So, it’s Ruislip for us this day week to start our 2011 Connacht championship campaign. Just like it was Gaelic Park in New York to get us going in 2009. We all get a spin of the wheel, of course, and so for all of us, there’s an exotic opening to the championship to look forward to every few years. Sure what’s the harm in that?
I’ve never been to any of these overseas matches, despite the fact that I was living in London when our lads played in Ruislip in 1991. The proximity of exams kept me away from that one (although I did see us play two exhibition games over there during my time in the city) and I’ve never gone over for a match since. Likewise, I’ve never made it to Gaelic Park for any of our clashes with the Exiles over there. Ongoing work pressures will also prevent me from making it to London next Sunday for our championship opener there this year.
I know that many people enjoy these excursions, providing as they do a tailor-made excuse to spend some time in two of the great cities of the world, and that the visit of senior championship teams from the province is also valued by the host organisations. Bearing this in mind, it seems a bit churlish to go all sourpuss and call into the question the whole point of including London and New York in the Connacht senior championship each year but, feck it, I’m going to do so all the same.
The simple fact is that neither London nor New York are ever expected to win their matches against the visiting teams from Connacht. London beat Leitrim by three points back in 1977 but that’s the sole Exile win in all the years they’ve been involved in the championship and there’s no expectation that this is set to change anytime soon. If either of them did manage to cause a seismic upset – as New York came too close to comfort to doing against Galway last year – it might cause a few headaches in terms of match scheduling (especially if New York had to travel over for a semi-final) but everyone knows that this is unlikely to occur and the working assumption everyone makes it that it never will.
Instead, what happens is that New York and London are allowed to pretend each year that they’re part of the Connacht championship knowing full well that their part of the bargain is to be the perennial good losers and to make sure that everyone enjoys the day out, with Gaelic Park and Ruislip fleetingly becoming part of Ireland for the day. But only for the day, mind.
There’s no suggestion that London and New York are ever or will ever be serious challengers for the Nestor Cup – all they do is add to the numbers. The draw is also rigged to ensure that everyone gets a turn to play both of them and they’ve never been drawn to play each other either.
Then there’s the cost, which the Roscommon County Board estimated this year to be in the region of one hundred big ones (half that when the €50k grant from the Connacht Council is factored in). This is money that has to be found somewhere and money that could, especially in these straitened times, be used to better effect by the travelling counties each year. In addition, it’s not a cost facing counties in the three other provinces who don’t have any non-Irish ‘counties’ tagged onto their championships.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion, then, that the whole thing is a complete and utter waste of time. From a footballing point of view, there are clearly no gains to be made from these annual pilgrimages, either for the counties travelling out each year or for the host teams. Is it really going to benefit anyone if we all continue to take turns in beating the two Exile teams, even if it does mean we can get in some sight-seeing, shopping and pint drinking while doing so?
Personally, I think this is an exercise that has run its course and that the inclusion of London and New York in the Connacht senior championship needs to be re-assessed. Ideally, this should form part of a wider restructuring of the championship, maybe with the provinces becoming four groups of eight or maybe with a more radical split along the lines of hurling, where a majority of counties compete for the Sam Maguire but where those who are clearly in the also-ran category play only for a second-tier championship.
Such a competition would be a more natural home for the likes of London and New York. Not only would they get to play against a number of different counties, they might even – perish the thought – start to win matches on a regular basis. What it would mean is that their involvement in the championship would have the chance to become in some way meaningful and would not continue to be the empty and utterly tokenistic exercise that it currently is.