Tailteann Cup won’t fix things on its own - but it’s a start
So three days out from Cavan’s opening round of the Tailteann Cup and the question remains, is the competition going to benefit the weaker counties in their aim to close the gap on the teams at the top? Without doubt the idea of two tiers is better then what was in place in the past. Something desperately needed to change in the race for Sam Maguire as only five counties have lifted the coveted prize in the last 20 years.
The landscape of inter county football is constantly evolving and changing. Right now, it's probably fair to say that there are at least three different groupings in standard when comparing inter-county senior football teams.
In my opinion there are probably eight teams that could win the Sam Maguire this year given the way the draw works out with Dublin and Kerry most likely to meet in an All-Ireland semi-final if they make it to that stage. Outside of the top two, Mayo, Tyrone, Donegal, Galway, Monaghan, and Derry could, with the right draw, make an All-Ireland final and on the day anything can happen. I wouldn't fall off my chair if I saw Armagh or Roscommon in an All-Ireland semi-final either.
But to break the counties up into three different groups, I think Armagh and Roscommon are probably in the second tier as I don't see them beating two of the other eight teams above them in championship. The rest of tier two would be filled by Kildare, Cavan, Meath, Clare, Cork, Tipperary and Limerick going on what this year’s championship has shown. I can see an argument for leaving a couple of the Munster teams out but it’s important for progression that the bottom of one tier isn’t too far away from the top of the next tier.
The reason for this second tier is that in reality none of these teams are going to win Sam Maguire this year. In the same breath, any of these teams entering the Tailteann Cup would be strong favourites as shown by Cavan's favourites tag for this year’s competition.
That leaves a third tier with 16 teams but if I'm being completely honest, not all of those 16 teams are capable of winning the Tailteann Cup. Having said that, winning it and getting better as a team by playing it are two separate things.
Since the qualifier system began in 2002, Leitrim, for example, have never won two games in the same year in the qualifiers so the question has to be asked, have they developed under that system? Looking at their Connacht Championship results and their National League results over that time, the answer is clearly no.
In the same 20 years, Antrim have only won two games in the qualifier system in the same year twice. In 2011, they beat Westmeath and Carlow before losing to Down by 12 points. The following year, while operating in Division 3 in the league, they beat London and Galway (who finished third in the Division 2 league) before losing to Tipperary.
At the opposite end of the scale, Tyrone, since 2002, have played 54 championship games after losing in the Ulster championship, winning two All-Irelands via the qualifiers. In all, in the 20 years since the qualifiers began, Tyrone have played 105 championship games before this year. On three occasions, Mickey Harte's team failed to win more than one game in the qualifiers.
The additional games that Tyrone played over those years compounded their advantage over weaker teams as they received additional elite training each year while players with weaker teams were back playing and training with their clubs.
While this is clearly an advantage, it is not the only explanation as to why Tyrone had been successful over the last 20 years. A main driver for success at senior level is actually underage success. Tyrone, in the 10 years before the qualifiers, won one minor All-Ireland in 1998 and four U21 All Irelands in ’91, ’92, 2000 and 2001.
In fact, if you look back over the underage minor and U21 All-Ireland winners from 1990 to 2000, each team enjoyed provincial or national success at senior level within 10 years of that underage success.
Meath, with All-Ireland minor success in 1990 and 1992, and U21 success in 1993, went on to win Sam Maguire twice and four Leinster senior titles. Cork footballers won minor All-Irelands in 1991, ’93 and 2000 along with U21 All Irelands in 1991 and ’94. This, in turn, led to four Munster titles before the year 2000 and four more in the following decade.
The exception that proves the rule are the Down minor All-Ireland winning champions from 1999; Down also won an All-Ireland minor in 2005 but neither led to senior success. For Kerry, Westmeath, Laois and Derry, underage success between the years 1990 and 2000 transferred to senior championship success on the field within 10 years at provincial or national level.
This shows that the saying “success breeds success” isn't just a meaningless cliché. If the GAA really want to level the playing field, reducing the number of underage competitions will prove counter-productive as it will in turn reduce the number of teams that will enjoy top level provincial or national success.
The Tailteann Cup on its own will not solve the inequalities in inter-county Gaelic football. But the round robin system for the 2023 renewal will help the weaker counties as it would provide them with more elite training deeper into the summer than some of the teams ejected from the All-Ireland qualifiers.
Better players make better trainings. Even the very best club training in the country cannot compare to the standard of inter-county senior training and, by definition, the very best players in the county training together for longer will make them better.
So the Tailteann Cup is not the complete fix to all the GAA problems but it is a step in the right direction and an improvement on the previous system. Cavan will improve this year even more if they go deep into the Tailteann Cup but if they don’t, the groups development stops.
So hopefully Mickey Graham’s lads will get the ball rolling this Saturday with a win.