Can Donegal football be saved after county final fiasco?
It is a question that has been on the lips of every GAA person in the county this week after a senior county final that turned into a fiasco rather than a football match.
Kilcar are not too worried, however, as they have the cup, but there were even rumblings in Kilcar on Sunday evening that Donegal had reached a new low as regards the game of Gaelic football.
First of all, hats off to Kilcar. They were the best team in Donegal throughout 2017 and fully deserve to be celebrating. They have the best players in the county at the moment and it is fitting that they have been rewarded.
There was a carnival atmosphere in the village on Sunday evening as their heroes returned. The wait had been long, but they handled it well with a well managed celebration. Patrick McBrearty is only 24 but he showed great maturity in his speech, thanking everyone involved and remembering the coaches who had worked with the players from a young age to adulthood.
But just like happened in Ballybofey, the King of Kilcar at the moment (and for some years now) is Mickey Hegarty. His popularity was reflected in the sustained applause which he received in Ballybofey (when lifting the cup) and again on Sunday evening when chairman, John Carr, told the thronged reception that he had received a ‘phone call from the chairman of another club in the county on the Saturday night wishing Kilcar well, but saying he wanted them to win because Mickey Hegarty deserved to have a Donegal senior medal. 85 championship games (out of a possible 88) over 22 years, scoring 4-193. It is some record and one which is recognised by those who follow games in Kilcar. He was faultless in the final, doing the simple things so well and also scoring a great point.
And behind it all he is just a normal, modest person who gets on with everybody. His back must have been sore on Sunday evening with all the backslaps he received. In the coming weeks the Player of the Championship will be selected and if it was left to the Kilcar supporters there would be a unanimous choice.
But getting back to the game itself, it was merciful that no TV cameras were present to witness the fiasco.
It wasn’t a football match as we know it. Kilcar played the patient game and Naomh Conaill paid the price for not having a real go. And with just over ten minutes left, and just two points between the sides, the game was there for the taking. Kilcar - by far the better side in the opening half - were there for the taking as they got wrapped up in game plan of just holding possession. And if Naomh Conaill had taken a couple of the other chances that went wide, it might have been difficult for Kilcar to change gears again.
But that apart, can anything be done so that we don’t ever see that type of fiasco ever again on county final day?
Fear seemed to be the cause. Kilcar were without a title for so long they were prepared to do anything to get over the line (and they also had the memories of last year’s final defeat); Naomh Conaill were afraid of leaving any space and getting opened up by the speed of Kilcar. It was strange for Naomh Conaill, who would not normally show any fear of the opposition. Or was it just that they (like Kilcar) couldn’t make the transition from Plan A?
Whatever the reason, the game will be remembered as the final which produced two points in the second half - one for each team.
It is a reflection of some of the worst traits of Donegal (and Ulster) football in recent years. It bore a resemblance to Jim McGuinness’s Donegal against Dublin in 2011, but Donegal were a different side a year later when pace (and kicking) was introduced to transition ball from back to front in double quick time.
Hopefully, Declan Bonner will have learned something from the game. And probably, more importantly, club coaches in Donegal will also take lessons.
The dvd of the game should be locked away and only shown as a punishment for serial black card offenders.
Almost 7,000 attended the game, all of them having to pay (U-16s were charged for the first time to see a Donegal final). Apart from those from Kilcar, it was poor value for money.
Are they necessary?
I got an interesting ‘phone call last week regarding recent meetings by a Workgroup looking at the club league structure in Donegal, with changes being mooted. One of those changes being talked about was the structure being changed to 13 teams with one round of games and a regional league filling the void of games in the summer. It seems that soundings taken from clubs have not been very positive towards the regional league, which some feel would have meaningless games.
Others feel that the present league structure is working very well, and it’s hard to argue with that in 2017. With one round of games to go in Division One the outcome at the top and the bottom is still in the fire.
Division Two - Aodh Ruadh clinched the title last week by virtue of Ardara defeating Cloughaneely, which denied what would have been a winner takes all decider in Falcarragh in the final round of games this Sunday. At the bottom, one of the relegation places is in the melting pot on the final day.
Division Three is still to be decided with two rounds of games to go.
Could it be any more competitive or interesting?
The elephant in the room as regards the Donegal club leagues is the availability of county players to their clubs. Star games, where clubs with county players are matched, has been tried, but clubs are not happy with them. Because of that, not enough club games are played during the summer months and club players are denied a fixture plan that is set in stone.
No matter what way you look at it, the only solution to this problem is for clubs to play without their county players. That is the only way a fixture list can be compiled and adhered to.
It would generate opposition from a number of clubs, but look at Kilcar this year. They are on course to retain the Democrat Cup and yet had to play without up to five players on some occasions.
There's one change that I would make to the present structure which might ease the pressure (especially on teams in fear of relegation). With just 10 teams in the top divisions, having automatic relegation for two (20%) could be changed. If one team was automatically relegated and the second from bottom play off with the second from top in Division Two, it would give clubs a second chance. And they would have their full panel of players available for such a play-off.
We can talk until the cows come home about 10-team; 13-team; 15-team leagues, but if games don’t go ahead week after week for club players, then we’re only wasting time. How much easier it would be for Declan Martin and his fixtures committee if there was a full club fixture list.
At the end of the day the club league is about players getting games every weekend in a set schedule. There will always be anomalies and some clubs will suffer, but it is not a perfect world.
Milford have come from Division Four to Division One; Aodh Ruadh, one of the top clubs in the county for years, have spent over 10 years in the doldrums, a kick of a ball away from Division Four, and now they are back in Division One.
There is no shame in being relegated; there is no God-given right to staying at the top all the time. The world revolves and so do clubs.
But what is most important is that any structure that is decided gives club players a games structure that they can plan their life around. If Donegal are playing, games can be on Saturday and everybody is free to support the county on Sunday. And that could work right through the summer. Remember, at most 26 players will be wanted by Declan Bonner. All the rest should be free to play league games, even on an Ulster Championship weekend.
It all comes down to making the call.
Forty clubs (senior and reserve) multiplied by panels of 40 = 1,600 club players. Surely, they are as important as the 26 who are playing county, and deserve a fixture list set in stone.
Go on and do it. It shouldn’t be that difficult!