The manager of last year’s beaten Mayo SFC finalists has said he and his club are “100 percent against” the Mayo County Board CCC decision to scrap the Mayo Senior Leagues for 2020 and instead play out the Michael Walsh Leagues and divisional cups in addition to the club championships.
Paul McHugh, Ballaghaderreen senior manager, said the leagues have been of enormous benefit to his panel in recent years in terms of giving game-time to younger players and developing squad depth in a competitive environment. He said that some clubs are worried about having to play potentially decisive league games without their county players once county training resumes, but maintained that the benefits of extra competitive games should outweigh the risk of relegation for clubs.
“We wanted the league played,” he said. “We’ve played without our county lads for the last number of years and we’ve found at times that it’s been beneficial to us. I know at times we’ve been a yo-yo team going up and down but it gave so many lads opportunities last year.”
Ballagh’ were missing as many as four county panelists for most of last summer and had other players away travelling, meaning they had to play several Division 1 league games with severely depleted resources.
“But it gave other lads a chance, developed lads and made us stronger going into the championship. I know we went down, but you’re going to be without the county lads for a lot of the league games anyway, so play at the level you’re at,” argued McHugh.
He highlighted Ballaghaderreen’s 2019 season as an example of the benefits of playing league football: they struggled during the league with several senior players unavailable and were duly relegated, but by the time those players returned for the autumn, there was enough playing depth in the panel to bring the East Mayo club all the way to October’s county SFC final.
“Last year in Division 1, even without the county lads, we were competitive. I know we went down but we didn’t care about that. We were competitive in all but one game last year,” he said.
“It develops players. I know teams are worried about going down, but it lets you develop players in a competitive environment.”
McHugh was also sceptical that the Michael Walsh Leagues and divisional cups will hold much appeal to club footballers later in the year after they have been eliminated from the championships.
“As it is now, you have three competitive games in the championship unless you go further,” he said. “In the Michael Walsh, the two games before the championship will be used as a tune-up, you’ll be resting any lads with bits of injuries.
“But will those Michael Walsh games be played after the championship, especially if teams have already lost a game or two or if there are long distances to travel? I don’t know.
“Whereas you would have got three rounds of league games in before the championship was over and you would only have had two more to play then. And they would have been competitive games. Who doesn’t want competitive games?”
Ballaghaderreen have been back training for the last number of weeks ahead of the start of the new season this coming weekend. McHugh said it’s been great to get back, although there are risks that need to be monitored.
“I’d be wary about injuries with lads. It’s a small window and you’re trying to get a lot done. But that’s going to be part and parcel of it,” said he.
It’s been a similarly strange return to play for another of Mayo’s most prominent senior clubs, Knockmore. Their manager Ray Dempsey said the administrative workload has increased dramatically for the club officers.
“There’s a lot more paperwork involved, players have to have all of their respective documents prepared, temperature checks and so on. From that point of view there’s a lot more administration,” said the former Mayo forward.
Dempsey says that even a process as straightforward as hosting a guest club for a challenge match has been complicated by the new restrictions.
“Look, it’s brilliant to be back, but it’s not like it was when you used to entertain a club and you laid on shower facilities, changing facilities, warm-up facilities and refreshments afterwards. There’s none of that. We’re back almost to the origins of club football,” he said.
Dempsey is far more amenable to the senior leagues being cancelled, despite his Knockmore side being the defending Division 1 champions. As he sees it, games are games whether they fall under the senior league or Michael Walsh banner, and teams shouldn’t be expected to play matches that could have a significant impact on their clubs without their best players.
“I’m neutral enough on it,” said Dempsey. “At the end of the day the league was always going to be preparation for the championship. Whether it’s the league or Michael Walsh, they’re still games.
“The major concern, and you can see the divide very clearly now between inter-county and club, is if there was relegation to be decided, clubs weren’t clear on whether they would have all the players they coached all the way up through underage at club level available to play.
“That’s the reason. It’s not that the clubs don’t value the league or anything like that, it’s just the uncertainty around the availability of inter-county players at the back end of the league.”
Those county players, such as Kevin McLoughlin in Knockmore, are training with their clubs at the moment and Dempsey said it was his understanding that the Mayo star would be available to train with the club for the duration of their championship campaign.
“Kevin is his own man, he’s a very clever individual. You can’t make halves of yourself. He’s trained very well so far and he’s great to have around the place. Players look up to him and he leads by example,” he said.
“That’s a boost for all clubs at the moment, to have the county players training with them. I’d say a lot of county players are training more with their clubs at the moment than they have for the last number of years.
“That’s no harm for those lads either, to get back and spend time with their clubs. I think sometimes the game can be a bit lopsided that way, and lads can get a bit isolated.”