Action from Leitrim's All-Ireland Qualifier game against Carlow in 2017. Photo by Willie Donnellan
Carlow are the team of the moment right now in the GAA world, contesting today’s Allianz Division 4 Final against Laois and earning promotion from Division 4 for the first time in their history, a feel good story in every sense.
The national media in particular have woken up to the Carlow story and the Carlow players and management have embraced the attention, quite rightly savouring their moment of glory that has been earned after many, many years of hard work.
Leitrim fans know how they feel - two FBD League titles in a row saw the Green & Gold footballers win a lot of positive coverage in the national media in 2013 & 2014 before the attention switched back to the behemoths of the game, the Dublins, Kerrys, Kilkennys and Galways.
The willingness of the Carlow players to engage with the media, via interviews, podcasts and their own prodigious social media output, is a heartwarming expression of just what this promotion means to the footballing community in Carlow.
Tied to that, Carlow hurlers also won promotion from Division 2A recently so the GAA is in a real good place in Carlow who, as we all know by now, have the third smallest population in the country with 56,875.
Below them sit Longford with 40,810 and Leitrim with 31,972 as the fairytale of the GAA world is maintained, that the small counties can compete, on their day, equally with the giants of the game.
And many are putting down Carlow’s rise in the League to the fact that they had two big televised games against Dublin and Monaghan last year, losing to Dublin by 12 points while only scoring seven themselves and then to the Farney side by five points.
In fact, Carlow’s rise is touted as a reason as to why there should be no change to the current Championship system despite the plans of new GAA President to have a tiered championship structure in place by the time he leaves office.
Carlow manager Turlough O’Brien is an outspoken opponent of a tiered championship and you have to take his views into account. But it doesn’t mean he is right on this one and the proof is his own Carlow side.
Carlow's rise has come through playing and beating Division 4 teams! Their success, unbeaten in the League since Leitrim beat them on March 5 2017, up to last weekend’s one point loss to Laois, only emphasises one thing - counties get better when they play and beat teams of their own standard!
Carlow have just two Leinster Championship victories over the last ten years to their name, against Wexford and Louth, so the Leinster Championship, as weak as it apparently is, hasn’t served them so well in the recent.
For all the romance and excitement of the games against Dublin and Monaghan last year, Carlow’s championship run came thanks to three consecutive victories over fellow Division 4 teams in Wexford, London and Leitrim.
That’s not to be sniffed at - in Leitrim, we’d bite your hand off for three championship wins in a season but it does reinforce the view that playing top opposition doesn’t necessarily improve a team but playing opposition of the same standard certainly does.
You want proof - Roscommon, Cavan and Tipperary!
As hard as it is believe today but in the last seven or eight years, Leitrim played both Roscommon and Tipperary in Division 4. And Cavan were just one rung above in Division 3.
All three counties share one thing in common - they have risen through the ranks of the League consistently with strong underage development behind them and while there have been hiccups like not getting promotion for Tipperary or relegation last year for Roscommon and Cavan, their progress in championship terms has been backed up because of their performances in the League.
Carlow’s progress has come through the League - all their wins over the last 13 months have come against Division 4 opposition and that has seen them meet that challenge and gain promotion.
But the championship will remain another world to them as long as Kildare and Dublin are in situ in Leinster. It’s the same for Tipperary with Kerry down in Munster.
But look at Roscommon, you cry, the reigning Connacht Champions. Yet Kevin McStay’s side only serve to underline the point as over the last three years, they have twice won promotion to the top tier of the League. And that is the foundation of their Championship success.
At the moment, the Championship structure is titled firmly against counties like Leitrim and Carlow but reform would mean that counties of the same standard, based on their playing performances and the effort they put in, would be a massive lift.
And when success did occur, it would mean stepping up to a level where that county is able to perform and not to be considered canon fodder for the big guns.
Leitrim’s last win over Roscommon, as fresh in the memory as it still is, was an incredible 18 years ago this Summer! Our last success against Galway? 1994! Mayo, the same! Before that, we hadn’t beaten Galway in the championship between 1949 and 1993.
So who exactly is the current Championship structure serving?
We all love the fairytale story of the little plucky underdogs, the small rural parish, coming from nowhere to defeat the local kingpins, the townies, in the County Final. It is a story that touches us on a deep emotional level and every county has an example or two.
But what we forget that no matter how small those minnows were in those famous triumphs, they had earned their way to the top grade in their county, they had earned the right to be there thanks to their performances.
Lest we all forget, Leitrim’s glorious year of triumph in 1994 came after four years rising through the Leagues and playing against teams of a similar standard.
And for all the talk of Monaghan punching above their weight, their status as a heavyweight of the game only started when they rose from Division 4 in the mid-noughties and consistently stayed in Division One, again proving the point that you get better when you play against teams of a similar standard.
So when John Horan unveils a plan for a tiered championship in the future, maybe we in Leitrim should all embrace it wholeheartedly and set on our sights on winning it! That’s the way to earn your place in the GAA world!