Hurling & Camogie

GAA must still do more to help hurling's 'squeezed middle'

Offaly manager Johnny Kelly’s made some very good points after his side’s Joe McDonagh Cup win

Offaly players celebrate winning the  Joe McDonagh Cup Final against Laois in Croke Park on Saturday   
Picture: Seamus Loughran
Offaly players celebrate winning the Joe McDonagh Cup Final against Laois in Croke Park on Saturday Picture: Seamus Loughran (seamus loughran)

AT the final whistle of last Saturday’s Joe McDonagh Cup final, Offaly manager Johnny Kelly sprinted onto the Croke Park pitch, jumping and leaping before punching the air in a fit of delirium and then collapsing on his knees from a cocktail of absolute relief and emotion.

Any big final win in Croke Park is bound to trigger a massive release but the satisfaction was all the sweeter again for Kelly considering the oscillating and excruciating experiences of the final quarter. After looking in control when ahead by seven points, Offaly suddenly lost all of that control and momentum.

Offaly looked to have run out of gas and out of ideas as Laois came at them in waves to get level. The comparable shot count from the outset of the fourth quarter to the 70th minute was 12-5 in Laois’ favour. It could have actually been worse if Laois had nailed three good goal-chances in that last quarter. And then Offaly finally found something when the need was greatest, converting three of their last four shots.

Having lost last year’s final to Carlow after extra-time, losing another final would have been devastating and difficult for Offaly to recover from. But when the excitement had died down and the delirium had cooled, Kelly returned to a theme in his post-match interviews that he has constantly advocated for.

Offaly manager  Johnny Kelly during Joe McDonagh Cup final  at Croke Park on Saturday     Picture: Seamus Loughran
Offaly manager Johnny Kelly during Joe McDonagh Cup final at Croke Park on Saturday Picture: Seamus Loughran (seamus loughran)

“The GAA has to do more for the ‘squeezed middle’,” said Kelly.

“It’s just not making sense. We had a tremendous battle with Carlow in last year’s final but for them to go back down (from Leinster) again, what good is that doing for Carlow? And if we go up next year and don’t succeed and are back down again, what good is that for Offaly?”

Over a year ago, Kelly came up with a proposed new format to improve the chances of that ‘squeezed middle’. Kelly’s proposal was based on his belief that the quickest and most effective way to make counties more equipped to compete at Liam MacCarthy level is to expose the counties just outside that elite bracket to more top-level games.

“Can you imagine the ecstasy of getting up and winning a Division Two title?” asked Kelly.

“And then the reality hits home, you are most likely back down next year. Whereas if the League was similar every year and if you are back in with those top teams again, it removes that yo-yo nature which is so damaging to counties. Teams need better games.”

At least the GAA have moved in the meantime to address some of those concerns through a new restructured League from 2025. That new format includes a seven-team Division 1A, 1B, 2, 3 and 4, catering for 35 teams.

There was a scramble amongst the top teams to get into Division 1A for next season but increasing the competitiveness of the elite also enhanced the opportunity for that squeezed middle.

That was already obvious during this spring when those teams outside the top nine found it much easier to strike that balance between blooding players and not bleeding too heavily from pressure of over-competitiveness.

Antrim V Dublin hurling at Corrigan Park
Antrims Eoghan Campbell, Conor Boyd, Niall McKenna and Dublins Paddy Smyth. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

Antrim, Offaly and Westmeath didn’t have that threat of relegation hanging over them as they were already guaranteed a spot in Division 1B in 2025. That didn’t reduce the risk of some hammerings in February and March but it gave those counties more mental breathing space.

Next year’s Division 1B will be highly competitive with Antrim, Carlow, Dublin, Laois, Offaly, Waterford and Westmeath. However, two teams being relegated does put pressure on some of those teams to keep their footing at that level.

On the other hand, two teams will be promoted from Division 2, which gives four Ulster counties – Derry, Donegal, Down and Tyrone (along with Kildare, Kerry and Meath) – the opportunity to perform at that higher level in 1B if they can secure promotion next spring.

Kelly is right – more has to be done to help that ‘squeezed middle’, especially when it is so hard to make up that ground against the top teams. Those counties need more games, but, that case could be extended to argue that most counties need more hurling games during the summer months.

The League is bound to be more competitive now going forward but could the GAA get even more radical again with its Championship competitions?

The League is still preparatory for the Championship so could the League be assimilated into the Championship?

If the League was scrapped, a wider Championship format could start on St Patrick’s Day where every team in Munster and Leinster would play each other. In the opening part of the competition, the Leinster teams could play the Munster teams, before then effectively playing the Munster and Leinster Championships.

The top two teams in Munster and Leinster would go to the provincial finals whereas the next highest teams on the overall points table (taken from all nine games) would go to the quarter-finals against the beaten provincial finalists.

That could possibly mean four Munster teams in the last six, but the Leinster sides couldn’t argue if their results weren’t good enough to accumulate enough points across nine games.

With Munster such a scrap to get into that top three, having a potential fourth spot (through another avenue) may take some jeopardy out of the Munster Championship when, it could be argued, there is possibly already too much jeopardy in that round-robin competition at the moment.

That model would give more elite standard games to more of the ‘squeezed middle’ during the spring and summer months. Then a ‘Champions League’ type model could also be applied to the Joe McDonagh, Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher where teams play home and away during the better weather.

On Saturday, Offaly and Laois face the difficult task of going up against Cork and Wexford in the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-finals. Last year, Offaly and Carlow lost to Tipperary and Dublin by margins of 32 and 10 points respectively.

The motion to abolish the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-finals was defeated at last year’s ‘Special Congress’. Hurlers from the Joe McDonagh are fully entitled to play in the Liam MacCarthy.

But, for those hurlers to have a better chance in the competition, and for hurling to really prosper and expand, the GAA need to do more for the game than they currently are.

Especially for the ‘squeezed middle’.