Football

Change is needed but if the Ulster Championship is sacrificed something precious will be lost.

Derry captain Chrissy McKaigue hoists the Anglo-Celt Cup in triumph last Sunday. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Derry captain Chrissy McKaigue hoists the Anglo-Celt Cup in triumph last Sunday. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.

IT was a tough gig on Tuesday in Croke Park at the launch of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship.

Chrissy McKaigue, Niall Scully, Shane Walsh, Paudie Clifford and Michael McKernan were there.

All big lumps of lads.

“Who’s the last one of them you’d take on in a fight?” I heard one journalist whisper to another.

“Oh Jaysss, I dunno,” he answered mulling it over.

“Chrissy McKaigue has big long arms on him, I think he’d drop you before you got anywhere near him.”

From all my dealings with him, I know Chrissy to be a gent and I can’t imagine he’d have the slightest interest in fighting anyone but if you were in a tight scrape, the articulate bear of a man from Slaughtneil would be a decent ally to have up your sleeve.

‘The Greatest’ Muhammad Ali once told Michael Parkinson during an interview on BBC: “You can’t compete with me physically, nor mentally” and Chrissy seems to fall into that category.

He’s an intelligent, thoughtful guy and it was interesting to hear his thoughts on the provincial Championships on Tuesday after we’d enjoyed a nice bit of roast beef at Headquarters (I told you it was a tough gig).

Bear in mind this man was nine-years-old when Derry had last won Ulster and he must still have been a little giddy from lifting the Anglo-Celt Cup two days previously. It’s one thing calling for change when you’re getting beaten over and over again but it’s another to do it when you’ve just won your first title in 24 long years. Only eight Derry skippers have lifted the Anglo-Celt Cup but Chrissy spoke out about the “overall health of the competition.”

Winning Ulster hadn’t changed his mind and that was hugely impressive.

“Our system’s broken and it needs fixed,” he said.

“Regardless of how special it was for us Sunday I still think we can do better with the system and I think we can make it a more attractive proposition and a better model with higher quality games. I know next year, we're moving towards that and I would welcome that.

“Yes Sunday was unbelievably special, but you look at it for the overall health of the competition. As special as it was, I think the teams in Ulster are at a disadvantage compared to other provinces and how competitive it is.”

Even as delighted men, women and children in red and white were celebrating the success of Chrissy and his team-mates last Sunday, the future of the competition they had won was being discussed.

Things do need to change but we should do all we can to hold on to the Ulster Championship because it brings so much to this province. Anyone who witnessed to scenes at Clones last Sunday or in Armagh after Derry’s semi-final win against Monaghan, or when Cavan brought home the Anglo-Celt a couple of years ago can testify to that.

We’ve had four different winners in the last four years and five in the last 10 and Down and Fermanagh have both been to finals and winning the Anglo-Celt is as important now as it’s ever been.

No, we should fight to keep the Ulster Championship and improve the rewards for winning it.

As McKaigue pointed out, the provincial Championship system is broken. Derry beat three Division One teams to win Ulster so why should their achievements be treated the same as Kerry who had a walkover win in Munster or Dublin who met token resistance in Leinster?

I had a few emails after Chrissy’s comments on the imbalance of the provincial system. Daniel from Kildare reckons the Ulster champions should go straight through to the All-Ireland final.

He wrote: “The Ulster SFC is the only openly competitive one left.

“The Connacht SFC is the preserve of three counties, Galway, Roscommon and Mayo, and like Ulster, it is prized by the winners and supporters. Munster and Leinster are non-events, like the Ulster SHC and Connacht SHC which were done away with, and should now be abolished.

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“The Ulster champions should go straight into the All-Ireland final to meet the winners of a play-off between the winners of the Connacht SFC, Kerry, Cork, Dublin, Meath and Kildare. They are, at the moment, the best counties outside Ulster.

“Alternatively, abolish the Connaught SFC and have those counties play four quarter-finals, semis and a final, in an open draw, to see who qualifies to meet the Ulster champions.

“Time now to get real about the football Championships before they die a predictable death with the non-attendance of supporters at mis-matches.”

Very interesting points but I’d suggest a couple of tweaks.

How about this: An end to the Leinster and Munster Championships.

The champions of Ulster and Connacht go straight through to the All-Ireland semi-finals.

The top eight teams based on League position (excluding the Ulster and Connacht finalists) are placed in two groups of four.

The winners of each group progress to play the beaten Ulster and Connacht finalists.

The winners go on to the All-Ireland semi-finals where they play the champions of Ulster and Connacht.

All-Ireland final.

Last Sunday must not be “the last real Ulster final”. Change is needed but if the Ulster Championship is sacrificed something precious will be lost.

I REMEMBER watching an interview with Jack Charlton in which he talked about Graeme Souness who had played for him when he was manager of Middlesbrough.

Charlton would come up with a tactical plan and present it to the squad who’d all sit there like nodding dogs. All, that is, except for Souness.

He was interested, he took it all in and if there was something he didn’t understand or agree with he’d want to tackle it (he loved a tackle) and discuss it.

Souness has never been a man to just go with the flow. When he went into management himself he brought an end to Rangers’ policy of not signing Catholic players and since then he has spoken very passionately about the Black Lives Matter movement and racism in society.

His comments before Scotland played Ukraine at Hampden on Wednesday were typically forthright.

The former Scotland captain spoke of his love for his country and his pride in their success but added: “What’s happening in Ukraine right now transcends football. It’s life and death.”

Had Scotland beaten Ukraine, they’d have gone through to a World Cup play-off against Wales. In the event Ukraine won 3-1 but Souness said the war-torn country should be awarded a place at the World Cup whatever the result.

“Fifa should say: ‘It doesn’t matter what happens tonight’,” he said before kick-off.

“Ukraine should be going to the World Cup simply to keep the name of Ukraine at the forefront of everyone’s mind… This team should be going to the World Cup to keep the name Ukraine right up there in the front of everyone’s head so the people in Russia realise they’re standing alone.”