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Murph's Sideline Cut: Top teams' dominance makes for invariably dour viewing

The infrequent rate at which the best GAA sides play each other is unfair on the paying public, writes Ciaran Murphy.

IT HAS NOT been an easy start to the All-Ireland football championship for Division 2 sides.  Westmeath, Derry and Laois were the top 3 – and all three of them have been well beaten already in this championship season; Galway received a once-in-a-generation humiliation, and Armagh and Longford lost to Cavan and Wicklow, from the bottom half of Division 3.

The only two teams to emerge in credit thus far are Louth, who beat Laois, and Wexford, who haven’t played yet – they are Louth’s next opponents this coming Sunday in their opening game of the championship.

We have the teams in Division 1 competing for the All-Ireland championship, and the other 24 teams are liable to take a hiding from any of those in the top table.  It used to be that you had two or three really good teams, and then a pretty well spaced out system of groups of ten or so counties, that you could pick out pretty plainly.

Now the farther away the top teams move, the more the rest of the pack gets concertina-ed.  I can say with authority that if Galway are drawn away to anyone (ANYONE!) in the qualifiers, I would really fear for them.  That wasn’t always the case, but it surely is now.

(London celebrate victory over Sligo – INPHO/Jim Keogh)

Take for example the championship experiences of the two teams at opposite ends of Division 4.  London were, according to the league tables, the worst team in the country, and yet they were able to go and beat Sligo, a team who stayed up in Division 3. Limerick moved through the league serenely, and won the Division 4 title, only to go out and get utterly trounced by Cork last weekend.

The only trimmings now are being handed out by Division 1 teams.  Everyone else has to fight for their lives for anything.  This of course makes it all very interesting, but leads one to ask – could we not engineer a few more games between the top 6 or 8 teams, rather than leaving it all ‘til the start of August?

There were quite a few people getting worried about championship mismatches this weekend.  In fairness Kerry have been hammering Waterford since Pat Spillane bought the first of his many bad suits, and probably before then, if we care to look that far back.  And Westmeath might have been quietly fancied to put it up to Dublin for a while, but no-one really believed they were going to cause a shock.

The really interesting game was on in the North, where Derry, as we’ve discussed, failed to strike a blow for the lower divisions against Down.  To be honest, having seen Derry in the flesh in their first league game against Galway, I was surprised they’d managed to stay in Division 2, let alone win it.  They were so bad that day it was untrue, but they regrouped expertly and had played some pretty good stuff on the way to winning that title against Westmeath at the start of May.

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But when it came down to it, Down were able to carve them apart for the key goals, two in seven minutes, in the second half. I’ve heard a few people saying that’s the difference between playing in Division 1 and not, but really, isn’t that assigning too much importance to the league?

Do you think Derry would’ve learnt a lot from playing Cork, who finally got embarrassed of winning the damn thing; Donegal, who treated it with the level of disdain it deserves; or Kerry, who probably can’t even remember themselves how they got on in the accursed league, three months after the obituaries for their entire footballing culture were being written?

What I’m trying to say is that Division 1 is a state of mind, not a furnace of white-hot competitive action where decent teams can be forged into something stronger.  The fact was that this year, the best eight teams in the country were in the top division, and that meant the rest of the league was pretty much a turkey-shoot, where anyone could pretty much beat anyone else.  Donegal will be in Division 2 next year, and they’ll probably lose a game or two, or forget to turn up for one more likely.  It doesn’t mean Galway or Wexford or anyone else is capable of competing – it just means they won a league game.

There’s every chance Mayo will get to an All-Ireland semi-final without having to play a Division 1 team.  I don’t think that’s necessarily unfair, on the scale of things that are unfair with the GAA championship structure.  I do, however, think that’s unfair on us – the paying public.  If we have six or eight good teams, we should make them play each other as often as possible.  And that’s what makes the league such a monumental waste of time – imagine what a great competition it would be if anyone actually CARED about it?

This week Murph was – reminiscing on the first time I ever saw Down play in the flesh.  It was 1991, and it was my first ever All-Ireland final.  As a result of that day I’ve always held a soft spot for Down.  I know there are counties that people just like to root for – and although it shouldn’t, it always annoys me that Galway appears to be one of those counties.  I think I speak for both my own native county, and Down, when I say ‘if we won a bit more often, maybe people would be less inclined to like us.’

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