Integrity of Senior Football Championship Compromised

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Spring is in the air, and championship football and hurling are in full flow. Four rounds of Dublin senior hurling and football championship in as many weeks, this week promises to be an eventful one.

While the draw guarantees us the most competitive quarter finals in some years, we still have the clash of respective 2014 and 2016 finalists, Plunketts/Er and Castleknock, as well as Vincent’s and a new look Na Fianna, to whet the appetite.

Brennan controls affairs from the back

Na Fianna face Vincent’s on Thursday

Dublin football supporters should be revelling in anticipation this week. Unfortunately, however, something just isn’t sitting right.

It’s been a long, slow and crumbling road which Croke Park has neglected which has long since led the demise of the integrity of club league competitions. Events a fortnight ago, however, marked a very dark line in the sand, one which can only serve be either the foundations of the thorough demise of club football and hurling which has been the association’s corner stone since 1884, or one which will add significant fuel a long-needed grassroots revolution.

In reality, as Croke Park have bundled along with a thorough lack of forward thinking for some years now, the circumstances which have irrecoverably tarnished this year’s Dublin Senior football Championship, have been in the pipe line.

After Dublin’s drawn final with Mayo last year, both Cuala and St. Vincent’s were ushered into a corner which saw them play what was essentially a knock-out group game without the respective services of Con O’Callaghan and Diarmuid Connolly.

While I had my suspicions last October, regarding where this was leading, I didn’t raise a public eyebrow at the time. In fact, sad as it may seem, it seemed a logical evolution in a G.A.A. culture which is unrecognisable from pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland.

Croke Park cut the cord, and ceased to facilitate dual players at inter-county level a number of years ago. It was an untypically forward thinking move on their part, one required to facilitate the completely changed G.A.A. culture of the last fifteen years. It seemed, and still does seem to me, that county boards following suit down the road, may well be one of the roots to fixing the current national fixture shambles.

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Keaney was one of the last inter-county  dual players

Regarding Cuala and Vincent’s, both hurling teams had become accustomed to having to go without their would-be marquee forwards who were tied up with the Dublin footballers. In fact, even when O’Callaghan did become available, he wasn’t started until the Leinster campaign. No objection your honour!

What happened in Dublin a fortnight ago, however, marks a dark, dark line in the sand in the history of the G.A.A. which is horse of a completely different colour. Seven different Dublin clubs in five different games took the field for the senior championship, the core of club G.A.A., opting not to start their best side on account of the upcoming All-Ireland under 21 final between Dublin and Galway.

It was a peculiar turn that saw only eight clubs represented on Dublin’s starting fifteen, or the issue could have been more widespread.

Yes, players miss championship games on account of injury and illness all the time. They may even miss games on account of work or travel. But this is the first time in the history of the game that clubs have been forced/chosen to take the field for the senior championship without the strongest side they have available to them.

As it happens, four of the five affected games probably won’t have a big outcome on the championship. Both Croke’s and Na Fianna, with seven players left off between them, went through anyway.

With a total of five players left out, the Raheny versus Cuala game was reduced to a mere farce, as was the Clontarf versus Thomas Davis game where each side left players off.

The slim likelihood that of any of any of these four would be in the shake up for the championship come the business end in October, isn’t particularly significant regarding the bigger issue here. The fact of the matter is that both Raheny and Clontarf have gone out of the Senior Football Championship having not been in a position to field their strongest side.

Significantly in this regard, however, is the fact that 2016 All-Ireland champions, Ballyboden/St Enda’s, one of the main championship contenders, have gone out having not started arguably their best forward, Colm Basquel.

Irony of irony, Basquel came on after 17minutes to replace Shane Clayton, a Dublin under 21 who was started, but came off injured, and was unavailable for selection for the under 21 final.

Whether we like it or not, the integrity of the 2017 championship, both morally and practically, has been thoroughly compromised. One of the serious contenders and recent winners have gone out having chosen not to field their strongest side.

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A compromised Ballyboden went out in the first round

The Vincent’s and Ballymun’s of the world probably won’t lose any sleep over it this come September/October, but the practical reality is that whoever wins this year’s championship will not be able to unequivocally say that they are the best in Dublin. They’ll be able to say that they’re the best in a Dublin where the county’s most recent All-Ireland champions have gone out in the first round, having chosen to field a weakened side.

It’s also quite possible that Ballymun’s Dublin under 21 keeper, Evan Comerford, would have played intermediate championship, as he was second to Seán Currie with their senior team last year. Beaten in the intermediate final last year, Mun exited the first round without him. If he would have played in normal circumstances, the integrity of this championship has also been compromised.

For those who underestimate the significance of this, take a look at the diminished value of the F.A. Cup, once the most prestigious cup competition in world club soccer, since Manchester United chose not to play in it the year after winning the Champion’s League in 1999.

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Chelsea’s 2000 F.A. Cup win just wasn’t the same

Indeed, the injury to Clayton alludes to the bigger issue here, which is that none of the Dublin county board, the Dublin under 21 management nor the under 21 players have particularly erred in this whole calamitous spectacle.

Clayton, who started in Lenster, and may have come on as a substitute in the All-Ireland final, has missed the opportunity of a lifetime. You can hardly blame the other players for having had the same fears in advance of the final.

Dessie Farrell and co had worked like professional managers for months on end to reach the final. It would be difficult to argue with them if they wanted to have the same amount of time as their opposition with exclusive access to their players in advance of the final.

And while I’m less than convinced by the merits of playing one, let alone two rounds of a knock-out championship before the summer, the Dublin county board have done a stellar job in turning around what was once a ferocious fixture problem which annually led to a chronic case of seasons running into the following year.

Amongst the CPA’s major gripes, which I agree with, is the complete lack of a fixture calendar for club players. Apart from the fact that they had already refused Donegal’s request to change the semi-final fixture, it would have been entirely amateur for the Dublin county board to change one of the four championship fixtures set in stone since earlier this year.

No. The problem lies firmly on the door step of Croke Park, who have simply stuck their heads in the sand and blindly bundled along over the years with structures which were designed for a culture which is unrecognisable from pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland.

At least I hope they’ve blindly bundled along. You’d like to think they never planned it to be like this!

On all fronts, the club scene has lost out. Remember when club league games, involving county players, used to be played the week before knock-out championship games?

As a broader issue, the whole façade points to an idea alluded to by Kieran McGeeney a couple of years ago about the amount of competitions being played which share the same players. Can you seriously imagine a top tier soccer or rugby player missing a championship club match on account of playing an under 21 international?

Exactly what is the purpose of the under 21 All-Ireland is in a set up where over 85 percent of club games (league games) of over 98 percent of the players (non-county players) have already been eroded to a farce? Does reducing the age to under 20 really fix the underlying problem, or just reduce one element of a grander problem by 33 percent?

Would the congress of 1963, which introduced the competition to begin with, have even discussed it if the professional culture which exists now existed then? Unlikely!

As long as the under 21/20 competitions exist, of course the players and management teams will put their hearts and souls into it. You couldn’t expect anything else. This clash is just one example of an unplanned structure which Croke Park have aimlessly bundled along to reach.

If, Croke Park are happy to see this further erosion of the integrity of the club game, without looking at a methodical and properly planned out massive overhaul to prevent a repeat of this recent farce, it has marked a point where it truly is time for a serious grassroots revolution.

By Stephen O’Meara