IN March 2018 Tipperary and Cavan met in a Division 2 league promotion decider in Breffni Park to determine which of the pair would join the big guns in Division 1.
The prize was even bigger again for Tipperary because they’d never played in Division 1. Tipp were forced to play the final 34 minutes with 14 men but they still led for most of the game until Cavan secured the winning point in the 75th minute.
Cavan were promoted while Tipperary ended up fourth in the Division, just narrowly above the relegation places.
A year later, Cavan were relegated from Division 1, while Tipperary were relegated to Division 3.
At the outset of the last day of the 2020 league in late October, Cavan had an outside chance of promotion to Division 1. By the end of the afternoon, Cavan were relegated to Division 3.
Nobody knows what might have happened if the league had concluded when it was initially expected to in the spring. On the other hand, everyone knows what would have happened if everything had remained normal — Cavan and Tipperary would have had to reach a provincial final to remain in the race for the Sam Maguire.
Doing so would have prevented their exclusion but, had Cavan and Tipperary not eked out dramatic extra-time wins against Monaghan and Limerick respectively, they’d have found themselves competing in the Tailteann Cup, if that competition had been in place. And that is expected to be the reality now for Division 3 teams next year with the introduction of the Tailteann Cup.
Cavan and Tipperary are surfing a totally different wave of optimism and positivity at the moment but targeting league promotion in 2021 will still be seen as a massive priority towards building on that progress. Yet after Cavan and Tipp’s success, every team in Division 2 will be terrified of slipping out of that division and being potentially excluded from the Sam Maguire unless they reach a provincial final.
The elephant in the football room remains the provincial championships. At face value, that debate to remove, or alter, the provinces, has never looked weaker.
On the other hand, the knockout provincial football championships in their historical format certainly didn’t help Tipperary for 85 years, or Cavan for 23 years. And unless something radical is done in Leinster, the majority of teams outside Dublin will just effectively give up.
“Leinster football is, to all intents and purposes, dead,” wrote former Westmeath footballer, John Connellan, in an open letter after Dublin’s demolition of Meath in the Leinster final. “It is a once-great competition that can no longer be considered a viable entity due to Dublin’s dominance.”
Connellan claimed that platoons of footballers in the province are being “robbed of meaningful inter-county careers”. He even encouraged county boards to take the ultimate step of not sending players “to compete in a competition where they are set up to fail”.
Dublin’s dominance is becoming such a threat now to the football landscape that former players have suggested granting Dublin a pass to the All-Ireland series, and letting every other county fight it out for the Leinster championship.
That will never happen because the GAA can’t make allowances for one province and not the other three. So what happens next?
The thrust of Connellan’s argument is that Leinster counties should demand a fair allocation of centrally administered GAA resources. Between 2007-2017, Dublin received central funding of €16.6m. On top of that, Dublin can attract the best and most lucrative sponsorship deals in the GAA.
Dublin have the best players. They train as hard as anyone else to maintain their dominance. It is easy to see why they see this debate as futile and unfair on the effort they, and all the coaches on the ground, put into keeping Dublin at such a high level. But they cannot argue the huge disparity in terms of playing population and finance when compared to every other county.
“It comes down to player development and overall fairness,” wrote Jim McGuinness in his Irish Times column last Saturday.
“It doesn’t matter whether you are 12 years old today in Westmeath or Dublin: you should have the same opportunity to develop as a footballer. You must have the same exposure to high-performance processes. So a high-performance national standard must be set by the GAA and then rolled out.”
McGuinness said there should be a high-performance director in each county. Whether it is Dublin or Leitrim, McGuinness rightly argued that the child should have the exact same experience.
On a Newstalk panel on Saturday, former Antrim manager, Lenny Harbinson, spoke of how the same cloud hung over the game in the 1980s, but that Kerry’s dominance eventually ended. Yet Dublin are a whole different animal now with their population and resources. And there certainly appears to be no end of their dominance in Leinster.
Shining a light on Leinster does also project what could happen on a national stage. McGuinness believes it will take “a radical intervention” to turn this around, which could take up to “five plus years to see any change”, especially when the Dublin project is only beginning to function on a streamlined level now.
Altering the championship structure would have to be a key starting point but unless all counties have the same opportunity with regard to funding, the elephant in the room is only going to be bigger and stronger. And the room is only going to get smaller.
This debate can’t be put off for much longer. Because, despite the feel-good factor for football this week with Cavan and Tipperary’s involvement in All-Ireland semi-finals, the GAA can’t keep banking on outlier teams to rescue a system that Dublin are threatening to take over.