Posted by Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna on the difference between the Philip McGuinnesses and Seanie Johnstons of the GAA world and how the smaller teams may never break into the top eight again

The fading lights

Ewan MacKenna on the difference between the Philip McGuinnesses and Seanie Johnstons of the GAA world and how the smaller teams may never break into the top eight again

Be honest. You don’t care what happens between Leitrim and London on Sunday. You probably didn’t even realise it was on, and you might well maintain that mindset long past the final whistle in Ruislip unless there is an upset to amuse you.

But there are a few odd cases scattered about the place that do care. Yesterday evening over a cup of coffee with Micheal and John McGuiness - the brothers of the late Philip who was Leitrim wing-forward until he died following an horrific on-field accident in 2010 - they talked of his love and their love of the county and what a game like that would have meant to him and still means to them.

“You have to have that passion when you are from around here,” they said. “Otherwise why else would you go out night after night for training when you know you will, realistically, win nothing at any stage in your career.”

Both had played for the county for years as well but they talked particularly about the commitment of their youngest brother who travelled to and from his job in Belmulltet twice a week for training and again at weekends, usually for some Godforsaken game in Division Four. And for those not aware, it’s a two-and-a-half hour trip across bad roads each way.

It was against this vibrant backdrop of pride of place that there has been so much talk of Seánie Johnston and his move to Kildare being sanctioned in recent days. But rather than this being another piece specifically about the rights and wrongs of his transfer, (we’ve gotten into that before) this is a horror story about the precedent it might set, what might become of the county Johnston left behind and the county Philip McGuinness would have spent a lifetime playing for if he was afforded that opportunity, and the future of the game we now know. Brace yourself, because this isn’t pretty.

Earlier this year, when previewing the championship season, we looked at the demise of the middle-tier of counties and how it has led to an elite eight or nine at a stretch. The levels they have reached are startling and in trying to outdo each other, they have left the rest so far behind they aren’t even in sight. We aren’t talking about the likes of Leitrim and Cavan either.

A side like Longford who are better than they’ve ever been, and as Michael Quinn told me recently “have to make the most of the present because a bunch like this might never come along again in our lifetime”, cannot get near that top eight and possibly never will.

It’s not because the likes of them and Leitrim and Cavan aren’t working as hard as the most celebrated players or because they don’t care as much as the most decorated counties. It is to a large extent because of demographics and economics. It’s boring and slightly depressing but it is also hard to avoid and as time goes on, unless something is done, football is going to become more and more about those words which have no place hovering about.

Of course you are always going to have an Eamonn O’Hara and Dessie Dolan and Tom Kelly popping up now and again, and it might well be from the poorest soil. But ask yourself this. When will be the next time we have an era where Sligo and Westmeath and Laois can not only compete with the best, but beat the best?

You may be an optimist but we are realists and as far as the horizon, we cannot see such a glorious scenario again. Gaelic football has caught up with the rest of the sports world and while it has benefited the game in the present, it could damage the future if things don’t change.

When the three above counties along with the likes of Limerick and Fermanagh, Monaghan and Wexford were the last of the big small teams so to speak, sports science, diets, weights and training programmes were only developing in our sport. Back then, what was in their manager’s head was important whereas now it has been surpassed by what’s in his cheque book and his contacts book.

The teams achieving are tied in with the best in these areas along with the best in universities in their locality. It makes matters daunting for those already at a disadvantage. It’s not just at senior either. In Leinster for example, Dublin are dominating at underage, and for the most part only Kildare can compete and only Meath in the future look to have the resources to challenge.

If the most populous counties succeed as they are now, gaining the largest support in the process, and by extension gaining the most sponsorship, then their success shall grow exponentially. Again this weekend through the likes of Donal Keoghan and Jamie Queeney and Tommy Freeman and Kieran Donaghy coming on as substitutes and playing a pivotal role, we saw how football is as much about a bench as a standout player.

But if Dublin and Kildare and Cork through population, and Kerry based on sheer tradition, already have a huge advantage, it is only going to increase.

If you take a look at our power rankings as of right now, factoring in protestant populations in Northern Ireland, seven of the top 10 there are also in the top 10 most populated counties in the country. All of the top 10 are within the top 15 most populous counties.

At the other end, excluding London, the bottom five counties in the rankings are all amongst the 10 least populous counties in Ireland. It’s not a coincidence. So throw in the Johnston rule being accepted and how are lesser counties, who are already struggling, going to compete? Where will we be in the near future when ‘Generation Tevez’ comes online and are a group that see winning as their identity as opposed to their county being their identity.

It’s a worrying thought and even without the Johnston rule being enacted, it’s an area that needs to be looked at after the seismic shift that has taken place in Irish society and mindset.

Take next year’s league as yet another example of an unbridgeable divide being further exaggerated. Division One will be a joy with the eight best teams in the country - considering a fully-fit Down and a Galway still learning the ropes are interchangeable - and it’s a dream scenario for us looking on. But what of the rest?

It’s probable given the fixture list that each weekend between Setanta Ireland on Saturday night, TG4 on Sunday afternoon and RTÉ Two on Sunday evening, we won’t see a team outside of these play until the championship. Great for the present, sure, but what of the future and it is there we need to consider the bigger picture.

Much like the Premier League, kids expect to see their dreams right in front of their eyes, played out on a television screen, so the child in Laois and Derry and Armagh might well find some other goal to accomplish. The strong will get stronger while the weak will weaken football as a whole.

Honestly, can you see Derry win an All-Ireland again in your lifetime? Can you see Fermanagh in an All Ireland semi-final again in your lifetime. What will become of Wexford and Offaly in the future? Never again might we see Laois and Westmeath as they were in the mid-2000s. Indeed until a handful of years ago both were top-eight teams but how many other minnows are going to do that in the foreseeable future?

The answers only offer a bleak view so it’s even more important we ask those questions before it’s too late. We don’t have the solution but we know Seánie Johnston doesn’t help. And we know we won’t find a solution until people realise there’s a monumental problem that’s not far away. Leitrim and London may not bother you this weekend. In a couple of years, most games may fit into that category.

Follow Ewan on Twitter @EwanMacKenna

Read our tactical analysis of Kerry's win over Tipperary