Longford and Leitrim should amalgamate?

Former Mayo midfielder’s suggestion annoys Longford and Leitrim supporters, writes Conor Neville.

Former Mayo midfielder’s suggestion annoys Longford and Leitrim supporters, writes Conor Neville.

On Newstalk’s wonderful Off the Ball programme last Monday, regular contributor and former Mayo midfielder David Brady made a suggestion which many Longford GAA supporters regarded as not so wonderful. Reflecting on Leitrim’s sad but predictable hammering in Castlebar last Sunday, he suggested that Leitrim should merge with a neighbouring county. It was obvious who would be first in the firing line.

Longtrim would have a combined population of 64,000 (Brady wrongly suggested Longford had a population of 54,000. Hearing that it was in fact 33,000 would hardly disabuse him of his notion that a merger should happen). If everyone in Longford and Leitrim went to watch the two go head-to-head in Croke Park, they’d still need 15,000 neutrals in the ground to bump the crowd up to near capacity. The Longford supporters who volleyed off angry emails to Newstalk after Brady had finished were keen to remind him that Longford had beaten Laois in Championship 2012 and they were deeply unhappy to be dragged into Leitrim’s failings.

The fidelity shown by GAA supporters to Tudor era Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sidney’s 1566 decision to convert the Kingdom of Annaly into County Longford and the subsequent 1583 decision of the Lord Justices of the Privy Council to separate said County Longford from County Westmeath is perhaps surprising. Sidney also, during the course of his tenure as Queen Mary’s, and latterly Queen Elizabeth’s, most senior official in Ireland, re-contoured the boundaries of the Connacht counties, and the ancient territory of Thomand became Clare.

A weary, unemotional, imperialist jobsworth sent over from Whitehall decides for convenience sake to re-draw the administrative boundaries in a region and four centuries later lads are kissing crests and avowing their hatred of their neighbours. All across the country the nationalist chiefs of the GAA are in hoc to the administrative divisions drawn up by English imperialists in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Its true Longford have a good team at the moment and are a respectable outfit. However, this is one of the strongest Longford teams in 30 years and yet the summit of their ambitions is (and only with a good draw) a Leinster final place. The Leinster championship in recent years has resembled a (pre-Rangers financial implosion) Scottish Premier League. Kildare and Dublin are streets ahead of the rest, including Meath. For everyone else but Meath, the gap looks unbridgeable. In terms of resources, they can’t compete with the big two.

Mergers are tricky. Emotional attachment does not automatically follow on from the flick of a bureaucrat’s pen. Years of history must intervene. In Welsh rugby in 2002, in order to compete at Heineken Cup level, they decided they needed to follow Ireland’s lead by forming fewer, larger professional outfits. They proceeded to downgrade their historical club teams (Neath, Newport, Llanelli, Pontypridd) to amateur status, reducing them to the status of feeder clubs to the new ‘regions’ or ‘franchises.’

Of the flashy new sides, Ospreys are an amalgamation of Neath and Swansea, Newport are now Newport Gwent Dragons, Llanelli are a feeder club to the Scarlets, and Pontypridd are seething at being lumped in with Cardiff RFC as part of the Cardiff Blues. It hasn’t worked. In spite of having of a thriving national side, the Welsh club scene struggles, with apathy the order of the day and zero Heineken cup success (The talented Ospreys side have snatched a few Celtic League titles, but remain, relative to their playing pool, underperformers).

However, success can bump things along quite quickly. While the Irish provincial sides in rugby had a more immediate and organic hold on supporters’ imaginations than the relatively contrived, makey-up Welsh professional regions, very few people outside of a dedicated enclave identified with Leinster rugby up to 2008. However, three Heineken Cups later, everyone loves Leinster, and glories in their stylish back play, where once they sneered at them in a hackneyed, inverse-snobbery inspired fashion.

If Longtrim were to get up a head of steam and steal a Connacht title or something, people might start identifying with them. Blue and green jerseys could become a common sight on the streets of Granard and Carrick-on-Shannon, Brian Kavanagh and Emlyn Mulligan could be embracing after linking-up to score the winner in a provincial final, and lads could be kissing a crest which has both a fiddle and a drawing of the cathedral on it. So what do you say?