An outdated and inadequate league structure simply has to go
Sunday may have been an important day for the GAA as it has become painfully clear to everyone that the Big Day Out masquerade must end.
It just isn’t fair to pit an average Division Four team against an elite team on a mission. Mayo-Leitrim was live on TV and it was a gruesome viewing. Who wants to see young footballers humiliated like this? What purpose? Who is it for?
And it was not an aberration. It was only the culmination of a few dark weeks. Here are the championship headlines for the summer of 2021. Limerick got the ball rolling by edging Waterford by 18 points. Then it came quickly: Kerry beat Clare by 17 points. Armagh beat Antrim by 13. Dublin worked against Wexford – but won by 8.
Westmeath beat Laois by 22. Armagh beat Antrim by 13. Monaghan beat Fermanagh by 10. Mayo beat Sligo by 20. Cork beat Limerick by 8. Kerry beat Tipperary by 11. Tyrone beat Cavan by 8. Then Mayo won by 24 points. against Leitrim. It is not difficult to spot the trend.
So there was a bit of trepidation before Donegal and Derry met. What if we got more of the same and Donegal crushed his neighbors? Fortunately, this did not happen. Rather, we got a glimpse of what happens when two very close and well-trained teams come into play.
Even with a small crowd, the pitch was buzzing ten minutes from time and the teams entered into a truly fascinating competition. It was a day that reminded the country of what this competition is meant to be.
This year has exposed the outdated and inadequate championship structure like no other. I got to Ballybofey early, had a coffee and watched Mayo-Leitrim on RTÉ Player. And it was over after 15 minutes. The next hour was atrocious for everyone.
When the mood turns to pity, then you know you are in the deep end. Grief was the only viable emotion you could summon for Leitrim’s spell. How did they even resolve to leave the locker room at half-time? It was humiliating.
I feel like I have been debating this point here and elsewhere for a long time. These games – this usual slaughter of the innocent – suck the life of the championship. It could turn into a black joke.
Civil servants are responsible. Players, media, and pundits can highlight the dire reality of inter-county GAA for teams like Leitrim. But county officials have a voice. Presidents. Secretaries: they have to say no to that. They have a vote. And they need to make it feel. If they accept these annual hammers, then why should anyone else step in?
We haven’t learned anything from the game itself. This does not influence the direction of the Connacht title.
Mayo’s path to the finale was ridiculous: beyond easy. The only thing they could work on was sustained intensity and they clearly executed it. They didn’t go out or let go. That’s why these huge score differences add up.
It is very easy to identify who the leaders in the field are, but not what they are doing. And it’s not intangible
Substitutes don’t come out to fool around or take it at hand in one-sided games. They are equipped with a fixed roster of five or six targets – possessions, turnovers, assists. They have to meet them if they want James Horan to think of them for the Connacht final. It was nothing against Leitrim; they have become collateral damage.
Arguably, what’s happening at Special Congress later this year is the most important moment of the football season. It doesn’t matter who wins Sam Maguire, that won’t change a thing. Where next? This is the burning question.
John Healy’s famous book – No-one Shouted Stop – came to my mind as I sat in the car watching Leitrim’s annihilation. It’s a fitting title now for the dominant structure all over Ireland. The GAA must do it right. And in an effort to do so, they’ve been a bit simplistic, in my opinion.
They narrowed it down to two propositions: A and B. Proposition A, in my opinion, falls at the first fence because it asks the lower-ranking teams in Munster and Leinster to relocate to what is essentially a foreign country. It maintains a provincial championship and has a good overall structure. But I think it’s against everything we know. This is unnatural and will not garner support.
B seems to be the better choice – but that sounds the death of the provincial championship. At best, provincial competitions boil down to warm-up tournaments with no tangible benefits. And this is perhaps the rock on which this proposition perishes.
But at least this format is an effort to tie the league and the championships together. This isn’t perfect as it allows too many lower ranked teams to advance to Sam Maguire’s Endgame before the Division One teams.
To me, it is clear that two things have to happen. There is an absolute obligation to remove 16 teams from the senior championship. Stop hiding behind names. Let’s call it an intermediate All-Ireland. Your rise to the senior ranks has to come through league performance. So the Sam Maguire All-Ireland should be a summer football festival with 16 teams. And even then we are going to see heavy defeats inflicted. But at least there won’t be any weekly sports killings.
And secondly: the intermediate final must take place as the curtain raiser of the All-Ireland senior final. At Croke Park, in front of a full house. It is much more important than preserving the minor tradition. It becomes a football celebration weekend. Players who otherwise would never have experienced the final atmosphere of all of Ireland will do so. It’s going to work.
These issues therefore constitute the backdrop for a championship which is beginning to accelerate. At least Donegal-Tyrone will be a real contest next weekend. I think we learned a lot about Donegal on Sunday and it wasn’t entirely flattering. Right now, they’re not ready to win Ulster – let alone upset anyone at Croke Park.
What are their main problems? Their main priority is to set the pace and bite for the championship. They need a more aggressive stance against Tyrone. If Michael Murphy starts the game, he will set that tone. It didn’t seem obvious to me that everyone in Donegal’s defensive eight knew what it was. They have two sessions to get it right. Or they will be dumped by Tyrone.
It’s a huge game for them because, if they lose it, it poses big questions about the management and the team. They have been walking for the last few seasons and I have seen them often. I witnessed brilliant performances and then they explode. So next weekend is huge for them.
In the short term, I think they will reap a major advantage by playing 50 minutes without Michael Murphy, who has led the county with phenomenal returns for the past decade.
What is this concept of leadership about? It is very easy to identify who the leaders in the field are, but not what they are doing. And it is not intangible. It’s more nuanced than just a good example. But Murphy comes back all the time when Donegal’s credentials are discussed.
I felt the critical aspect of their poor performance was an absence of a championship bite. It’s normally something they exhibit, but without Murphy’s presence they’ve been passive against Derry for too long. Their markers were far from their counterparts.
This breathtaking thrill, as evidenced by Sunday at Ballybofey, is dizzying. But we can’t get the weaker teams to come up like this
Shane McGuigan, for example, was allowed to receive the ball with little pressure or close contact in defense. Donegal’s defenders weren’t looking for that contact. They were very lucky to be in the game at half-time; they were down one point but could have been down seven.
Derry’s big failure was the continuation of an established trend in the league. They have won games in great numbers, but have multiplied the criminal opportunities for excellent scoring chances, spoiling opportunities two-on-one and even three-on-one.
Against Offaly, they could have scored five goals. It didn’t matter in the league, where they were comfortably the best team in the division. It was important Sunday. The defeat did not undermine what was a very promising weekend for Derry and we were seeing the return of a top footballing country.
So Donegal snuck up on the back of this miraculous Patrick McBrearty stitch. And they got winning contributions from Caolan McGonigle, Niall O’Donnell and Michael Langan.
Still, the firehouse bell rang and Murphy duly arrived with the garden hose and captain’s badge. These two free kicks restored order and calmed the heads. They were so calm for the last ten minutes. I have no doubt that his presence was the key factor in this collective mentality. It was an invaluable intervention.
Eight teams will remain after next Sunday. This year, becoming a provincial champion is the only way forward; it’s a final tribute to the old knockout format.
I still believe that the provincial championships have their place. This breathtaking thrill, as evidenced by Sunday at Ballybofey, is dizzying. But we can’t come up with weaker teams like that.
Maybe the provincial tournaments are also getting hierarchical so that only the strongest teams from each province can play there – that you earn your right to be there. It depends on the GAA officials.
But this masquerade of the Division Four teams against the best teams with fanfares and preambles – the Big Day Out – is a thing of the past. And no one wants to see it anymore – let alone play it.