After the weekend purge of the province’s football teams that left not one remaining in Division One of the Allianz League, Leinster GAA are contemplating taking the provincial semi-finals out of Croke Park even if Dublin get to that stage.
It would be the first time in 26 years, since the semi-final defeat of Louth in 1996, that Dublin would have travelled for such a match. Leinster chair Pat Teehan was responding to the results that saw both Kildare and Dublin lose their places in the top flight.
“We’re looking at the strong possibility we won’t have Dublin in Croke Park for the Leinster semi-final. We didn’t make a decision on it at the time of the draw because semi-final pairings won’t be known until later in the summer, but the likelihood is that we’ll consider that move.
“It would be better to have 20,000 in Portlaoise or Tullamore or Nowlan Park than 30,000 in Croke Park.”
Given that Kildare beat Dublin in the league in February, it is likely that a rematch in the semi-finals would attract a large enough crowd – five years ago the counties drew 66,774 – but that could be gauged as it arises.
For a long time, semi-finals were played at provincial venues and only after the redevelopment of Croke Park 20 years ago did the practice of staging as many of Dublin’s matches there get under way in earnest.
This has led to an era of record crowds and revenues, as Teehan points out.
“Attendances are still way up on what they were in the 1980s, by and large. All-Ireland semi-finals at times were little over 20,000. There were also Leinster finals between Dublin and Offaly in the 1980s that had less than 40,000 at them.”
Dublin’s travails were only reflective of Leinster’s in that five of the six counties relegated in the AFL were from the province. If Kildare were unlucky after a campaign that saw them unbeaten at home and also Offaly, beaten in injury-time by Cork, Wicklow, relegated from Division Three, had been propping up the table for most of the season.
The other place was between Laois and Longford and so didn’t alter the overall picture.
It is the first time that Leinster has had no representatives in Division One since the leagues were restructured from regionalised competitions into merit-based divisions arranged hierarchically.
Speaking earlier in March, after the launch of a major games development initiative for the province, Teehan expressed the view that two of Dublin, Kildare and Meath should always be in the top division, and it’s a view he still holds.
“There is no excuse why there’s not two of them in Division One. Another side of the coin is that counties were a kick of the ball away from staying up. The table is a fair reflection of the season but things can go either way at the very end. Dublin were level in injury-time in Clones. Win that and both they and Kildare stay up. It’s not an excuse but it does show the tightness of the margins.”
He also draws attention to the profile of Leinster counties. Although his own county, Offaly, with its seven All-Irelands between hurling and football, won in the space of 28 years, and Kilkenny, top of hurling’s roll of honour, are outliers, it is very difficult to achieve top honours with a population of less than 100,000.
Six counties come into this category: as well as the above, Longford, Laois, Carlow and Westmeath.
“One thing about Leinster,” he says, “is that if you leave out the top three, population size is an issue. If you look at Carlow, Offaly, Longford, Kilkenny, they’re all amongst the 10 least-populous counties in the country. Leinster has 12 counties but realistically you’re looking at about five or six who in history have been regular top-division sides.”
Even Louth, the one bright spot in the province and who achieved a second successive promotion under Mickey Harte’s management, have a population of just under 130,000.
Are the league outcomes this weekend a sign of a long-term trending fall in standards or a simply a snapshot taken in March 2022? Teehan is more inclined to believe the latter.
To an extent Dublin’s domination of the past decade in football has obscured the overall situation in Leinster, which is that a non-Dublin county from the province hasn’t won an All-Ireland since Meath footballers in 1999.
He can still see positives on the contemporary landscape.
“Louth is the one good news story from the league, but I also made the point that Offaly are under-20 All-Ireland champions and Meath the same at minor. I’d also be surprised if there aren’t two Leinster teams promoted back to Division One at the end of next season.”
In the meantime they have to cut their cloth to measure.