Longford for Connacht?

Arbitrary Shannon line be damned, Longford should go into Connacht, writes Conor Neville.

Arbitrary Shannon line be damned, Longford should go into Connacht, writes Conor Neville.

At the close of 2011, then GAA President Christy Cooney made by far the most interesting suggestion of his three-year tenure. Taking account of the obvious injustice created by a crazily archaic provincial system that saw certain provinces having, say, eleven teams and certain other provinces having five teams, he proposed equalising the provinces, having an eastern division and a western division and so forth, with eight teams apiece. This would would involve Leinster shedding a few counties and the likes Connacht recieving a few invaders.

Longford, despite the flat end to the Championship, still have a decent side at the moment. The team roared into Division 2, won a couple of championship matches against two reasonably serious footballing counties. However, their chances of attaining championship silverware remain depressingly remote.

Oliver Cromwell was of the view (a view he wasn’t shy about expressing) that Irish Catholics should go to Connacht. The alternative was hell. Well, hell is being a small county mired in the Leinster championship.

It is customary, all over the country, for teams to open their account in what is known as the ‘First Round’ (although not always, Mayo began their All-Ireland tilt this year in a provincial semi-final). However, Longford, almost every year seemingly, have to begin their season in a thing called the ‘preliminary round.’ Winning one’s preliminary round proves no advantage in the All-Ireland series if one falls short in the next stage in Leinster. In both 2007 and 2012 Longford found themselves entering the qualifiers at the same point as teams they had just beaten in this ‘preliminary’ round (In 2007, rather upsettingly, they found themselves playing the exact team they had just defeated in the preliminary round). They also entered the qualifiers at an earlier stage than teams who had won no matches up to that point, teams such as Limerick.

Very few people feel much of an attachment to ‘Leinster.’ Pat Cahill, Longford County Board Chairman, admitted as much when he said he wouldn’t be averse to seeing Longford move into Connacht late last year. The province is too big, baggy, diverse and ‘core.’ It is not a homogenous province like Munster or Connacht or even Ulster, where, with the exception of Munster where you have the Kerry-Cork rivalry, other counties often get behind their provincial winners in the latter stages in Croke Park. Longford people do not feel any affinity with Dublin, Meath or Kildare as they make their latest charge for the All-Ireland (usually in vain when it comes to Kildare). Most Longford people backed Mayo to win the All-Ireland final in 1996.

The question then arises as to how Longford would do in Connacht. In both the League and the Championship, since Glenn Ryan took over, they have played Roscommon four times, Leitrim three times (one championship game) Sligo twice and Mayo once (in the championship). Of those ten matches they’ve lost two, a narrow, rather unlucky loss to Roscommon in the league in Hyde Park in 2009, and a one-point loss to Leitrim in Carrick in the miserable 2010 league campaign. The only Connacht team Longford haven’t played in recent years is Galway and they are no kind of obstacle at the moment.

One does wonder how many provincial titles Longford would have amassed in the last 120 years had they been in Connacht. While it’s a totally hypothetical question, what one can say is that plainly inferior sides to the current Longford side have won Connacht titles in recent years, most notably Roscommon in 2010.

The effect of the qualifiers has been to expose Connacht football badly (we went five years in the championship, between 2006 and 2011 without seeing a Connacht team in an All-Ireland semi-final) and all the while Longford are trapped in a province that has Dublin, Meath and Kildare in it. Even mediocre Leinster teams beat Connacht sides; Galway have lost to bad Meath teams twice, in 2007 and 2011, they’ve lost at home to Westmeath in 2006 and Wexford in 2010. Sligo were beaten by Wicklow by five points last year. Mayo were beaten by another hardly world-beating Meath side handily in 2009 and by ourselves in 2010. It is at least plausible that Longford could have been in with a serious shout of winning Connacht titles for most of the past six or seven years.

Galway’s abject displays in recent years have definitely hurt Connacht football. Their spells in the wilderness (the early 1990s, 2006 – to present day) have always coincided with serious downturns in Connacht football and on the occasions when they have got it together, they have shown they are the county least afflicted with the Western inferiority complex when it comes to playing in Croke Park.

Mayo are currently the standard-bearers for the province. They are the object of a fair amount of scorn for the failure to win an All-Ireland and for being the lackeys responsible for giving us a number of boring, anti-climactic, one-sided All-Ireland finals, but their achievement in reaching five of those finals since the late 1980s is underrated. Liam Hayes, in particular, is a constant critic. He said last year that, in his time watching Connacht football, Mayo hadn’t lived up to the tag of being one of the big two in Connacht. Galway had. He contended that there wasn’t a big two in Connacht, there was a big three, with Galway first, Roscommon second and Mayo third. Quite what rationale he used to reach this conclusion is something of a mystery (stuck in a 1970s time warp maybe).

While we can’t know how many Connacht titles Longford would have won had they been in there since 1884, we can be reasonably confident about the amount of Leinster titles Sligo and Leitrim would have won in the same period and it’s one less than Longford.

Being trapped in Leinster has had a demoralising effect on Longford football, starting in the middle of May before everyone else, having to win more matches than anyone else to get to a provincial final, having to go through sides like Dublin and Meath, etc. Leinster is an overly large, colourless province with no proper identity to it. It’s time to take Oliver Cromwell’s advice and head west.

So what do you think?