Cahair O'Kane: Quick turnaround no excuse for defeat
LONGFORD have always been a team who embrace the Qualifiers. They’ve now claimed the scalps of Mayo, Derry, Down and Monaghan in the last decade.
They’ve never quite made it to an All-Ireland quarter-final, but they’ve proven themselves capable of beating anyone in a one-off shootout.
But no sooner had the final whistle gone in St Tiernach’s Park at the weekend than the ‘quick turnaround’ excuse was being wheeled out of the safe for its annual airing, taking command of the chatter Longford deserved.
A bit early this summer, it must be said. It’s usually reserved for round four of the Qualifiers, where teams are coming off the back of losing a provincial final.
It was Monaghan’s third Championship game in 14 days, two of them against a side as good as Donegal.
The flaws in the system are best highlighted by comparing that to Fermanagh’s path. The Erne men played Donegal in the last of the four provincial quarter-finals on June 12, and they had 13 days before their game with Wexford and then 14 days to prepare for Mayo.
The Championship structure is a mess. Eleven teams in Leinster, six in Munster. We don’t need to tell you that.
It’s clear there is no will among the decision-makers for changing the provincial structures, given how brutally every single proposal put before Congress this year was shot down.
But it’s still better than it was. There have been questions asked of splitting the Qualifiers into ‘A’ and ‘B’ sections, thus pre-ordaining the draw somewhat, but that has helped.
As a result of that move, each Qualifier round is split over two weekends, which reduces the instances of a quick turnaround.
Last Sunday’s drawn Connacht final throws up a problem, but up until that point, Cavan and Louth were set to be the only counties affected by the six-day turnaround in 2016 with Monaghan on a seven-day turnaround.
That will be of no consolation to Malachy O’Rourke or Colin Kelly. But that’s just the way life is when you sell your soul to the TV companies.
The GAA gave away its ability to properly undertake change when it agreed to let the two primary broadcasters screen 28 live football matches in this, the last summer of the first three-year TV deal involving Sky Sports.
On any given week, you could hear Jose Mourinho or Arsene Wenger coming out with the exact same complaints.
Those still involved in European competition can face the prospect of an early Saturday kick-off after a Tuesday or Wednesday night Champions League game, which undoubtedly doesn’t help their Premier League aspirations.
And you know what? It really pushes my buttons.
There will be those who argue that comparing amateur GAA players to grossly-overpaid and pampered Premier League footballers is unfair.
But the culture is exactly the same. Nobody complains until they’re beaten, and then it’s “ah lads, do you seriously expect us to be ready for another match in six days’ time?”
The ‘player welfare’ argument is pure bull. Players want to play football. Club players play every Sunday. They take knocks. They have to recover from defeat and go again, sometimes as soon as four or five days later.
Club games are obviously not of the same intensity as inter-county football, but they’re at the intensity with which club players can cope. It transfers across the same.
Nobody can try to tell me that modern GAA players are not fit enough to play three Championship games in 15 days.
With the amount of training sessions county players do now all year round, they are all capable of dealing that kind of schedule - provided their management teams get it right in terms of rest.
Mentally, it’s tough. There’s no denying that. When you lose a game that you build yourself up for, as Monaghan did against Donegal, a week is not a lot of time to get your mind settled for another game.
It does hand an advantage to the team coming through the Qualifiers. But that’s what top level sport often is - a battle of the mind.
That’s why inter-county teams now spend so much money paying sports psychologists.
Monaghan are a better team than Longford. Their Championship record over the last five years, and their League position, clearly shows that.
But the defeat by Donegal clearly took too much of a mental toll on Malachy O’Rourke’s side, and they just weren’t sufficiently tuned in to repel the Leinster team’s second half advances on Saturday.
The culture that it’s ‘unfair’ to make teams play so soon after a defeat has been allowed to permeate the country. If I saw it uttered once on Twitter on Saturday evening, I saw it 50 times.
The different standards are unfair. Making one team play six or seven days later and not the rest is unfair.
But playing two games in a week is not unfair in itself.
All inter-county teams should be playing every weekend during the Championship.
Teams are physically able to play so soon after defeat, but many complain about it in a bid to mask a mental fragility.
The ‘player welfare’ argument is used as a cover story for ‘this isn’t fair, we haven’t had six months to dissect the videos of our opposition in minute detail like we did for our first Championship match’.
Managers are selfish. Every manager wants to prepare their team as best they can, for their own personal pride as well.
We know how cutting supporters can be now over a team that “has no plan B”, when there’s barely time to perfect plan A.
But it’s a culture that could be eradicated. If the Championship was split into three and played with a round-robin format, with games every weekend, and even given two weeks each between the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final, do you know how long it would take to play?
Nine weeks, instead of five bloody months.
Imagine giving the hurling Championship eight weeks of its own as well and still having eight glorious months of the year left for National Leagues and club games.
And that way, everybody would be on a level playing field. It would dramatically improve the games-to-training ratio.
It would open the spectacle up a bit as well because teams wouldn’t have the same amount of training time to perfect defensive systems, or to build the fitness levels required to play them.
If the GAA just tears up its deal with Rupert Murdoch, and cuts back on RTÉ’s live coverage, the reconstruction of the thing can begin. But that’s as unrealistic as it is simple.