Eye in the sky... an aerial view of Croke before last Sunday's All-Ireland hurling final between Limerick and Waterford. It's the turn of the Dublin and Mayo footballers this evening (Saturday). Photo: Defence Forces PR branch.

Splitting Dublin debate won’t go away even if Mayo land Sam

The late Garret FitzGerald once had a notion that in order to streamline local government, county boundaries could be redrawn so that all counties would be roughly the same size.

The former Taoiseach’s idea was met with some disapproval, with one colleague reputed to have asked incredulously: “Who’s going to tell the GAA?”. The idea never got off the ground.

Overall, the county system has served the GAA and indeed the country well. Many people have deep loyalty to their native county and this is often connected to interest in GAA matters.

But tradition cannot be allowed to stifle the possibility of making change when needed, and the issue of splitting Dublin for football purposes falls into that category.

The GAA has embraced several changes over the years, from allowing other sports to be played in Croke Park, to the introduction of All-Ireland qualifiers. Splitting Dublin into two teams would be a more fundamental change, but it is one which should explored and debated properly by GAA authorities.

Tyrone football legend Peter Canavan recently contended that Dublin’s dominance is the “biggest debate that’s going to take place within the GAA for a long, long time”. He pointed out that players like the Brogan brothers (Alan and Bernard) and Paul Flynn have departed the scene and yet Dublin continue to rule the roost. “The longer this goes on, you’re starting to see that this is not a generational thing,” said Canavan.

Former Dublin manager Pat Gilroy and current Meath boss Andy McEntee (whose team suffered a 21-point defeat to the Dubs in this year’s Leinster final) recently took part in a ‘Sunday Game’ discussion on Dublin’s dominance. Gilroy put forward the idea of different counties merging in order to compete with Dublin. One of the possible examples mentioned by Gilroy was Kerry and Cork joining up, which was rather peculiar to say the least.

If Kerry (still the most successful Gaelic football county in terms of titles won) and Cork (the county with the largest geographical area and the most GAA clubs) can’t compete as single entities, we might as well throw our proverbial hats at the whole thing. Gilroy was on more solid ground when he said: “If you had a blank sheet of paper, you would not design this championship or structure the way it is”.

Joe Brolly also raised the possibility of counties merging but the problem with such ideas is that nobody has provided concrete details as to how such amalgamations would be formulated, not to mention the likely opposition within the counties themselves. Indeed, one wonders would Brolly support an amalgamation of his native Derry and Tyrone!

Some people from outside counties like Leitrim and Sligo might describe them as a “natural fit” to merge, but that ignores the deep seated local rivalry in such places. Merging counties would take away the sense of identity people would have when they see their team playing.

Of course, splitting Dublin into two would be far from easy to digest for Dublin supporters. But at least they would still be able to support part of their own county, whether it be Dublin North, Dublin South or whatever.

According to the 2016 Census, the population of Dublin, city and county, was over 1.3 million. Even if Dublin was split into two for football purposes, each ‘half’ would still have a bigger population to draw from than any other county.

Some people might say that when Kerry were dominating in football (winning four All-Irelands in a row from 1978 to 1981) or Kilkenny in hurling (who completed a quadruple from 2006 to 2009) that there was no talk of dividing them.

However, those counties don’t have the sort of advantages that Dublin enjoy in terms of population and sponsorship income. It was always likely that their dominance would eventually come to an end.

In Dublin’s case there is such a deep reservoir of talent that they can easily freshen up their team and replace stars going past their peak. There is no doubt that Dublin’s dominance presents a real challenge to the GAA.

In his thought provoking ‘open letter’ on the state of the Leinster SFC, former Westmeath player John Connellan recently described the competition as “dead”. It’s impossible to argue with Connellan when one considers that Dublin’s average winning margin over the last eight Leinster finals is 14.3 points. And that doesn’t take into account the annihilations they have dished out in earlier rounds of a Leinster championship which has become a tedious procession.

Connellan called on “county boards across the country, but more immediately in Leinster, to demand a fair allocation of centrally-administered GAA resources”. The Athlone man was right to raise issues around financial disparity. In a recent article in the Irish Daily Mail, it was pointed out that Dublin received more than €1m more than Laois in games development funding in 2017. Precious little has changed since.

It could be argued, with some justification, that Dublin competing as a single entity is unfair on a large number of Dublin players who have little or no hope of playing inter-county football. This is a central plank in the argument of Colm O’Rourke, who has been proposing for years that Dublin needs to be split for football purposes. Therefore, O’Rourke’s recent reiteration of his views cannot be dismissed as a knee jerk reaction to his county’s Leinster final hammering.

Back in 2017, O’Rourke said the following (with considerable logic on his side): “The future of the GAA cannot be one team in Dublin, with 1.25 or 1.3million, a third of the country’s population. The health of the game in Dublin would be better served by two or three teams at adult level. It would give far more players at underage level the chance to play for Dublin which is what they want.”

The argument about splitting Dublin goes back further than the last few years, with the Strategic Review Committee in 2000 recommending that serious consideration be given to splitting Dublin.

Trying to debate the merits or otherwise of splitting Dublin is not an attempt to detract from the excellence of their football in recent years. Outstanding footballers like Brian Fenton, Stephen Cluxton, James McCarthy, Ciaran Kilkenny and Con O’Callaghan deserve all the praise they receive.

There are those who question why Dublin are not dominating in hurling. Perhaps that will happen in time, but hurling in Dublin is at a much lower base than its football equivalent. And talented dual players (who could improve Dublin hurling’s fortunes) almost invariably opt for football where success is virtually guaranteed.

If Dublin was split into two, there would be the possibility of an All-Ireland final between two Dublin teams. Not ideal perhaps but it’s not a decisive argument against it. After all, plenty of county finals between two clubs from the same town attract huge interest.

Some observers might argue that the status quo should be left alone because Dublin won two All-Ireland finals in the five-in-a-row sequence by a single point (one of those after a replay). In addition, Dublin needed a replay to get over Kerry last year.

But this simplistic view misses the point (excuse the pun). We can hardly say a championship is working satisfactorily if a team is demolishing all opponents until the final or semi-final. Indeed, Dublin have yet to be involved in what could be called a genuine contest in this year’s championship, with the 11-point winning margin over Westmeath their lowest.

For all the joy elicited by Cavan’s surprise Ulster final victory this year, I can’t remember an All-Ireland semi-final attracting such little interest (outside the two competing counties) as their recent clash with Dublin. Many neutrals regarded the result as inevitable and therefore paid little heed to it.

As for All-Ireland final this evening (Saturday), I expect Dublin to complete the six-in-a-row. Even though Mayo were clinical in front of goal (not a trait generally associated with them) in their semi-final against Tipperary, they coughed up a very worrying number of goal chances. Tipp scored three goals and could easily have scored four more. On that basis, I think we’ll soon be asking can anyone stop a seven-in-a-row.

But I do think Mayo will give Dublin their first genuine test of this year’s championship. But even if it’s another cliff-hanger, like the 2016 and 2017 finals, and even if Mayo pull off an improbable victory, the debate over splitting Dublin won’t go away.

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