Kevin McStay: Outdated and inadequate championship structure simply has to go

Leitrim’s humiliation just the latest evidence that the era of the annual Big Day Out is over

Leitrim line up for the Connacht semi-final at  MacHale Park. This charade of Division Four teams against the top teams with the marching bands and the preambles  is a thing of the past. Nobody wants to see it anymore – let alone play in it. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Leitrim line up for the Connacht semi-final at MacHale Park. This charade of Division Four teams against the top teams with the marching bands and the preambles is a thing of the past. Nobody wants to see it anymore – let alone play in it. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Sunday may have been a significant day for the GAA in that it has become painfully clear to everyone that the charade of the Big Day Out has to stop.

It simply isn’t fair to pit an average Division Four team against an elite team on a mission. Mayo-Leitrim was live on television and it made for macabre viewing. Who wants to see young footballers humiliated like that? What is the point? Whom does it serve?

And it was not an aberration. It was just the culmination of a grim few weeks. Here are the championship headlines for the summer of 2021. Limerick started the ball rolling by routing Waterford by 18 points. Then it came thick and fast: Kerry beat Clare by 17 points. Armagh beat Antrim by 13. Dublin laboured 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 a stunning 24 points against Leitrim. It is not difficult to spot the trend.

So there was a small bit of trepidation ahead of the meeting of Donegal and Derry. What if we got more of the same and Donegal steamrolled their neighbours? Thankfully it did not happen. We got a glimpse, instead, of what happens when two closely matched teams who are well coached get to play.

Even with the reduced crowd, the ground was buzzing with ten minutes left on the clock and the teams locked in a truly fascinating contest. It was a day that reminded the country of what this competition is supposed to be about.

This year has exposed the outdated and inadequate championship structure like no other. I got to Ballybofey early and got a coffee and watched Mayo-Leitrim on the RTÉ Player. And it was over after 15 minutes. The next hour was excruciating for everyone.

When the mood swings to pity, then you know you are in the sink hole. Sorrow was the only viable emotion you could summon for Leitrim’s plight. How did they even bring themselves to leave the dressing room at half-time? This was humiliating.

I feel like I have been arguing this point here and elsewhere for a long time. These games – this habitual slaughter of the innocents – is sucking the life out of the championship. It is in danger of becoming a black joke.

The officials 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. Chairmen. Secretaries: they need to say no to this. They have a vote. And they need to make it felt. If they agree to these annual hammerings, then why should anyone else intervene?

Collateral damage

We learned nothing from the game itself. It influences nothing about the direction of the Connacht title.

Mayo’s path to the final has been ridiculous: beyond facile. The only thing they could work on was sustained intensity and they clearly executed this. They didn’t switch off or allow themselves to become sloppy. This is why these massive score differences are accumulating.

It is very easy to identify who on-field leaders are but not what they do. And it is not intangible

Substitutes aren’t going out to fool around or take it handy in one-sided games. They are equipped with a set list of five or six targets- possessions, turnovers, assists. They have to meet these if they want James Horan to think of them for the Connacht final. It was nothing against Leitrim; they became collateral damage.

Arguably, what happens at the Special Congress later this year is the most important moment of the football season. It doesn’t matter who wins Sam Maguire, it will change nothing. Where next? That is the burning issue.

The famous John Healy book – No-one Shouted Stop – came to mind as I sat in the car watching Leitrim’s annihilation. It is an apt title now for the prevailing All-Ireland structure. The GAA has to get this right. And in an effort to do this they have been a bit simplistic, in my view.

They have narrowed it down to two proposals: A and B. Proposal A, to my mind, falls at the first fence because it asks lower-ranked teams in Munster and Leinster to move to what essentially is a foreign land. It retains a provincial championship and has a nice overall structure. But I feel it is against everything we know. It is unnatural and won’t garner support.

B seems the better choice – but it spells the death of the provincial championship. At best, the provincial contests are reduced to warm-up tournaments with no tangible benefits. And that may be the rock on which this proposal perishes.

But at least this format is an effort to link league and championships. It is not perfect because it permits too many lower-ranked teams to access the Sam Maguire end-game ahead of Division One teams.

For me, it is clear that two things must happen. There is an absolute requirement to remove 16 teams from the senior championship. Stop hiding behind names. Let’s call it an Intermediate All-Ireland. Your rise to the ranks of senior has to come through league performance. So the Sam Maguire All-Ireland should be a summer football festival featuring 16 teams. And even then, we are going to see some heavy defeats inflicted. But at least there won’t be weekly sporting massacres.

Weekend celebration

And second: the intermediate final must take place as a curtain-raiser to the All-Ireland senior final. In Croke Park, in front of a full house. This is way more important than preserving the minor tradition. It becomes a weekend celebration of football. Players who would never otherwise experience the All-Ireland final atmosphere will do so. It will work.

So these issues provide the backdrop to a championship that is beginning to gather pace. At least Donegal-Tyrone will be a true contest next weekend. I think we have learned a fair bit about Donegal from Sunday and it wasn’t all flattering. Right now, they are not ready to win Ulster – let alone upset anyone in Croke Park.

What are their main problems? Their key priority is to establish championship rhythm and bite. They need a more aggressive attitude against Tyrone. If Michael Murphy start the game, he will set that tone. It didn’t seem obvious to me that everyone in the Donegal defensive eight knew what they were about. They have two sessions to get this right. Or else they will be dumped out by Tyrone.

It is a massive game for them because, if they lose this, it asks big questions about the management and the team. They have foostered around for the past few seasons and I happen to have seen them a lot. I have witnessed brilliant performances and then they bomb out. So next weekend is massive for them.

Michael Murphy: his entry to the fray helped steady Donegal’s nerve as they just about survived against Derry in a riveting Ulster clash at MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Michael Murphy: his entry to the fray helped steady Donegal’s nerve as they just about survived against Derry in a riveting Ulster clash at MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

In the short term, I think they will reap a major benefit from 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 on-field leaders are but not what they do. And it is not intangible. It is more nuanced than mere good example. But Murphy comes up all the time when Donegal’s credentials are discussed.

I felt the critical aspect of their lacklustre performance was an absence of championship bite. It is normally something they exhibit but without Murphy’s presence they were passive for too long against Derry. Their markers were well off their opposite numbers.

That knock-out thrill, as witnessed on Sunday in Ballybofey, is spine-tingling. But we cannot have the weaker teams offered up like this

Shane McGuigan, for instance, was allowed to receive the ball with little pressure or close contact defending. Donegal’s defenders weren’t seeking out that contact. They were quite lucky to be in the game at half-time; they were down by a point but could have been down by seven.

Derry’s big failing was a continuation of a trend set in the league. They won games by big numbers but fluffed a criminal number of excellent goal chances, messing up two-on-one and even three-on-one opportunities.

Key factor

Against Offaly, they could have had five goals. It didn’t matter in the league, where they were comfortably the best side in the division. It mattered on Sunday. The defeat doesn’t undermine what was a weekend of huge promise for Derry and we were witnessing the return of a top football county.

So Donegal squeezed through on the back of that miraculous Patrick McBrearty point. And they got match-winning contributions from Caolan McGonigle, Niall O’Donnell and Michael Langan.

Still, the fire station bell went and Murphy duly arrived with the water hose and captain’s badge. Those two frees he kicked restored order and calmed heads. They were just so composed in the last ten minutes. I have no doubt that his presence was the key factor in that collective mentality. It was a priceless intervention.

There will be eight teams left after next Sunday. This year, becoming the provincial champion is the only way to advance; it is a last salute to the old knock-out format.

I still believe the provincial championships have a place. That knock-out thrill, as witnessed on Sunday in Ballybofey, is spine-tingling. But we cannot have the weaker teams offered up like this.

Maybe the provincial tournaments become tiered as well so that only the stronger teams in each province get to play in them – that you earn your right to be there. This is down to the GAA officials.

But this charade of Division Four teams against the top teams with the marching bands and the preambles – the Big Day Out – is a thing of the past. And nobody wants to see it anymore – let alone play in it.

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