Evergreen Niall McNamee ready for Tailteann Cup test

Offaly forward says return to an older league system would do more to lessen skill gap

Niall McNamee isn’t quite the longest-serving intercounty footballer in the land. But he isn’t far off it. “Ross has me by a fortnight,” he laughs. He means Laois stalwart Ross Munnelly, who made his championship debut on May 11th, 2003, whereas McNamee’s came 19 years ago this weekend.

He was studying for his Leaving Cert and training with the Offaly seniors even though he was still a minor. A few of the teachers in the school told him he’d be better off leaving the football until after the exams, reasoning that he might break a hand playing football and wouldn’t be able to write on the big day. All that did was make him take things handier at school, for fear he might imperil the football.

He’s 36 now and he’s been around and seen everything there has been to see. His bona fides when it comes to examining the ever-complicated doings of Gaelic football are therefore obvious. For every one of the countless changes the game has gone through over the past two decades, McNamee has had a front row seat.

When he takes to the pitch for Offaly against Wexford on Sunday, he will chalk up a unique and unrepeatable full house. He will be the only footballer to have competed in (deep breath) the Tailteann Cup, the Tommy Murphy Cup, a provincial final, championships that were straight knock-out, championships that had All-Ireland qualifiers and all four divisions of the Allianz League. Railway Cup and O’Byrne Cup too, for the completists out there.

The inter-county scene has changed fundamentally over his time, with the distance between the elite teams at the top and the coping classes around the middle and below having long since become unbridgeable. He is looking forward to the Tailteann Cup but he wouldn’t get too carried away by it either. Not when it treats the symptoms of football’s great imbalance, while doing very little about the cause.

“I understand the reason for the Tailteann Cup,” McNamee says. “And we’ve enjoyed the last few weeks training for it. It’s been great to get back in with the lads and we’re up for it. But the reality is that for most of the counties playing in it, their main competition is the league.

“The worst thing that ever happened to these counties was the move away from 1A/1B and 2A/2B. I would bring it back in the morning if I could. If I was the manager of any team outside Division One, I would be banging the drum for it big time. It would do so much more for the Tailteann Cup teams than the Tailteann Cup will.”

It is 15 seasons now since the leagues were stratified to four strict layers rather than two. If the difference between the two systems can seem a bit nebulous, Offaly’s case is a stark example of the destruction it caused. In the 2006 league, they were in Division 1A, facing off against the likes of Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone and Mayo. They led Tyrone – All-Ireland champions at the time – with 15 minutes to go in Tullamore before being overhauled down the stretch.

They picked up two wins and a draw but were relegated by a point to Division 2A. They took plenty from the campaign, however, and parlayed it into a run to the Leinster final later that summer. They beat Westmeath, Kildare and Wexford along the way and McNamee finished the year with an All-Star nomination.

The killer came in 2007 when the bottom four teams in 2A were put into the new Division Four for 2008. Offaly had a careless campaign and ended up coming fifth, a point behind Leitrim, who beat them in the key match in the group by a single injury-time point.

Just like that, Offaly went from playing league matches against Tyrone and Kerry to turning out against Kilkenny and London in the space of just two campaigns. It would have been something if their record across those campaigns had been hopeless but it actually read Played 14 Won 5 Drew 2 Lost 7.

“From that point, it just tore the a**e out of us for a couple of years,” McNamee says. “It had a savage knock-on effect. The big thing that people don’t realise is that the counties outside Division One all lose five, six, seven, maybe up to 10 lads every year. Some get injured, some go travelling, some take a year out or go away with the army, whatever it is.

We should have been in the qualifiers but that was the year the leagues were changed so we were a Division Four team and sent to the Tommy Murphy. We had no interest in it

“When it was 1A and 2A, it was never any big problem getting those lads back in after a year away, because you were always just one good league campaign away from playing matches against the big counties again. Even if you get relegated from Division 1A or 1B, you’re only ever one league away from getting back up.

“The league system as it is now keeps you down for longer. If a lad goes away travelling and you try and get him back in to play in Division Four or Division Three when he comes home, it’s so much harder. He knows it’s a two- or three-year job to get back up to Division Two at best. The knock-on from that means that it’s so much harder to get the supporters excited, which means it’s so much harder to get sponsors involved.”

And so the gap gets wider and wider with every passing year. The dawn of the Tailteann Cup works as a recognition of that gap but it is of no use as an attempt to bridge it. If counties are a bit leery about it to begin with, plenty of them have their reasons. McNamee played in the Tommy Murphy Cup in 2007. The horror, the horror.

“Ah man, it was embarrassing,” he says. “We did not want to be there. We were after losing by five points to the Dubs in the Leinster semi-final and we were raging at how we played. You’d grab a five-point defeat to Dublin now with both hands! We should have been in the qualifiers but that was the year the leagues were changed so by default we were a Division Four team and we were sent to the Tommy Murphy. We had no interest in it.”

Wicklow beat them in their only outing. Almost a year to the day since they had played in front of 81,754 in the Leinster final, they went down to a 1-16 to 1-11 defeat in front of a couple of hundred in Aughrim. The following week, the Offaly Independent openly questioned whether some of them should be allowed to wear the jersey ever again. Plenty of them didn’t, happily finding better things to be doing with their time.

McNamee kept at it and never held it against anyone who decided not to. Just as he wouldn’t have held it against any Offaly player who swerved the Tailteann Cup this time around either. In fairness, nobody has. They go to Enniscorthy tomorrow with the same squad that came up short in their Leinster opener against Wexford last month. They’ll give it a rattle.

But for all the boosterism and the well wishes, it’s worth pointing out that the Tailteann Cup is no panacea. Counties have to help themselves, yes. But when the system is subtly rigged against them, when sponsorship money dries up because they can’t bring the big teams to town, when all that keeps them down, a secondary championship can only ever achieve so much.

“I’ve been through it all at every level,” McNamee says. “I’m a fairly good case study in terms of what works and what doesn’t work outside the big counties. The league is by a distance a more important change that needs to happen than another Tommy Murphy Cup. I can see why it has been brought in – that gap that has opened up over 15 years has created the need for it.”

Doing something about that gap should be the priority. Accepting it as a fact of life has gone on for far too long.