Time for club leagues to be put on a par with National League
KERRY won last year’s All-Ireland title without the services of Colm ‘the Gooch’ Cooper, the most sublimely gifted footballer in the country.
Think about that. Could Tyrone lift Sam without Seán Cavanagh? Could Monaghan win the Ulster title without Conor McManus? No chance.
Yet, Kerry prevailed without the services of their best player. That fact alone should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who dares to dream that their county might one day triumph on the third Sunday in September.
There are 73 clubs in Kerry and the vast majority of them are utterly obsessed with football. It’s a big county and all resources are geared towards one objective - the Sam Maguire Cup.
To compete against a superpower like Kerry, a county like Donegal or Armagh needs to have everything perfectly aligned. There is no room for injuries, tactics must be perfect, and the team will have to produce the performance of a lifetime. That’s not an opinion. It’s a fact. Gaelic football is no different to the economy.
Most of the silverware is owned by a minority. Look at the statistics. In the last half century, five counties Kerry (17), Dublin (seven), Meath (five), Galway (four) and Cork (four) have claimed almost 75 per cent of the success. While 11 counties have won the Sam Maguire Cup since 1965, almost 70 per cent of counties are on the outside looking in.
This year’s race for Sam provides a microcosm of how it has been for the past 50 years. Put starkly, it’s a two-horse race between Dublin (6/5) and Kerry (7/2), the two counties that have won almost half of the last 50 All-Ireland titles.
The question is: where does this leave everyone else? The evidence clearly tells us that weaker counties only have a miniscule chance of attaining glory. Unless you’re from one of the traditional strongholds, there is virtually no hope that your county is going to be successful in Croke Park.
So, what should you do? Should most Gaels simply resign themselves to the fact it’s most likely not going to be their year? The good news for everyone is such a defeatist attitude is totally unnecessary. The bad news is major structural changes will be required for any county that wants to rise above the morass.
At present, counties are basically faced with a choice. You can have a successful county team. Or you can have a successful club programme. But you can’t have both. Jim McGuinness was quick to grasp this harsh reality. If a county like Donegal was to compete successfully, McGuinness realised he couldn’t afford to have top players getting injured with their clubs.
While Kerry can prevail without Colm Cooper, there is no hope for Donegal if Michael Murphy gets hurt in a club game with Glenswilly. Jim McGuinness wasn’t the first manager in Ulster who realised club football had to be curtailed if the county team was going to succeed.
As Derry progressed to their one and only All-Ireland title in 1993, the club championship was effectively abandoned. The final wasn’t played until St Stephen’s Day. A similar situation occurred in Down. Speaking at a Club Eirne talk night in Enniskillen last week, Pete McGrath confirmed club football in Down ground to a halt in 1991 and 1994.
Nowadays, most counties operate a halfway system. Fixture makers try to accommodate the county team while, at the same time, they try to provide a decent programme of games for club players. Like all compromises, no-one wins.
In recent months, ideas have been mooted for the GAA to split the calendar year in two. In essence, the county season would run from May until August, while the clubs would get from August until October, with the provincial and All-Ireland club finals being played in November and December. While these solutions have plenty of merit, they are never going to happen.
Back in the real world, county boards are left with the challenge of giving their county team every chance of success while providing a steady supply of matches to club players. In the bulk of counties, the solution is actually very simple. Most problems would be solved if club leagues were rendered completely meaningless.
If the league doesn’t determine whether a team plays in the junior, intermediate or senior championship, then there is no reason why a club should fear playing a game without a county player. As the vast majority of counties are dumped out of the Qualifiers during July, there is ample time for county boards to run their championships. It’s club league football which causes most of the discord.
For example, after Derry were beaten by Donegal in last year’s Ulster Championship, the county board scheduled a series of league games. Five players from the team that started against Donegal suffered injuries which ruled them out of the first round Qualifier match against Longford. Derry duly lost to Longford in Celtic Park. Manager Brian McIver was not a happy man.
County players often feel compelled to play league games because, if their club is relegated from division one, then they lose their status in the senior championship. If the league didn’t carry that significance, there would be no need for county players to be involved in those games.
Derry is a fairly standard county. It has 40 clubs. At full strength, Derry could give most counties a decent game. But there is no room for any haemorrhaging of talent. Once Derry lose four or five players, they could get beaten by just about anyone. Last year, it was Longford.
Given the hundreds of thousands of pounds that are channelled into county teams, it seems ridiculous that an entire campaign could be sabotaged because the county board needs to play a few league matches. If the National Football League can hold zero importance, there is no reason why the equivalent competition at club level shouldn’t be the same.
At the Club Eirne talk night, patrons were asked to find new members who would donate £500 a year. That’s the standard rate for supporters’ clubs. The idea is the money will help the county team to become successful.
Before stomping up that type of cash, supporters should enquire about the county board’s fixtures policy. Unless it has been designed to maximise the county team's chance of success, they may as well throw their money on the fire.