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GAA Football

Carlow rising in League but remain wary of Championship tiers

Carlow are finally rising in the League and understandably don't want the Championship to end in tiers. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

'Do they celebrate like that after every win?', asked a St John's official at Corrigan Park on Sunday as crowds of Carlow people cavorted on the pitch.

There seemed a sardonic touch of bitterness to his question, a certain knowingness, but after almost 20 years here, I can still be thrown by Belfast humour.

He probably did know what it meant to the visitors, but I still felt the need to reply 'Well, they have just got promoted…'

I didn't add 'after 33 years'. Nobody likes a know-it-all, especially not one who only learned that fact from listening to a passionate local radio commentator an hour or so earlier.

Nor did I respond with a question of my own, such as 'Yeah, why are they getting so excited about beating Antrim?' People like a smart-arse even less than they like a know-it-all.

Irish people like to celebrate, of course, but this was different.

With all due respect to Antrim, who were in Division Three themselves last season and could be seen as something of a scalp at this level, this was about more than beating the Saffrons in Belfast.

It's highly unlikely too that Carlow would show such delight at reaching the last 24 of the Championship, which is effectively where they will be in the League structure next year.

Yet their happiness, their euphoria was entirely understandable.

Every county has its ups and downs.

Not Carlow.

Not until now.

They've just had downs. Staying down. And then staying down some more. Seemingly staying down forever.

They went from Division Four in 1996-7 to Section A the following season, but that was due to one of those random League re-shuffles. Section A also included the Kilkenny footballers.

Carlow had a near miss in 1999, when Fermanagh pipped them for promotion from Division 2B on scoring difference (albeit by a wide margin), but otherwise they haven't really come close to going up a level.

Year after year playing their fellow lesser lights, with only the biennial trip to the bright lights of London to look forward to.

Even when they did go up, way back when, they didn't. Not really.

Having earned promotion from Division Four at the end of the 1984-5 campaign, the leagues were re-formatted for the next season to have two Divisions Three, North and South.

So Carlow, having thought they'd escaped Kilkenny, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford, found themselves meeting them again the next season.

Please God don't let the GAA somehow re-structure next year's National Football Leagues back to Divisions 1A, 1B, 2A, and 2B, as some from the less successful counties have been hoping will happen again.

No wonder Carlow have put such store by the Championship, their chance to take on some of the bigger guns, to prove that they're more than just there to make up the numbers.

Manager Turlough O'Brien stated on Sunday: "A lot of this team are around for 10 years or more and they have seen really, really bad days for Carlow. I wouldn't say we were written off, we weren't even considered."

Interestingly, he added: "The League is where it's at for us, to be honest. You can make progress in the League and you're playing at your own level."

In a strange way, Carlow's elevation arguably makes the case against tiered championships, to which they are strongly opposed anyway.

You might think Carlow's is a tale of slowly working your way up, which could happen in a tiered system

Undoubtedly a county finally earning promotion after 33 years is quite a story, the triumph of the underdog.

But how much attention did it attract? Beyond Carlow itself and some impact on social media? A radio interview or two?

The harsh reality is that the lower divisions in the League – and the same applies in hurling - get little or no television coverage.

My head says that there should be tiered Championships, as on the club scene, as in hurling.

However, those from 'less successful' football counties also think with their heads – and they know all too well that the coverage of a 'B' Championship, never mind a 'C' Championship, would be increasingly limited.

In truth, I only happened to be in Corrigan Park because Down's Division Two game against Tipperary had fallen foul of the weather.

Antrim, despite usually being in the lower divisions, gets good coverage from this paper, partly due to proximity, partly due to population.

Carlow may not be too far from Dublin but its limited population counts against it with the media based in the capital.

The only way that the lower-ranked counties surely would – or should – vote to bring in tiered Championships is if they were to get cast-iron guarantees, signed in triplicate and in blood, that there would be live TV coverage of the lower tier matches.

They would have to get the same written, legally binding assurances that income from sponsors would be shared out equitably.

Even then any lower tier Championship competitors would lose out in terms of income from attendances.

We only have to look at hurling's tiers to see that.

The lack of atmosphere due to playing in front of paltry crowds would be the real killer.

The long wait was part of what made Sunday so great for Carlow. Decades of disappointment ended at last.

Yet Carlow, and counties like them, obviously wouldn't want to wait decades for the chance of a high profile Championship game, which could well be the case if they entered into a tiered Championships system.

The Barrowsiders know all too much about being stuck with (mostly) the same teams year after year.

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