10 Aug 2022

COLUMN: A return to the good old days of knockout may not be so good

The Last Point

COLUMN: A return to the good old days of knockout may not be so good

Has there been an image that sums up the utterly brutality and finality that is knockout championship football than the shocked visage of a stunned David Clifford after Cork's epic Munster Senior Football Championship in Pairc Ui Chaoimh?
The disbelief on the young Kerry star's face spoke of a thousand swirling emotions that I'm sure everyone with a drop of Kerry blood shared in when Mark Keane's injury time goal dumped last year's All-Ireland finalists and current national league champions out of race for Sam Maguire in 2020.
Like thousands around the country, I let out a yelp of delight when Keane's shot found the net, having been roaring at the dwalding Rebels seconds earlier for not taking a shot. And from talking to a lot of people, I was far from alone in my reaction to the drama of it all - even us Dubs like the odd bit of giant killing!
The drama, the joy and despair it brought, the possibilities it opened up reopened the old debate about returning to the old reliable one and done knockout championship, no back doors, no second chances and plenty of time to run off as many club championships as you could possibly want in a year!
I'll admit the romanticism of it would have you hankering back to the good old days but to be honest, I think that ship has sailed and for so many good reasons. Is the system we have perfect? Of course, it is isn't but it is a hell of a lot better than the old one-and-done knockout and goodbye system that we endured for years and years.
The simple fact is that the good old days weren't that good - since we're talking about Kerry, we'll stick with Munster and the last county outside Kerry and Cork to lift the crown was Clare back in 1992, another golden shock masterminded by John Maughan and one that no doubt inspired Leitrim's troops to keep going through to 1994.
 But apart from that victory, we have to go all the way back to 1935 for the last time anyone other than the big two won down South and that was Tipperary, a Tipperary whose record as a footballing power at the time saw them rival Kerry as a footballing power, winning four All-Ireland titles up to 1920.
Tipperary have the chance to add to their tally of nine Munster titles next Sunday but it would leave them a long way behind Cork who have amassed 37 titles, a total eclipsed completely by Kerry's stunning 81 Munster crowns.
 It is no better in Leinster with Dublin way ahead of the rest with 58 titles, 15 of which have come during the last 20 years. Meath are next with 21 titles but incredibly, Kilkenny, yes Kilkenny, have as many titles as Longford, Westmeath and Carlow put together, the Cats last win coming back in 1911 before they decided to burst all the footballs in the county!
Ulster sees Cavan, creating their own bit of history by reaching back to back finals for the first time since the late 60s this week to the delight of our colleague Fiona Heavey and all the Breffni blues, way out in front with 39 titles, Tyrone are next with 17 and Monaghan are on 16. This is by far the most competitive province yet nobody outside Tyrone, Armagh, Donegal and Monaghan have lifted the Anglo Celt Cup since the start of the Millennium.
  In Leitrim, we love the idea of the big championship shock but the truth is that Leitrim's story is more often the story of the near-miss or the hard luck story. And it doesn't like it will change any time soon with Galway, Mayo and Roscommon, three teams definitely among the top ten in the country,  seemingly moving further and further away.
 Even in a Province as small as Leitrim, the old knockout system provided few if any shocks - the 1993 win over Galway in Tuam Stadium was Leitrim's first since 1949 and we've only beaten them once since in the championship and once more in the FBD League!
Mayo is a similar story - a win in 1976 was next followed by that famous day in 1994 - all again under the old one and done knockout system.
We don't fare any better against Roscommon, supposedly the team we can best compete with but two wins over the last 40 plus years is hardly a record that suggests the knockout system gives us smaller and weaker counties a greater chance of success.
There's a reason why Cork's victory is celebrated so wildly, the same as Westmeath and Laois beating Dublin in the early noughties, Clare beating Kerry in 1992 - they are incredibly rare and as long as the provincial system is so unbalanced, it will remain this way.
Just consider what Terry Hyland's team had to overcome were they win to lift the Connacht title in 2020 - beat Mayo, then Roscommon and after that Galway, three teams who have played Division 1 league football in the last two or three years.
In no other province does any other team face those odds - five-in-a-row champions Dublin have only one other Leinster county in Division 1 this year and that was a Meath team relegated back to division 2 while Kerry are the sole Munster team in the top flight.
Even in Ulster, there are just three Division 1 teams and only one made it pass the first round, meaning you would only have to beat two division 1 teams to win the title compared to three for Leitrim!
How in heaven's name is that considered a fair competition structure!
It would be like pitting Mohill, St Mary's, Glencar/Manorhamilton and Fenagh St Caillin's, last year's semi-finalists,  into a preliminary group in the Leitrim club championship next year and allowing only one  to advance while everyone else got byes into quarter-finals or what have you.
Any competition structure has to be fair and although the provincial system suited the GAA just fine in a time when nearly nobody had cars and travelling to games was a luxury, it has clearly outlived its purpose.
Yes, the  structures need change but to suggest going back to the old system of one and done will kill off many smaller counties who know that training all year for one 70 minute outing just isn't worth it.
It was great to see Cork beat Kerry, and that's not just the Dub in me, I like the romance of it all too, and even better to see Cavan pull off a remarkable comeback but don't we all expect reality to bite our neighbours pretty hard next Sunday when they come up against the Donegal juggernaut?
The system as it stands  greatly benefits the Dubs, the Mayos and Galways, the Kerrys and Corks and even the Donegals. What really struck me about Leitrim's championship this year was the finality of it and you sensed that Leitrim's players would have loved another day out.
 So maybe when we can start thinking about a fairer system that  tests everyone equally and not relying on the old luck of the draw for a kind path to glory. Do that and every county would be better off, not just the big guns.

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