GAA Football

Kenny Archer: Ulster football and Munster hurling last bastions of provincial formats

Fermanagh's understandable delight at reaching the Ulster SFC Final has kept that particular provincial format very much alive. Pic Philip Walsh

NEVER mind the quality (or lack of it), feel the emotion.

Those words could apply equally to two of the big stories of the GAA weekend just past, involving Fermanagh’s footballers and Offaly’s hurlers.

They are similar counties: small populations with limited numbers of clubs from which to choose their players. Their tales have twisted in very different directions, though.

While Fermanagh are set to contest their provincial football final later this month, Offaly won’t even be in the Leinster SHC next year, at least not as the situation stands.

The joy at Fermanagh reaching their first Ulster final for a decade was entirely understandable, even if the football played in their semi-final against Monaghan was mostly hard to watch. Only Cavan have gone longer than the Ernemen without an appearance in the northern provincial decider in recent times.

The flipside of that is that, come the end of this month, all but one Ulster county will have competed in the senior football final from 2009 onwards, which is one reason why the Ulster SFC will be fiercely protected. Hope springs eternal.

However, the outcry about Offaly dropping out of the Leinster SHC next year is harder to comprehend.

Hurling's move away from purely provincial championships has been evident for some time. The Connacht championship was dropped long ago, due to Galway's utter dominance there. The ailing Ulster championship was finally put out of its misery after Antrim recorded their 16th consecutive victory last year, more wins than all the other counties in the province have ever achieved between them.

Antrim have been in and out of Leinster in recent years, and Galway's involvement in the eastern province is now so entrenched that they're the holders and have even been allowed to host matches.

Basically, hurling has mostly accepted that involvement in a competition must be based on merit, not on geography.

Put plainly, the Faithful County hurlers are nowhere near good enough to compete in the new format in the Leinster SHC.

They have lost their four matches by an average of more than 15 points; even taking into account the higher score-lines in hurling, those constitute hammerings.

Offaly have managed only ‘football scores’ in three of those games – 1-13, 2-9, and 0-13.

As recently as 2016 Offaly had to prove they were good enough for Leinster by competing in initial qualifier group; they did so, but only after being thrashed by Westmeath in their opening game.

Sure, it is an anomaly that no team gets automatically relegated from the Munster championship. Even if Kerry were to win the Joe McDonagh Cup, they would have to beat the bottom team in Munster in a play-off to earn promotion into that provincial round robin.

That may seem unfair. It may well be unfair.

But it’s also an acceptance of reality.

The other five counties in Munster are far better than the Kingdom at hurling.

Besides, Offaly didn’t object to the new format when it was brought in at last year’s Special Congress; indeed there was little objection to the principle of relegation from Leinster.

To be fair to the Faithful, the complaints don't appear to be coming out of their camp, but from former players.

For all the intense, in-depth preparation that goes into modern Gaelic games, some old adages still hold true. Two points is a dangerous lead, especially in football.

Another obvious one is that hurling and football are two completely different ball games.

It’s much harder to play defensively in hurling, to keep games tight and low-scoring, given the ability to score from far greater distances than in football.

The better, more skilful sides can pull clear on hurling scoreboards, whereas they can be held back in football.

Hurling has more strata; five tiers now, which is probably about right.

Beyond the very top teams, at least half of the football counties are much of a muchness, with a few very weak stragglers at the bottom.

Football might very well work best with three tiers, say a top eight, a middle 16, and a bottom eight.

However, it’s hard to make a case for a genuine top eight in recent years (or a bottom eight, for that matter).

Dublin have been pushed hard by Mayo, and occasionally Kerry, while Donegal have been in the mix too, but have dropped off a little over the past two or three seasons. Beyond them, though, Tyrone, Monaghan, Roscommon, and Galway have only challenged intermittently in this decade.

Kildare might have been considered a top eight contender, despite their demotion from Division One - but they lost in the Leinster SFC to a Division Four side, Carlow, albeit that they'll be in Division Three next year.

Still, you'd never get the team ranked 26th beating the team that was eighth in the hurling standings, nor hurling's team 18 defeating the side that ended up third (as in the case of Fermanagh and Monaghan). There are only a few very weak sides in football.

Clare and Sligo got hammered by Kerry and Galway respectively, but those two victors are currently in football's very top bracket.

In a sense, the football system works towards that ‘8-16-8’ formula anyway:

The weakest teams get knocked out first, or at least very quickly; then the middle bunch punch each other about in the ongoing cage war that is the qualifiers; and those left standing join Dublin and Kerry in the ‘Super Eights’.

Arguably the Leinster SFC is already dead, due to Dublin's dominance, and Munster could be heading that way, having almost always been a two-horse race anyway, while Connacht is largely about just three counties.

Yet this year has proved again why there’s little will to do away with the Ulster football and Munster hurling championships.

Ulster has regained its competitive reputation, with more surprise outcomes than predictable ones.

Munster's hurling has been brilliant, thrilling, its new round robin format working wonderfully with more games between five very well-matched teams.

Hurling’s new second tier, the Joe McDonagh Cup, has been pretty competitive too, with eight of the 12 matches so far being very close affairs.

You could get similar results in football from a League-based Championship system, of course, but the likes of Carlow, Fermanagh, and Longford have again demonstrated why football's format, imbalanced though it undoubtedly is, won't be changed any time soon.

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