Finding the real storylines behind the 2016 GAA league season

There’s hardly another GAA weekend like it for stirring so many permutations and palpitations... and exaggerations.

Finding the real storylines behind the 2016 GAA league season

Following events last Sunday, when for a long time it looked like the Galway hurlers and Cork footballers were going to be safe from relegation, it brought to mind something someone said to us at the start of the league.

This column was interviewing Paudie O’Neill, now chairman of the Hurling Development Committee, who served as a selector to the Tipperary hurlers during Eamon O’Shea’s three years as manager.

One thing that struck him about that experience was the increased importance the league had taken — at least when it was on. Entering their last round-robin league game of the 2014 season, Tipp had to beat Anthony Daly’s Dublin by three points or more to avoid relegation to Division 1B. Such a prospect, according to a local journalist in the match programme which O’Neill scanned, would be “a disaster”.

As it turned out, Tipp would survive, thanks to Dublin’s Niall McMorrow in the last minute, opting to drop a ball short, under the false impression that with his team three points behind, Dublin needed a goal instead of the point that was well within his range. That miss had nothing to do with Tipp.

On such fine margins...

Tipp would even go on to contest that year’s league final, which, as O’Neill would point out to us, was then forgotten when they lost in the first round of the championship to Limerick. Which was forgotten in turn when they reached that year’s All-Ireland final. In other words, the crisis — or success — of April can often be the joke of August.

The league is vital to so many teams, but in a lot of cases, not so much to the teams that garner the headlines. Here are the real storylines and trends we’ve taken from it all.

Demotion to Division Two is not ‘a disaster’ for the Cork footballers — but failure to win promotion next year might be, and the Cuthbert cull of autumn 2013 was.

The Cork footballers, along with the Galway hurlers, seemed to be the biggest ‘losers’ of the weekend, but for all the judgements and catastrophising that can come with an outcome like relegation, Peader Healy seemed to be sensibly processing it.

He pointed out that his team won three games out of seven, and that another team with that record made the league semi-finals. He could have added that in 2012, Donegal also won three league games and ended up not just staying up but went on to win the All- Ireland.

Unlike Donegal in 2012, Cork won’t be winning an All- Ireland, at least this year, but the impression so far is of a setup manfully going about building a new team. As Healy would point out to reporters, he used over 30 players in this campaign.

Considering how little credit they got for reaching two consecutive league semi-finals under Brian Cuthbert, and all the league titles amassed under Conor Counihan were used as a stick to beat them with and measure their underachievement rather than success, Cork were hardly going to compromise experimentation all for the sake of another April visit to Croker.

You wonder though did this team-building process need to be so tough for them? In the lead up to last weekend’s clash with Kerry, a couple of players paid tribute to the service and coaching ability of Brian Cuthbert.

It was nice to see such appreciation for a man who was scandalously maligned in social media and public discourse, but it is still fair to say that while Cuthbert tried to do the best with the hand he had, he could have done a better job of giving himself a better hand to work with in the first place.

You look at the Kerry team that beat Cork last Sunday, and the ones that beat Cork in the past two Munster championships. Donnchadh Walsh, a minor in 2001, kicked the opening score in Tralee.

Marc Ó Sé’s surge up the field for a point in the final 10 minutes was the game’s decisive moment. Kieran Donaghy at 33 is having arguably the best league of his career. Colm Cooper will be the same age later in the year.

Aidan O’Mahony, who set much of the tone for the pivotal game against Donegal last month, is 36. Where would Kerry be if Eamon Fitzmaurice had moved on a few of them a couple of years earlier? Or Declan O’Sullivan hadn’t been kept on for 2014?

We’re not saying the likes of Graham Canty, Noel O’Leary, and Pearse O’Neill should be playing now, or Paudie Kissane should be a player instead of a trainer in the current setup. But by not retaining any of them within weeks of taking the job, Cork suffered not just a premature deficit in leadership but physicality.

Within a year, the likes of Dublin, Kerry, and Mayo were blowing them off the field, damaging the confidence levels of players that should now be in the prime of their careers. It’s not so much how the legacy of 2010 was mishandled as how much their competitive status has fallen since 2012.

That year they won the league and Munster and entered the All-Ireland semi-finals ahead of Donegal, Dublin, and Mayo on the grid. Look at how those counties — and Kerry — have pulled away from them since, and how they’ve all retained, or staggered the retirements of, their veterans.

Look at Monaghan and the miracle Malachy O’Rourke has pulled off. Would they be where they still are if Dick Clerkin and Paul Finlay had been moved on?

Donegal are not going to win the All Ireland, but if Rory Gallagher had done a Cuthbert and allowed the likes of Karl Lacey, Neil Gallagher, and Christy Toye go, Donegal could have been trying to stave off demotion to Division Three last weekend.

There have been some inevitable growing pains for this Cork team, but their last four games — which is the real gauge of a team’s league and progression — shows they have grown.

In a way finishing seventh in the league is not any different to finishing fifth — it’s still the formline of a beaten All-Ireland quarter-finalist which would have been the general impression and expectation of Cork this year, regardless of how their league went.

This is about more than 2016, though, which is why one year in Division Two would be plenty. They don’t want to get stuck there like the Galway footballers...

The Galway footballers more than the Galway hurlers were the real disappointment last weekend.

The Galway hurlers could have done without that result in Salthill last Sunday. They’ve given ammunition to those critical of their move to oust Anthony Cunningham last winter.

While the Mayo footballers still have huge backing from their public, neutrals in attendance in Salthill last weekend were struck by how scathing and cutting the home ‘support’ were.

But a bit of perspective is required too. They entered the game missing four of their back seven from last year’s All- Ireland final, as well as Fergal Moore had been playing very well this spring.

Then before halftime they lost Aidan Harte. They had some good performances in the league. Like the Cork footballers, they used over 30 players, prioritising experimentation over safety.

They’ll have a job convincing the rest of us they did the right thing in ousting Cunningham but they’re convinced they’ve the right man to give them the best chance in Micheal Donoghue.

The way the Leinster championship is, they won’t be tested again until July. That’s twice as far away as the duration of this league. Judge them then. Relegation isn’t ‘a disaster’.

Missing out on promotion for the county footballers borders on it, though. That’s five years now they’ve failed to emerge from Division 2.

To progress in 2016, Kevin Walsh’s men had to do one of two things, with the first very much a necessity to have any chance of pulling off the second — win promotion and/or finally beat Mayo in the Connacht semi-final.

If they can’t beat Cavan in Breffni when it’s winner takes all, how can they have any confidence in winning in Castlebar?

Ulster is by a distance the best and most competitive football province — yet the one least likely to have Sam residing in it this winter.

Next year there will be four Ulster teams in Division One. Just as telling, there will be none in Division Four. Antrim won promotion to Division Three. Fermanagh are similarly buoyant surviving in Division Two.

It is by a distance the most competitive province in football. But still, you can only see one of three teams lifting the Anglo-Celt: Monaghan, Donegal, or most likely, Tyrone. But can you see either of them winning the All-Ireland? At the end of it all, it still looks either Dublin, Kerry, or, having reminded Roscommon of the hierarchy, Mayo.

Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis.

Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis.

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