GAA Football

Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater, they're getting a lot of things right in Tyrone

Dromore celebrate winning the championship. Other counties could learn from how Tyrone manage their club fixture programme. Picture: Seamus Loughran.
Andy Watters

THE Tyrone County Board has taken a lot of criticism over how they organised and priced their senior championship final and understandably so, but let’s not throw the baby (that'll be £3 admission please) out with the bathwater.

Based on the evidence of their club championships and the success of the county senior team, they are getting a lot of things right in Tyrone.

I’ve enjoyed watching excellent club championship action in Tyrone, Armagh, Down and Monaghan this year but the overall quality and intensity of the games in Tyrone stood out for me.

Tyrone are bringing through talented players - including skilful, quick, scoring forwards - in numbers. Many of them would be hammering at the door for other county teams but you get the impression that there is an intense sense of pride in being a top club player in Tyrone that isn’t there to quite the same degree in other counties.

Tyrone are of course All-Ireland champions and who wouldn’t want to be involved in that but performing for their club is the priority for many players.

I asked Niall Sludden after Dromore’s semi-final win over Trillick if winning the O’Neill Cup with his club would trump winning the Sam Maguire with the Red Hands. I honestly thought he would tell me they were equal but, without a moment’s hesitation, he replied: “It definitely would”.

“Of course winning the All-Ireland was amazing,” Niall added.

“But the club is the club, that’s where I grew up. I was lucky to be part of a championship win with the club in 2011 and it’s a long time ago now so I want these boys to get over the line this year as well.”

Those weren’t empty words from the experienced Sludden. He wasn’t trotting out the oul ‘one life one club’ spiel for the post-match media while cradling a foundered youngster in each arm.

No county board can inject that sense of pride into a player. The club fosters it over years of nurturing and mentoring and from those early days comes a sense of representing community and a burning pride in their jersey.

Tyrone officialdom deserves credit for producing a fixture programme that harnesses and develops that pride.

This year’s Tyrone senior league remains unfinished and Division One – which includes 18 clubs - is remarkably tight and competitive.

Four points separate the top 11 clubs with county champions Dromore sitting third on 18 points, one behind leaders Moy. Dromore have played 13 of their scheduled 17 games and if they win the Ulster club championship – which is obviously their ambition – it will be close to Christmas before their season is wrapped up.

Now you could argue that there is too much football in Tyrone but if you want to keep a team together and keep players fit and focussed then giving them plenty of game-time is a very effective way of doing so.

In Derry every club got at least 20 games this year but in Armagh it was a different story.

The Orchard county final was also played last Sunday and it was a thrilling affair between Clann Eireann and Crossmaglen but most other club players have been twiddling their thumbs since the end of August when the leagues – which were a roll-over from the unfinished 2020 competitions - were wrapped up.

Yes, Covid-19 concerns were a factor in the planning, but the number of fixtures played by many of the clubs in Armagh just about got into double figures and the question must be asked: How is such a programme going to keep players interested?

Teams were training for up to five or six hours a week and then got to play maybe nine or 10 hours football if they were lucky.

The leagues in Armagh started on June 6 and finished on the last weekend of August and the fixture programme included a break between June 27 and July 18. Instead of the league running into the championship, clubs had to arrange friendlies to prepare for it or just keep training.

The championship was knockout and so after one loss it was a case of: ‘See yiz next year lads’.

Don’t be surprised if you don’t.

IT took me a while to get through the 152-page independent report of International Boxing Association (AIBA) competitions prior to and during the Rio Olympic Games of 2016 which was tarnished by the sport’s skulduggery.

What a damning indictment of a corrupt organisation it is. The report lifts the lid on a sickening cess pit of dirty dealing and cheating by scurrilous individuals from chairman Wu Ching-kuo, through executive director Karim Bouzidi and down to the bent referees and judges who besmirched the sport they were supposed to be serving.

The hard work and talent of boxers was cynically disregarded and bouts were manipulated for money, the perceived benefit of AIBA, to ‘thank’ national federations and their Olympic committees, and, on occasion, hosts of competitions for their financial support and political backing.

The investigation concluded that such manipulation involved significant six figure sums on occasion. A couple of weeks ago I was in Dundalk for the County Louth Championships. The championships are a far cry from the Olympic Games but 20 years ago a young Michael Conlan or a Katie Taylor would have been geared up for events such as them and with every day that passes Conlan’s middle-digit salute to the unethical judges who – at the behest of AIBA’s top brass - robbed him in Rio becomes more admirable.

For some kids, the Louth championships could be as close to the Games as they get but whether they compete at championship level or not, boxing is a terrific hobby for youngsters. It improves fitness, confidence, self-esteem, social skills and you never know when having learned how to throw a right hook will come in handy.

Would the parents who took their kids along to the Louth Championships have done so if they thought they’d get anything less than fair play? The officials and judges in Dundalk did their very best to ensure that the best boxer won and that’s the way it should be in sport but it’s not how it has been at the highest level of the sport for far too many years.

The IABA report must be the start of a long overdue cleaning-up process because amateur boxing is now fighting for its future on its most important platform, the Olympic Games.

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