Monday 18 December 2017

Frank Roche: Time to bury battle of non equals in Championship format

Jack Sheedy's new format plea is long overdue

Diarmuid Masterson, Longford, during the first half. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, Dublin v Longford, Croke Park, D
Diarmuid Masterson, Longford, during the first half. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, Dublin v Longford, Croke Park, D
Diarmuid Connolly, Dublin, celebrates with team-mate Bernard Brogan, left, after scoring his side's first goal past Longford goalkeeper Paddy McCollum.

WHEN the carnage was over and all that remained was another post-mortem on the corpse of Leinster football, Jack Sheedy posed the question: "Who is going to get within 15 points of Dublin? Possibly Meath are the only team that are equipped to do that within Leinster."

Now, cynics might argue that Sheedy - as the manager who had just presided over a 27-point defeat - was engaged in a neat trick of hyperbole to deflect attention away from his Longford team's inadequacies.

Jack was doing nothing of the sort. He was speaking in cold, hard, verifiable facts.

Under Jim Gavin, Dublin have played seven Leinster SFC ties. They've won six by a double-digit margin; five by 16 points or more. The only team to run them any way close was Meath, who succumbed by seven in the 2013 final.

If this were a confined period of Sky Blue dominance, you might try and argue that here was a special group under a special manager whose cycle of supremacy can't last forever.

The worrying thing - for the rest of Leinster but also, we maintain, for Dublin's ultimate ambitions too - is that this is part of a longer trend, unprecedented in the history of the eastern province.

If/when Dublin retain the Delaney Cup next month, they will have completed their second five-in-a-row in the space of just 11 seasons, starting in 2005. True, the storied seventies team won six on the spin but their success was shoehorned into that half-decade, to be eventually usurped by Eugene McGee's Offaly.

Today, not alone are Dublin reaping the rewards of a brilliantly run development squad system by getting ever stronger at senior level; the rest of Leinster appear to be getting weaker.

Meath remain the most likely challenger, but when they met in last year's Leinster final, the margin had soared to 16 points, having threatened at one stage to extend beyond 20.

Here's the thing: all preparation being equal, would the current Royals lace the boots of their All-Ireland winning forebears from the '80s or '90s?


Meath have been meandering for ages in Division Two (or worse) and this is no way to construct a meaningful summer challenge. Mick O'Dowd, to his credit, is striving to get them into the Allianz League's top tier and they've finished third for the last two springs.

Meanwhile, the rest of the province is faltering. Kildare should be leading the peloton with Meath in pursuit of the Sky Blue jersey; instead, back-to-back relegations have propelled them into Division Three. Ditto Westmeath.

So, next season, you'll have Dublin in Division One and just two Leinster counties in the second tier - Meath and Laois. Not good enough.

The onus is on these few genuine pretenders to at least try and bridge the yawning gap; for the rest, it's now an impossible game of catch-up.

We don't believe Longford should view it as an insult to ask the following: what merit is there in having them and Dublin in the same championship?

The latter has a population of 1.27 million according to the 2011 Census - it doesn't matter if large swathes of the city are so-called "GAA wastelands" because the county board is still spreading the gospel sufficiently well to totally eclipse Longford's pick of under 39,000. Moreover, given all the Dublin success of recent years, they are preaching to a captive audience and they have the financial clout to ensure the best of preparation.

As Sheedy suggested on Sunday, Longford would be far better served by a new format that afforded them a chance of competing at their own level - effectively, a second-tier championship that was properly packaged and allows for progression to the higher level.

Leinster is not unique - Munster football has been a de facto two-horse race forever.

Will the provincial councils back calls to shake up this dying format? Would turkeys vote for Christmas?

But something has to give. It's bad enough that the Leinster Council persists in staging every SFC opener involving Dublin in Croke Park - a move that merely accentuates this growing divide. But then, on Sunday, it added insult to injury by staging the Dublin/Galway hurling clash as the curtain-raiser to a landslide, rather than as the main event.


The double-header attendance was 33,544. This was the third time in the last four seasons that the crowd for Dublin's first SFC foray has only reached into the low-thirties.

"We're losing people going to the games because it's not attractive," admitted Sheedy, who as a player knew all about epic Leinster duels. "I think we really need to review it."

We'll second that.


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