ON THE evening Sligo defeated Roscommon in Markievicz Park last June, Jim McGuinness was part of the Sky Sports panel analysing the game.
Roscommon were hot favourites but the manner in which they were turned over by Sligo added to McGuinness’ biggest personal disappointment of the championship up to that point.
The three teams he had been looking forward to following most over the summer were Roscommon, Cavan and Tipperary, primarily because, along with Dublin, they had been three of football’s most dominant underage teams over the previous five years. In McGuinness’ opinion, the performances of all three had been “a letdown”.
The qualifiers offered no respite to the expectancy around those teams; Tipp were annihilated by Tyrone; after defeating Cavan, Roscommon blew a big lead late on against Fermanagh.
Underage success has never guaranteed anything but if those counties which have enjoyed sustained underage provincial superiority couldn’t climb higher up the ladder, it inflates the perception of a widening gap between the top three – Dublin, Kerry and Mayo – and everyone else.
After winning an All-Ireland U-21 title last year, and running Kerry close in an All-Ireland senior semi-final, Tyrone are entitled to feel they can keep company with the top boys now.
They underlined as much with an impressive league campaign in Division 2. Donegal will still be ultra-competitive this season but it’s difficult to see this side winning another All-Ireland given the mileage some of their older players have clocked.
Looking for the next team to challenge, or break into, that category of the top five is never easy to gauge because underage success hasn’t been an accurate gauge in the modern era.
Cork and Galway are prime examples. As Monaghan have proved – with two Ulster titles in three years – to go anywhere now requires a sustained stint in Division 1 of the league.
Teams like Meath and Galway – who dominated the game between 1996-2001 – are nowhere near as strong as they were back then but their absence from Division 1 for so long has contributed to their struggles to bridge the gap to the top teams.
Division 1 is better, and far more competitive, than three of the four provincial championships. There will always be elite players and teams in every sport but the current format has negated against the developmental potential that the old system of Division 1A and 1B routinely fostered.
Back then, there were 16 teams in the mix for a Division 1 title, and the possibility of a host more outcomes. Football was far more democratic back but the prospects of many of those counties outside the top tier was enhanced to the league big-time through Division 1B.
The qualifiers hold no real appeal for most teams anymore. The old novelty, where a team could get a decent draw and embark on a run, are gone. Thirteen of the 16 teams from Divisions 3 and 4 last season were eliminated before Round 3 of the qualifiers.
One of the reasons the qualifiers have become so redundant is because, with the exception of Tyrone, the big guns don’t need them anymore. Cork and Kerry’s seeding in Munster effectively prevents them running into a car-crash away from home in June.
Mayo and Dublin haven’t needed the qualifiers to regroup or recharge like Kerry in 2009, or Cork in 2010. The last real marquee qualifier match was Kerry-Tyrone in Killarney in 2012.
The modern culture of sports science and defensive systems which made teams harder to beat hasn’t tightened standards and closed the gap. The stronger counties just made the most of those means as well to make themselves better.
Mayo and Donegal increased their capacity to compete at the highest level more through resourcefulness than resources. Mayo were financially broke when James Horan took over.
When McGuinness was installed in Donegal, he began cold calling businesses for funding and assistance. Mayo and Donegal introduced a high performance culture, thought differently, worked harder, and stayed in Division 1, all of which enabled them to compound their provincial superiority.
Cavan are finally back in the top tier now but staying there for a sustained period will be crucial to their development over the next few seasons. It’s just as crucial for Roscommon, who meet Kerry in Sunday’s league semi-final.
Roscommon have delivered some outstanding performances this spring. They began training in early October to get a head-start on everyone else but as the season has progressed, other teams have clearly caught up with them. Can they also remain fresh for the rest of the season?
Roscommon have proved they can compete with the elite but can they break into that top group? Especially when the championship structure won’t make it any easier for them to maintain momentum and to continue measuring progress.
Unless they win on Sunday, Roscommon won’t meet a Division One or Two team again – if they keep winning – until late July. That may leave them vulnerable in a Connacht final.
On the other hand, that route looks instantly more appealing than the one Cavan have to take to get to the same stage; if they win their opening championship match against Armagh, they will have to beat Tyrone or Derry to reach the final, where Donegal or Monaghan will more than likely be waiting.
Similarly, Tipperary, who were nearly promoted from Division 3, will have to beat Waterford, Cork and Kerry to win Munster.
Ultimately, every team helps itself. The system doesn’t restrict ambition and desire but its overall inequality still makes it harder for anyone outside the top level to break into that group.