Last week’s column predicted a chest-beating charm offensive on behalf of the Offaly hurlers after they completed their four group games in the Leinster SHC without a win – and it arrived in style after Saturday’s defeat to Dublin.
Even the most laissez faire hurling follower would have banked on Offaly being the team making the drop to the Joe McDonagh Cup which makes the outcry even more bizarre (although not unexpected).
Tom Dempsey, Liam Hogan, Johnny Dooley, Anthony Daly, Martin Breheny, Liam Sheedy, Cyril Farrell… the list of pundits queuing up to voice their support for the Offaly unrelegation campaign grew by the day.
There was one voice of reason however (and this is something I never thought I’d write)… Ger Loughnane was talking absolute sense on The Sunday Game.
Loughnane told it like it was: “The perception they’re making progress does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny, especially in the championship… if they’re as good as they think they are, they’d be back in the MacCarthy Cup next year. You have a year and if you’re good enough in a year’s time you’ll be back. This is a blessing for Offaly if they treat it as such. Self-pity will get them nowhere.” Touché, Mr Loughnane.
He’s 100 percent correct. The arguments for the unrelegation of Offaly don’t stack up. It also raises two fingers to the Joe McDonagh Cup counties, most of which would fancy their chances of finishing on a par with Offaly over a five-game McDonagh Cup campaign.
There is a lot of deliberately emotive language being used by people who should know better. For example, Offaly have apparently been ‘banished’ from the MacCarthy Cup, but basically the case for Offaly staying in the Leinster SHC can be summarised thus:
• An Offaly revival won’t be helped by having no senior team in the Leinster SHC– youngsters in Offaly need heroes to look up to
• Current players may walk away from the Offaly set-up
• Galway have a guaranteed path to the All-Ireland quarter-final every year
• Counties like Fermanagh and Leitrim had as much say in the decision to rubberstamp the relegation process as Kilkenny or Wexford
• There could be only three Leinster teams in the Leinster championship if Antrim win the Joe McDonagh Cup
• A six-team Leinster Championship would be a better option… ther e doesn’t have to be any losers here
So let’s look at these arguments in turn.
1. What is the evidence that an Offaly revival won’t be helped by not playing in the Leinster SHC? They’ve been in the Leinster SHC every year since they last won an All-Ireland (not to mention in Division One of the National League for almost that entire period). If their revival strategy is built upon the notion that they need to be playing in Leinster, it is failing miserably.
It’s the same nonsense that is trotted out ad nauseam – with absolutely no evidence whatsoever – that ‘we need to be playing against the better teams in order to improve’. I challenge anyone to name a county that has ever proven this theory.
It goes hand-in-hand with the argument that Offaly won an All-Ireland as recently as 1998 so they should have some sort of special status bestowed to them – like Comber potatoes or Armagh Bramley apples.
To apply this rule to all competitions, Laois should be spared relegation to the Christy Ring Cup this year because they won a MacCarthy Cup in 1915.
2. If the players’ commitment to their county is such that players will walk away from the Offaly set-up (as suggested by Johnny Dooley) because they are not playing ‘senior championship hurling’, then that might go some way to explaining part of the reason why they find themselves where they do.
3. Galway are the All-Ireland champions. They won the MacCarthy Cup last year for the first time since 1988. They will not always have a squad as strong as the current crop of players. That they are All-Ireland champions is also used by some of the same people arguing for an Offaly reprieve to demonstrate the relative strength of the Leinster championship against its Munster counterpart.
4. Counties like ‘Fermanagh and Leitrim’ did indeed have a say in the decision-making process. There is a notion that changes to the top flight don’t affect the lower tiers. There is a knock-on effect however. If you doubt this, read the GPA research published last year which actually asked Ring, Rackard and Meagher Cup players – for the first time – what they thought about the structure of the competitions that they play in.
5. The notion that Offaly, as a Leinster county, should be entitled to play in the Leinster Senior Championship didn’t stand up prior to the entry of Antrim and Galway into the eastern province and it certainly doesn’t stand up now.
Long before Antrim and Galway played in Leinster, Westmeath applied to play in Ulster because they were being excluded from their own provincial championship. Given the intervening transformation of the hurling championship, the Bob O’Keefe Cup is no longer a ‘Leinster’ competition. It is a strand of the All-Ireland SHC administered by Leinster GAA.
6. There doesn’t have to be any losers, suggested Liam Sheedy… well, that’s true. It is indeed possible to make the Leinster SHC into a six-team competition by scrapping relegation this year. I am not against this element in principal. For example, if the Galway squad were hit by a mystery virus over the past month and lost all four championship games, I would be calling for a six-team Leinster SHC next year because it wouldn’t serve hurling well to have Galway playing in the McDonagh Cup.
But that’s not the case. The reality is that Offaly are McDonagh Cup standard. Their cause will be best served by playing in the McDonagh Cup and availing – if they’re good enough – of the pathway to the MacCarthy Cup via that competition. That is a much more realistic pathway than their current option.
In their four Leinster SHC games, they were outscored by 14-85 to 5-50, a scoring difference of minus 62 points.
I’m not against restructuring competitions. In fact I’m all for it – but it’s not just about number crunching and saying ‘we can have six in this championship, make that tier six teams, this tier seven teams’ or whatever.
It has to be in the interests of hurling, it has to reflect the standard of the teams in each tier. Look at last year’s Christy Ring Cup. No matter what way it was sliced up, Antrim and Carlow were always going to meet in the final. Antrim knew it, Carlow knew it. And so did the other six teams in the competition. Did Antrim and Carlow in the 2017 Ring Cup reflect the reality of the hurling landscape? Of course it didn’t. But Offaly playing in the 2019 Joe McDonagh Cup does.