Sport

The Last Word – Death by a thousand cuts

February 12th, 2017 7:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

The big question: Will divisional finals - like the meeting of Gabriel Rangers and St Colum's in the 2016 SW JAFC decider - carry the same prestige if both finalists already know they are through to the county series?

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The Last Word Column - by Sports Editor Kieran McCarthy

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DIVISIONAL boards in Cork remind me of a jigsaw I had when I was a kid: once glorious, but now missing a lot of pieces, some central, others on the edge, but all equally as important.

If a jigsaw doesn’t have all its pieces, then it can never be as good as it once was. Its best days are behind it, yet it hangs in there, albeit incomplete, a reminder of past glories.

Divisional boards can relate to this at some level, having lost a lot of their best teams over the years to Cork County Board championships.

The eight divisions still exist in Cork, but they’re not the GAA bastions they once were.

The difference here is that divisions didn’t voluntarily lose these pieces; instead the county board cherry-picked the best ones for their very own jigsaw that is taking the shape the hierarchy want – and needs to meet its own criteria. The more championships the board run, the more money it can bring in. 

Now we have the situation where divisions are set to lose another piece of their jigsaw, again to the county board, as proposals regard changes to the county junior hurling, football and U21 football competitions are likely to get the green light in the next few weeks.

The changes to expand both the county junior A championships from their current position – eight divisional champions compete in football, seven in hurling – to include 16 teams means that all eight divisional football finalists would progress to the county section in junior A football, while all seven divisional hurling finalists would be involved in the county junior A hurling.

The idea of the CCC picking two wildcards in the hurling championship is as ludicrous as it sounds. This won’t pass.

But this latest wrenching of power from the divisions is another reason to be fearful for their future – what purpose will divisions serve if their best teams are continually plucked from them to compete in yet another county championship whose sole purpose is, let’s be frank, to generate finance for the board.

In turn, while the coffers of the county board swell, it will be the opposite in divisions because, no matter what party line you’re fed, divisional finals will not carry the same prestige if both finalists already know that they are guaranteed a place in the county competition.

That dilutes the value of the championship.

Yes, there’s still a medal to play for and the honour of winning a divisional title – but it damages and diminishes the magic of the occasion, and it could also hit the attendance figures, thus divisions suffer financially.

This will become another lost jigsaw piece, like many before them, and divisions’ value will depreciate even more. 

The outlook will look bleaker than before.

The gate receipts in Carbery in 2016 were down €4,000 in comparison to the previous season, while at the South East AGM in December it was revealed that gates from all 2016 championship – except the U21 A football – were down €8,555 from the previous year.

Carbery Board Vice-Chairman Tom Lyons commented: ‘If the county board insists in denuding the divisions of their best teams and best championships, what would you be left with? A few leagues, although the county board has now introduced its own county junior leagues as well, and maybe grade C and grade D championships. Divisional boards would be left to look after events such as Scór or coaching or non-playing activities.’

Former Cork minor manager Donal O’Sullivan, from the Beara division, isn’t happy either: ‘If this change happens, you’d have to wonder what’s the point of a junior championship at all? The junior championships in the divisions would become totally devalued … there should be a reward for being the best in your division.’

At the South East Board AGM in December, chairman Pat Desmond hit out: ‘if the junior hurling and then junior football are sucked into the county board’s competitions it will drain the lifeblood out of the division and in the process deprive local clubs of local competition and especially their day in the sun at divisional finals.’

Muskerry chairman Pat Malone told us this week he feels there are too many county championships – and I agree fully. Clubs are being shepherded into county competitions like in the winter of 2015 when numerous junior teams were promoted to intermediate ranks by the board, who allowed second teams from clubs in densely populated areas to move up to intermediate without kicking a ball.

In Carbery, a Clonakilty team relegated from the South West JAFC that year to the local B grade was suddenly parachuted to intermediate. The division lost another team. 

That county board move weakened divisions a little, another piece of the jigsaw breaking.

Divisional minor championships were raided before that; another piece lost.

The creation of an extra intermediate grade before that saw the magpies take more gold from the divisions, further weakening their championships. 

All these moves play havoc with the divisions – but the county board keeps coming back for more. Soon the well will be dry and what then?

A request to county chairman Ger Lane to get his thoughts on issues surrounding divisional boards and his views on their importance, their future and the concern expressed by divisional board officers didn’t bear fruit. I want to know if he thinks divisional boards are serving a purpose. No answer yet, but we’ll keep asking the questions that need to be answered.

Officers of various divisional boards met in Ovens on Monday night to discuss their joint approach to the Cork County Board’s proposals to change the junior hurling, football and U21 football competitions – but that’s only one rain cloud in this thunderstorm.

The constant and selective picking off of division’s prized assets is akin to death by a thousand cuts – and the clubs need to stand up and fight for their divisions.

There is an on-going debacle where divisional teams aren’t treated as fairly as club teams in county championships. Events last year highlighted that once more. For example, when Carbery took on Nemo Rangers in round four of the Cork SFC on August 14th, Bantry Blues played Ballinora in the Cork PIFC the day before (August 13th), the same day Bandon’s hurlers defeated Kilworth in a Cork PIHC quarter-final. Hardly ideal preparation, is it?  

Some believe that these are all steps towards the creation of a central Cork GAA hub at the shiny new HQ that will run competitions and let divisional boards cater for coaching, Scór competitions, etc.,

Carbery’s Tom Lyons says, ‘It sounds grand but Cork is far too big a county, with far too many clubs, to run as a single unit. They tried that with the minor board since 1990 and what have our county minor teams won since? It is a disastrous idea and we are definitely going down the wrong road.’ 

This continued cherry-picking of divisions will ultimately rob the Cork GAA scene of its rivalry between neighbours and parishes, the lifeblood of the association. There will be no pieces left in the jigsaw then.

Clubs need to find their voice and back divisions. County board officers are elected by clubs, county board delegates are elected by clubs and it’s clubs that need to challenge the powers-that-be and keep their identity.

Divisions have been in existence in Cork GAA since the 1920s and they have had to evolve to survive – and they need to evolve now more than ever to prove their worth. 

It’s been mentioned that the boundaries need to be redrawn to breathe new life into them – Beara clubs moving into Carbery, perhaps clubs on the eastern end of Carbery joining Carrighdhoun, clubs on northern edge of Muskerry linking up with Duhallow, etc. – but divisional boards also need to become more proactive and louder, and also do whatever they can to appeal to a younger audience.

Boards find it hard as it is to fill officer positions at divisional board level, imagine if boards lose their playing power, who would want to become involved then?

Quick story, for a recent awards night, a divisional board was offered the chance, for free, to have events of the night recorded by a videographer. Brilliant idea – think of social media and engaging with a younger audience, huge numbers guaranteed. The offer wasn’t taken up in case ‘some people didn’t like a camera in their face’. Really? That’s a face palm moment.

These boards need to move with the times, engage and embrace technology and connect with the younger generation who are the board’s future.

They need to be shown there’s a cause to fight for.

The Beara divisional GAA board celebrates 90 years in existence this year – it was formed on April 4th, 1927 in Castletownbere – and while it’s not been a good few days for the Beara board, given four of its officers have had to stand down from their current positions after exceeding the five-year-rule, you’d wonder what will the Beara GAA scene look line in ten years’ time?

These new county junior A football proposals will all but end the Beara JAFC – last year there were just two clubs in the junior A championship, Garnish and Urhan. Where will the interest be in this championship?

Donal O’Sullivan says Beara GAA needs help and leadership from the county board and chairman Ger Lane. Ironically, it’s the hierarchy that’s draining the blood from divisions. 

It’s time for divisions to find their voices – and they need their clubs, currently fearful of reprimand for putting their head above the water, to back them. Otherwise pieces of this jigsaw will continue to go missing.

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