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Not even knockout can revive Leinster

A return to old format would not close gap on Dublin

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Former Meath footballer Martin O’Connell at the opening of the Hall of Fame at the GAA Museum in Croke Park

Former Meath footballer Martin O’Connell at the opening of the Hall of Fame at the GAA Museum in Croke Park

SPORTSFILE

Former Meath footballer Martin O’Connell at the opening of the Hall of Fame at the GAA Museum in Croke Park

As the weeks turns to months and the big picture question about this year's inter-county championship evolves from 'when' to 'how' to even 'if', all we can be sure of is that we're all still in the realms of guesswork.

But here is one question requiring no conjecture at all - if the GAA is forced, through inevitable time constraints, to introduce a straight knockout football championship, will it breathe fresh life into a previously moribund Leinster SFC?

Sad to say, unless you're a Dublin diehard who enjoys ritual disembowelment of your nearest and dearest, the statistics point only one way.

It would, almost certainly, make not a whit of double-digit difference.

Martin O'Connell, the decorated Meath defender, offered a different opinion in recent conversation with The Herald. "I think it would bring more bite to the Leinster championship - I think it'd bring more bite to all the championships," the three-time All-Ireland winner surmised.

"If it was back to the way I used to play, I think lads would give the Leinster a huge go at it. And the same everywhere else."

Temptation

The temptation to view a straight knockout Leinster through the prism of the mid-to-late nineties, when the province was never so competitive, is perfectly understandable.

When O'Connell first emerged on the county scene, in the mid-eighties, Dublin were the yardstick for Meath. Their full-blooded, oscillating rivalry over the next decade and more was the stuff of pure sporting theatre.

As this four-time All Star reached the end of the inter-county line, these fearsome foes had been joined by others jousting for Leinster supremacy. In the six years preceding the introduction of the 'back door' in 2001, four counties shared the Delaney Cup and not one of them managed to retain it, as Dublin, Meath, Offaly, Kildare, Meath and Kildare claimed Leinster glory.

Back then, it mattered. It mattered even more because one false move and your summer was over. In 1997 and again in '98, Dublin's nosediving status was reflected in June exits, falling at the quarter-final fence to Meath and Kildare.

Even if the safety net of the qualifiers was removed, even if championship preparations were hugely constricted - as they inevitably will be - could you see Dessie Farrell's Dublin crashing out so early?

Westmeath, their quarter-final opponents, may dare to dream but irrefutable statistics, not to mention cold, hard logic, decree that it could not happen.

You may not know the precise numbers, but it won't surprise you to hear that, in their seven seasons under Jim Gavin, Dublin's average winning margin across 21 Leinster SFC fixtures was 16.48 points.

Scary stuff.

Now let's examine their record against the four provincial rivals theoretically best equipped to give Dessie's Dubs a game. They are Meath (destined for top-flight demotion before Covid-19 turned the world on its head) and a trio of counties currently in Division 2 - Kildare, Laois and Westmeath.

Around a decade ago, any of these were liable to push Dublin close in summer combat - or even, occasionally, beat them.

A Royal goal-rush saw Meath famously rout Dublin by 11 points in 2010: their five subsequent SFC encounters have been lost by margins of three, seven, 16, ten and 16 again.

Kildare ran Dublin to a solitary point in 2011: their next four SFC encounters were lost by 16, 19, nine and 15 points.

Horror show

Westmeath lost to Dublin by just two points in 2008. Since then it's been a recurring horror show for the men in maroon, losing by 27, 16, 13, 15 and 31 points.

When Laois met Dublin in a 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final, they lost by just three points (an own goal, at that). Their next three head-to-heads were lost by 11, 11 and 18 points.

As matters stand, the official GAA line favours a preservation of the qualifier format, guaranteeing a second chance for teams, even if the new Tier 2 and the Super 8 group stage appear all but doomed.

But matters of public health, beyond Croke Park's control, will dictate how this plays out.

If there was a straight knockout, you can imagine the frisson of nervous excitement around a Kerry-Cork Munster semi-final - notwithstanding that Kerry have won seven titles on the spin down south.

But the beast of the East, right now, appears all but unbeatable.

"Dublin have strolled through Leinster in the last number of years," Martin O'Connell admitted in the aforementioned interview. "I think a lot of counties feel this. It's very, very hard to go off training … and then you come up against Dublin and you're getting hammered, day in, day out. It's fairly demoralising.

"But look, you just can't be throwing in the towel because if you do that, Dublin are going to be Leinster champions for the next 20 years."

Once upon a time, that would have sounded ridiculous. Not now.