All-Ireland selection process has element of unfairness says Down coach Donnelly

By Niall Gartland

DOWN coach Mickey Donnelly believes that the process of splitting teams between the All-Ireland series and Tailteann Cup is overly complicated and doesn’t necessarily reward teams who have excelled in the early part of the season.

The Mourne County have been left in a precarious position following their Division Three final defeat to Westmeath whereby they will only qualify for the All-Ireland series if they reach a first provincial final since 2017.

Otherwise the Tailteann Cup will be their lot for another season, and the vexing thing about it is this: even if they’d won the Division Three title, they would still have relied on Louth reaching the Leinster decider in order to book their spot in the All-Ireland group stages.

Now it’s become even more difficult and they’ll need to blaze a trail through Ulster to avoid the B-Tier competition, and the convoluted and arguably unfair nature of the entire process is something that frustrates their coach Donnelly.

“Even winning the league title is no guarantee of playing in the All-Ireland, and I think there’s something ethically wrong about that.

“There’s a debate to be had about whether we have the competitions in the correct order.

“If you had a provincial series, followed by the National Football League, followed by the championship, there would be absolute clarity.

“You have teams who might have a really solid league campaign and then they’re completely scuppered by one off-day in the provincial championship. It’s something we really had to look at.

“With the way it presently works, a team can win the league title and it looks like their place in the All-Ireland is guaranteed, but it can be taken away from them by teams who fared worse in the league and that shows why the timing of the competitions is wrong.”

The Mourne County will attempt to get back on the wagon when they take on Antrim in their Ulster Championship first-round clash on Saturday at Páirc Esler.

Donnelly, a teacher at St Ronan’s, Lurgan, has taught a number of Antrim footballers from the Aghagallon area and he knows they’re a side that can’t be taken lightly.

“We’re fully aware of just how good the players Antrim have at their disposal. Ruairi McCann, Luke Mulholland, Eunan Walsh, Adam Loughran, they’re all brilliant lads who have come through our school.

“Antrim have been riddled by injuries this year and it’s made things a bit more difficult for them.

“We were fortunate last year to get the better of them in the league in Newry, this year they were understrength so things were more comfortable. But we’re under no illusions that Antrim will come at us with absolutely nothing to lose and will have a real cut at us.

“They’re a really proud county and the good news about Casement Park will have energised them, people will piggyback onto that project and want Antrim to be going well.”

The Down management team under Conor Laverty has earned praise for their flexible approach in permitting squad members to accrue game-time with their clubs. Donnelly says that they’re extremely mindful of the backing of the clubs.

“We’re doing what suits us and that’s not trying to be blasé about it. It suits us to keep a happy group of players.

“We’re ultimately looking to develop this group of players for the long-term in terms of getting as much football as possible. If a lad misses out on a place on the 26, doesn’t get togged out or any game time, he could become stagnant in terms of his progression.

“We all know from our involvement in the club scene dozens of examples of excellent Gaelic footballers who didn’t get to the top level as a result of being involved in county setups for a period of time without playing football.

“There might be times during the course of the year where we have to tighten the nut but last year it suited us to release players and that went some way to getting a sense of goodwill behind the county team, because there was a body of work to do in that regard. Ultimately people aren’t going to support the county team if we don’t give a wee bit back.”

This is Laverty’s second year at the helm. Donnelly, Martin Clarke and Declan Morgan were involved from the get-go, while they have been joined this year by none other than Ciarán Meenagh, who spearheaded Derry’s run to a near-miss in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry. Donnelly says it definitely isn’t a case that too many cooks spoil the broth.

“We all have our own wee bits to do, and I would like to think we all learn from each other. “If you’re not learning you’re standing still or regressing and in that respect coaches and management staff are no different than players.

“If you’re not keeping on top of everything that’s going on, you’re going to go backwards and we’re lucky we have good people to bounce things on. We have very talented people and we just hope it bears fruit on the field.”

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