At least Galvin has an All-Star. Leighton Glynn doesn’t, but he does have the consolation of a Leinster senior club medal with Rathnew. Of the five players mentioned at the top of this article, Paul Barden’s Curriculum Vitae is the least impressive by a distance, through no fault of his own. If he had been from Kerry, Tyrone or Dublin, it could all have been very different. But Barden is from Longford.
You couldn’t fault him for commitment to the Longford cause. Before retiring last week, he was the longest serving inter-county footballer in the country, having debuted for Longford in 1998. On one of the few occasions I’ve agreed with him, Pat Spillane once declared on the Sunday Game that Barden would have been more than welcome to the Kerry set-up. But instead of accumulating All-Ireland medals, Barden never even played in a Leinster semi-final. Barden’s list of inter-county honours is not one you’d expect from a player as undoubtedly talented as he was, with only leagues titles at divisions three and four to accompany an O’Byrne cup. Because he never played a championship game in August, he never even received an All-Star as meagre consolation, while the likes of Browne, Forde and Galvin did. He did win county medals with his club Clonguish, but never played in a Leinster club final. It’s a hard one to explain to someone who’s not familiar with how the G.A.A works.
The G.A.A. is all about where you’re from, and I hope it always remains that way. But if you dream of being a household name in G.A.A circles, hailing from Wicklow, Carlow, Longford, Fermanagh or Leitrim will render that dream completely implausible, even if you’re every bit as good as Colm Cooper or Henry Shefflin. It’s all over before it really starts. Those five counties I’ve mentioned have won just four provincial titles between them in 130 years. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon, and the chances are only becoming slimmer.
At 26, Leitrim’s talented centre forward Emlyn Mulligan has decided to take a year out from football. He has stated that he has become disillusioned with the game having ‘been putting a lot in, with little to show for it’. With two pre-season FBD League titles to his name, he is actually more successful than most to have lined out for Leitrim. That’s telling in itself. It’s hardly surprising though that Leitrim’s roll of honour is so scant. They have a population of just over 30,000. Dublin’s is 1.3 million. Dublin’s sponsorship deal with AIG is worth over €4 million to them over a five year period, while Leitrim’s sponsorship deal with Bush Hotel weighs in at €20,000 per annum. These two figures alone illustrate pretty conclusively just how advantageous it is for a talented footballer to be from Dublin in comparison with someone of similar ability in Leitrim. That Mulligan is disillusioned isn’t surprising, but there’s very little that Leitrim can do about it. If you’re a talented soccer player, the chances are that you’ll be snapped up by a decent club. That can’t happen in the G.A.A.
I’ve always been an advocate of a meaningful intermediate competition. The now-defunct Tommy Murphy Cup was a frankly insulting consolation prize offered to the so-called weaker counties. After a trip to New York, Leitrim will probably be hammered by Galway in the Connacht quarter-final. I’m not sure how they feel about that, but I know how they should feel. I personally think that they would be much better off playing against counties of more reasonable strength in an intermediate championship, and if they are good enough they could win promotion to the senior championship. The same goes for many other counties. With promotion at stake, it would add meaning to what would otherwise represent a pointless consolation prize, as the Tommy Murphy Cup was. If you’re good enough to play in the senior championship, you should be able to win promotion. If you’re not, then why should you be thrown to the lions of Kerry, Mayo or Dublin? Galway will learn nothing from hammering Leitrim, and Leitrim will learn even less. It’s a pointless exercise for both. An intermediate championship would never carry the weight of its senior equivalent, but it could represent a decent prize for many talented footballers to aim for. I’m sure it would have meant more to Paul Barden than a division three league title or an O’Byrne cup.
As I’ve already said, the G.A.A. is all about where you’re from, and I’m a huge advocate of that principle. I’m sure Paul Barden is a passionate Longford G.A.A man. But it’s not a system without its shortcomings, and the gap between rich and poor only seems to be growing.