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Michael Murphy: Switch league and provincials - the shape of the football season has to change

Derry v Donegal should provide some relief in a GAA season struggling for crowds and attention

I’m convinced the provincial championships have to move to the early months of the year. I say that as someone who loves the Ulster championship and always valued it in my time. We’ve already moved a little bit in that direction with April matches.

Dessie Farrell mentioned it on Sunday after another bloodless Dublin win over Meath; the trajectory of the season needs to be on an upward curve whereas at the moment it feels like a U shape – starts big, falls and tries to rise again as the summer goes on.

We’ve condensed the season and added more games but we haven’t taken away any competitions. The preseason tournaments are still there and there’s a definite appetite at the start of the year but why give the GAA public synthetic provincial competition, O’Byrne Cups and McKenna Cups et cetera instead of championships?

If there’s a concern about interest levels, incentivise counties by keeping the same rules allowing provincial finalists progress to the Sam Maguire.


That way, you wouldn’t be keeping counties hanging around not sure what championship they’re in, as happens at the moment with promoted Division Three teams, who are told one minute that they’re in the Tier 1 championship and then if results go a certain way, they’re not.

Everyone would know where they stand before the league: eight provincial finalists and next eight counties, based on league positions to advance. You’d know where you had to finish in Division Two to make the cut and that would add excitement.

I’ve seen two full weekends now and even Ulster, the strongest of the provincial championships is struggling. Eight thousand in Clones for Monaghan-Cavan – that’s a league crowd!

There was a crowd of 4,000 in Newry on Saturday for a Down team on the up against an Antrim team from just down the road. Enniskillen on Sunday was better with 7,000 but I would qualify that a bit because Armagh’s huge following has been an exception to the rule.

I was disappointed with Down. I hadn’t seen them throughout the league apart from the divisional final but I was excited to have a look at them. But having watched on Saturday and two weeks earlier – they looked off it. Even listening to Conor Laverty speaking afterwards, he sounded downbeat after the last two performances.

Around the start of the championship, I put a bit of stock in the idea that a good league was a championship boost and vice versa. At this stage I’m selling! Down had a bad end to their league but that display on Saturday is not part of a trend. á

Look at Fermanagh’s last performance against Cavan and see how that held up on Sunday, getting hammered by Armagh whose own disappointing display against Donegal was transformed for the weekend. Westmeath beat Down in the league final and lost to Wicklow a week later. How Cavan turned things around in Clones?

An interesting statistic about Armagh: 14 of the players who faced Fermanagh in the 2018 championship were involved on Saturday. That’s a good sign because they have been developing for all that time in terms of fitness and conditioning – no use, I know, if they can’t win Ulster or get beyond an All-Ireland semi-final but they are heading in the right direction

Part of the reason crowds are suffering is the rushed nature of the provincial championships. You bounce from week to week, trying to review one weekend’s action and at the same time, look forward to the following weekend.

Take Wicklow. A fortnight ago, they had a brilliant win over Westmeath. How much of an opportunity did they get to celebrate the win, to visit places, maybe have an open day? There would have been a bit of a surge in interest anyway but not the room for promotional activity because there’s no time.

These are the sacrifices of the condensed season. Nobody wants to go back to the 1990s but we lose out by not attracting a bit more publicity and interest for the fixtures.

I suspect another reason is weather. Playing championship at this time of the year increases those risks. I was talking about this at the weekend with the BBC panel. We were saying that more time has been spent discussing rain and wind than analysing football.

That also comes with the territory. There’s a fair old contrast between a typical April evening and a July afternoon. It affects the games when played in blustery conditions like we have had for the first two weeks.

The amount of rain over the last couple of months has been unbelievable and that can be seen in the quality of surfaces. I walked up the sideline in Brewster Park yesterday. It looked beautiful across the middle of the pitch but up the sideline it was saturated.

There’s a big difference between kicking a ball in Brewster Park and in Croke Park where the bounce will be true and you’ll be able to turn on the surface with confidence. Other venues lack that consistency.

County grounds generally have the best surfaces in most counties and importantly also have floodlights. Ultimately, they are the venues that will get a knock on the door from all sorts of teams, minors, under-20s. There aren’t that many floodlit pitches in Donegal, so the traffic on them is very heavy.

Next Saturday, Donegal travel to Derry for the biggest match of the championship so far, a meeting of the league winners of Division One and Division Two, a renewal of Mickey Harte versus Jim McGuinness.

How will Derry deal with All-Ireland scrutiny? For the past five years, the story has been, Derry are building, Derry are building. Now, the narrative has settled on them being finally built and regularly mentioned in the same breath as Dublin and Kerry.

Every day, people decide whether or not they are going to win the All-Ireland. That’s a metric and a judgment new to Derry. Players are going to be under a microscope along with everything they do. It will be interesting to see the impact.

My instinct is that they are at a level of maturity that can handle it. This is a consequence of their gradual development over four or five years. There hasn’t been a major turnover of players so there is cohesion within the team.

The last two years of playing Dublin in two league finals and Kerry in both an All-Ireland semi-final and the league will have given them a sense that they do belong in that bracket.

Compare it to our development in Donegal. We arrived with a bang in 2011 and our big awakening came in that Dublin semi-final. We obviously ruffled feathers – in Dublin, certainly but even around the country, judging by the outpourings of cribbing and crying that came with it.

Immediately we knew that we must be doing something right and it’s well documented that by 2012 we knew that we needed a more robust attacking capability to go with the improved defence.

Effectively, we emerged one season and won an All-Ireland a year later. Derry have been more organic, five years in the making and I think that means they will handle the challenges whereas Donegal dropped off a cliff in 2013 and never really made it back, even though we tried to reinvent in 2014.

The Derry method is more realistic in the modern game. You can’t, for instance, build strength and conditioning in a year. It has to be added to annually.

That is why it’s such a problem for intercounty teams to have players dropping in for a couple of years and then going travelling for a couple more. It disrupts all development, physical, tactical and technical.

This is something I think goes to the heart of Saturday. Derry have five years under their belt against a Donegal team with just seven months since Jim came back. I think it will take a couple of years to get to the level that he wants.

There will be wins along the way but to be in the conversations that are referencing Derry, Kerry and Dublin – that takes a little longer.