National League reforms: Football Euthanasia For Weaker Counties?
As we know, pretty much every reform that the GAA comes up with - be it the rejigging of competition formats, the stiffening of disciplinary procedures, or the sanitising of pitch-side chaos - is attacked like piranhas on a Bond villain's leg by contemptuous inter-county managers. Being voraciously devoured today are the proposed changes to the football league and, in turn, its knock-on to the championship fortunes of the 'so-called weaker counties'.
That phrase alone is surely endangered, ponging as it is of political incorrectness; we must soon undoubtedly call them 'the developing counties', or even 'counties of alternative footballing cultures'. Bob Geldof and Chris Martin could plead for the donation of spare footballs, while wearing a wristband in the Carlow colours (Chris likes the fact that they're a bit Rasta).
Basically the ragged poor that finish bottom ranked in this season's National League, i.e., the bottom four in each of Divisions 2A and 2B, will be cast out into a colony called Division 4 from next season. But it is the ignominy of their championship fate that has most appalled the human rights campaigners in the managers' ranks.
Upon losing in the provincial championship at any stage before the final, any team with 'Division 4' branded on their scrawny posteriors will not be allowed to enter the qualifier system, transported instead to the icy wasteland of the Tommy Murphy Cup (How Tommy Murphy's family must rue the day the late Laois great was 'honoured' with the naming of this trophy, its mention invariably preceded by the words "the lads have no interest in...").
No less than Mick O'Dwyer himself struck forth with his mightiest ire against the changes, describing them as "pure crazy".
"It's pure elitism. The eight so-called weakest counties are discarded while everybody else gets a second chance in the real championship. That's unfair. It's also daft that there's a connection between League and Championship for Division 4 teams. They're separate competitions and should be kept that way," said O'Dwyer.
Longford manager Luke Dempsey echoed O'Dwyer's comments, adding "I also believe that the winners of the Tommy Murphy Cup should be re-admitted to the All-Ireland race. That would really spice it up."
Yikes! A little too spicy old boy! The likes of Wicklow or Tipperary parachuting into the glamour stages of the All-Ireland - we couldn't have that!
The changes are an effort to eliminate many of the seemingly meaningless first round qualifier games, wherein, say, an Armagh or Tyrone bundled sensationally out of Ulster in the first round must tiresomely thump a London or a Waterford before properly rejoining the race.
Also, by discarding a round of inter-county fare, an extra weekend is freed up for the poor, neglected club championships.
So is this a case of killing the weaker counties with kindness, saving them the pain of a hopeless All-Ireland campaign and instead giving them eternal rest in a competition which offers a meaningful chance of silverware?
Or is it, as O'Dwyer says, elitism, the sporting equivalent of a government rounding up all the homeless people off the street and shooting them?
Certainly the wee guys would seem to get little from the All-Ireland championship, save for one big summer day, which they will still get to enjoy. And the charge of elitism can be addressed by the fact that no county is doomed forever to toil in the basement, with league promotion bringing them back into polite society come championship time.
It does seem a unfair, though, that, should they win through even to a provincial semi-final, they would not get the reward of a second chance in the qualifiers.
But the creation of more meaningful games, and championship competion in which teams have realistic ambitions of victory, can only be good for the weaker counties.
It may seem that the GAA are putting these counties out of their misery, but, in the long run, it could be the best thing for their long-term health.