Super Eights detrimental to weaker counties - Turlough O’Brien
Carlow boss says new system will ensure that strong counties grow even stronger
Tyrone celebrate their Ulster title win. “You might win one game, but you won’t beat a Kerry or a Dublin or a Tyrone back-to-back. I’ve no doubt about that,” says O’Brien. Photograph: Philip Magowan/Presseye/Inpho
And soon there will be the Super Eight. There may still be potential for the element of mild surprise in this year’s championship, although nothing that will suggest a seismic shift in the existing football fortunes.
The strong stay strong, the meek will inherit, and the mystery continues to be written out of it.
Only next year that may become carved in stone: the new Super Eight series of games – replacing the four All-Ireland quarter-finals with a round-robin competition of 12 games – will see the four provincial champions play-off against the last four qualifier winners. Three rounds, over three successive weekends.
Those games will also be packed into a tighter schedule: as part of the Super Eight three-year trial, as approved by Congress earlier this year, both All-Ireland finals are also being brought forward to the month of August. A smaller waist, less leg space, muscle room only.
And with that possibly cutting off the path for the likes of Tipperary, beating Galway in last year’s quarter-final to set up a first All-Ireland semi-final in 81 years; or Fermanagh remember, beating Armagh in the 2004 quarter-final to reach the All-Ireland semi-final for the first time ever.
“That won’t happen in the Super Eight, no way,” says Carlow football manager Turlough O’Brien. “You might win one game, but you won’t beat a Kerry or a Dublin or a Tyrone back-to-back. I’ve no doubt about that.”
O’Brien is not just speaking with vested interest here, but for all those so-called weaker counties: he’s just guided Carlow furthest into the championship since the qualifiers began, in 2001, narrowly losing out to Monaghan last Saturday in round three, having been in a winning position going into the last 10 minutes.
Victory would have set up a fourth round meeting against Down (“and we’d have fancied our chances there”, he says) and suddenly Carlow might well have been in an All-Ireland quarter-final: the 2017 edition would have offered a reasonable chance of making a lasting statement; the 2018 edition would possibly take an unreasonably heavy toll.
“If say Carlow did reach that stage, next year, the more games you get at that level, obviously you would think that would be good for your long-term development.
“But the other side of that argument is that it gives the stronger teams a second and third bite of the cherry, at that stage, and of course they’re going to take it. And will probably dominate the championship more than ever as a result. We’d be ready for a one-off shot, certainly. The three rounds though is a different prospect, and would be a kick in the teeth.
“So I just don’t think it will be good for the game in general, and I think it will impact as well on the counties who will never get to that level. It will make for a lot more higher-profile games at that time of the year, a lot more televised games, and that will impact club fixtures on all counties.”
Of this year’s four provincial champions – Dublin, Tyrone, Kerry and Roscommon – only Roscommon can be considered mildly surprising; of their four potential quarter-final pairings – Cork/Mayo, Galway/Donegal, Down/Monaghan, and Kildare/Armagh – there is some potential for a minor rising, although nothing that would upset the status quo.
That’s what worries O’Brien more than anything.
“I think what Carlow have proved this year is that if we are well organised, with all our players on board, we can give any team a good battle on any given day. I’m not saying we’re always going to beat them, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, but I think we can be competitive. And I think that is something to fight for.
“With the Super Eight, you do wonder are they just trying to capture more of a TV audience, that corporatisation of the GAA. What I’m afraid will happen is that the Super-Eight will really just leave everyone else behind, leave the very small group of elite counties so far ahead, that the rest of us won’t have the resources or capabilities to get up to ever compete at that level.
“That will only increase the call for maybe a B Championship, which I don’t believe there is a need for. Carlow finished in the top 16 this summer, so I’m not going to tell the 16 counties below us that they should be competing in a different championship. That would be ironic. So I still think the B Championship is a nonsense argument, to be honest.
“The modal the GAA needs to look at is Carlow, stay at that level of performance firstly, then the long-term development to bring that level closer again to the stronger counties.
“That means things like investing in a standardised strength and conditioning programme, that stays in place, and is not reliant on every new manager who comes in with his team, and then leaves again after a couple of years. So while managers may change, at least you keep that expertise locally, that can keep the programme running from year to year.
“We have lot of those structures in place in Carlow, with our centre of excellence, the access to IT Carlow, and we can keep improving on that. So I just think before the GAA started down this Super-Eight they should make sure every county gets its house in order first, and make a right go at it. And I still think there is a deficit of good coaching at intercounty level. And I think more could be done within the GAA to develop that level of management.”
The stronger counties’ strength will always be their strength, and for O’Brien, again speaking for all the weaker counties and now just Carlow, the end goal should be working towards some parity, not the other way around.
“Okay, you will always get stronger generations, but the talent is there in all the counties, and hard work too can also make up for any discrepancies in numbers. The GAA should be asking what else can we do for Carlow? Or Wicklow? Or Longford? How can we make them more consistent in the province.
“I know Croke Park are trying to address that, but you can’t have it both ways. Trying to develop the weaker counties while at the same time making the strong ones even stronger. I think they need to roll back on that, pushing for this elitism.”
“I think it’s actually been one of the better championships of recent years, and that it’s not a foregone conclusion that the Carlows of this world can’t be competitive. I think there has been an awakening in some counties, and again that’s about getting their house in order, with competent coaches who are committed to the cause.
“I still can’t make sense of it, and just think there is going to be some major blow-up, over this. Don’t forget the hurlers are reacting to this as well, and want parity of esteem, or whatever the word is. That’s all eating into the time available here, and I think we should be pulling back. I know you can’t turn back the clock but I do think we have to look at this again. It’s never too late to change again.
“The cream always rises to the top, we know that. It’s the same with all the big competitions around the world. But that doesn’t mean everyone else doesn’t deserve to be in that competition with the same fair chance.”