitive among the top teams in the country.
Down, Derry and Antrim may all go on to prove us wrong with strong Championship runs, but any of them having a strong summer would have to be considered a surprise at this stage.
The issue here isn't that the counties are ‘weak' or smaller counties that can't be expected to compete.
They have all got the ingredients to be strong counties yet, rather than a transitional downturn, these counties have been underachieving for a prolonged period. Yes, Down reached the All-Ireland decider in 2010 but that was even an anomaly for what was a reasonable team that they have since fallen well back from. Again, you could point to last year's decent Championship run and especially their great wins over Armagh and especially Monaghan. I thought this could have proved to be the turning point for this generation but unfortunately, they have had another tough League and lost several personnel as well.
Consistency and momentum continually evade them and their poor home form speaks volumes.
They probably don't have the depth of top level talent needed to trouble the top teams, but they are certainly capable of more than they are showing now. Division Three beckons next year and even if the summer turns out well, it will still be the acid test to develop some momentum. If not, the slide will continue to the bottom floor.
Derry, meanwhile, have, along with Tyrone, probably the highest quality club championship in the province.
Comparing the success rate of Derry champions compared to Tyrone champions on the provincial and national stage, it is fair to say that there is a lot of good football and footballers within Derry.
In the Owenbeg centre, Derry also have a training centre that, not only rivals other top centres like Monaghan's and Tyrone's, but betters them.
They have produced very good teams over the years but always seem to shoot themselves in the foot eventually.
Even during the noughties, Derry often out-performed the Tyrone team I was a part of and of course handed us a beating in Healy Park in the first round of the Ulster Championship in 2006.
The issue back then was that, no matter how well Derry were going, at some stage the rifts would appear in the camp and the wheels would fall off the wagon.
Like watching a long-running soap opera, Derry always seemed to create a bit of drama and unhappiness within their camp which inevitably scuppered their chances of success.
The oft-suggested reason of too much animosity between clubs is rubbish. To our credit, throughout Ulster, we are all pretty tribal when it comes to our clubs and in no county does ‘love thy neighbour' apply.
Antrim, on the other hand, have rarely fulfilled their potential as a county team. The reasons are many. They too have strong internal rivalries, while they also have a hurling v football division more significant than any other Ulster county.
Additionally, the impact of the Troubles, along with their socio-economic legacy, was undoubtedly more significant than in any other county during this period and maybe this still shows.
Years of neglect in terms of additional support and funding which the county should have benefited from has left it light years behind other counties in terms of infrastructure, particularly within Ulster.
The recent Gaelfast initiative is welcome, but belated and, for me, a token start.
One million pounds spread over five years hardly appears a game-changing level of funding, especially considered against that ‘other county in need of development', Dublin's £1.26million PER YEAR. A new Casement Park will be offered as a sign of support of Antrim GAA but unless the same funding needed to build it is ploughed into the Antrim club game and coaches, across both country and city areas, the only Antrim role within any new stadium will be stewarding the games.
So, excuses or problems can be pointed out in all three cases, some more valid than others. At various times, supporters within these counties will point to population, facilities, management and club loyalties as excuses for the lack of success.
Success here isn't about Sam Maguire, only one county can ever win that, it's about having a competitive, quality, senior squad representing your county.
Looking further afield, other counties probably have inexcusable situations too, the likes of Meath and Cork spring to mind.
When we start looking for excuses, however, we should always first look at ourselves. County teams will never succeed unless Gaels within their own county buy into them as a worthwhile and valuable thing.
The disdain seen in many quarters within clubs towards the county teams needs to be replaced by respect and acknowledgement as the elite teams representing their county. This is a crucial first ingredient which then creates the aspiration in the younger players to play for the county. From small acorns and all that.
If the general attitude within clubs and amongst GAA folk is critical of the whole county idea, the honour and privilege of pulling on the county jersey is gradually eroded and with it the appeal that drives young players to hold that ambition.
The fact is they won't, and the problems turn into a self-fulfilling negative cycle.
The ‘stronger' counties should also take note as they too are not averse to this phenomenon. There is no point GAA followers within a county slagging the county teams when it is that very attitude which can become pervasive within a county and, in the end, self-defeating.
Compare this with the two Ulster counties that deserve more credit than most, Fermanagh and Monaghan.
Neither are blessed with sizeable populations nor regular success on the club, school or underage front.
Yet, in both there is a clear sense of unity of purpose and positivity about the county teams so that for any young person growing up, there would be a natural aspiration to reach that level. Our sport is built on playing for the pride of the jersey and your people. This then is a basic ingredient for all.
There is a saying that, to be successful, you must first have a ‘why?'.
Hopefully those Ulster counties that are languishing can inspire a new generation with a ‘why?'.
This is more important than managers or facilities or population size. Those playing at present, and those still supporting, must know that while now ultimate success feels far off, they can still make a difference and start to light a flame in those who will come after.