Beware, the National League is an unreliable barometer

As has happened in so many Mays before, the same will happen this May: the GAA will be criticised for not organising a grand game to launch the football championship in style. 

Beware, the National League is an unreliable barometer

Never mind that the draws made in October were open, there will be complaints officials haven’t done enough to start the summer with a bang.

Maybe they are responsible when they hold so dearly on to a provincial system that, as much as it offers tradition, proximity and rivalry, becomes more polarised everywhere but Ulster as the seasons pass by. But aren’t championships supposed to improve the longer they run? Brilliant beginnings can often be deceiving. Donegal and Tyrone’s ding-dong battle in Ballybofey last year served up an epic appetiser that the following courses never matched.

The league, though? The league is something the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) can manipulate to an extent and what better way to open the competition than a repeat of the previous year’s All-Ireland final. Just like in 2014, the previous year’s last teams standing — Dublin and Kerry — ‘launch’ the league.

The same counties have met on opening weekend in every even year since Dublin returned to Division 1 in 2009. On final round day this year, Kerry entertain Cork for the second time in three years. In the other years under Eamonn Fitzmaurice, they have travelled to Tyrone in round seven. Whether it’s broadcasters having their spake or the GAA simply marketing the league as they see best, the predictable nature of fixtures in alternate years has helped to cement the competition’s place in the GAA calendar. Across world sport, it’s been proven time and time again that spectators and TV viewers like routine.

But they also like to see the best pitted against the best. With a combination of 22 consecutive seasons in Division 1, Dublin and Kerry are the establishment. In Páirc Uí Rinn the following day, Cork begin their seventh season in a row in the top flight against Mayo, who haven’t been budged from it in 18 years. All four counties’ league pedigree is unquestionable but let’s not kid ourselves: if the league could stand on its own two feet, the CCCC would have commenced Division 1 with a re-run of last year’s Division 1 final.

The problem is that decider between Dublin and Cork was wholly forgettable as a spectacle. As was Dublin’s similar steamrolling of Derry the season before. Dublin and Tyrone’s goal-less helter-skelter in 2013 was enjoyable, the Cork-Mayo clash of 2012 slightly less. Dublin’s Jekyll and Hyde and Cork’s Hyde and Jekyll show of 2011 was watchable but the culmination of the league hasn’t rendered a genuine classic since Kerry’s one-point win over Galway in 2004.

That shouldn’t come as any shock, given how preoccupied teams have become with the championship. At least the forthcoming Division 1 should be the last to include the pretence that are the semi-finals. GAA director general Páraic Duffy has proposed the plan to Central Council as a means of freeing up more time for clubs. It will not just save a weekend but cut the duration of the national league by as many as three weeks if the final is slotted into the current semi-final Sunday.

Nobody will cry when they go, not even players pleading for more action. Games of value should never be disregarded but the semi-finals are hardly sig ificant. In the four seasons since they were introduced in 2012, just once has a team finishing in the last semi-final spot won more than three of their seven games — Dublin in 2014. In 2013, Mayo qualified having lost more matches than they won.

The margins between success and failure have been arbitrarily negligible. Numerous teams — incredibly, four last year — have gone into the final round faced with the prospect of a date in Dublin or demotion.

And then there’s the nuisance factor. For Donegal last year, a semi-final with Cork was a distraction five weeks out from an Ulster opener with Tyrone. They didn’t lie down but didn’t exert themselves either. If we didn’t know where the league stood before, we realised it that day. Dublin’s dominance in Division 1 these past three years has again legitimised the league but counties such as Donegal can’t afford to go so gung-ho at it as Jim Gavin’s side.

The league is open to enough experimentation without the need to compensate by rewarding mediocrity. Heaven knows there will be enough of that in Division 1 as things stand, with the two newcomers. After Down’s outlier 2010 season, they reached the last round of the qualifiers in the following two seasons but haven’t made it past the second round since. Roscommon have made the last 16 once since their quarter-final appearance six years ago. That’s not to say either or both could survive but in the league nothing or nobody is judged merely on the league. Or ever will be.

What are GPA’s next options after rejection

Hell hath no fury like a union scorned but exactly what are the GPA’s options as they consider their response to their championship proposals being put on a scrapheap?

Strike? Such a move would all but certainly end the tentative interim agreement in place. Given there is €2 million of funding riding on it, a withdrawal of services is unlikely. GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail hasn’t been as amenable to them as his predecessor Liam O’Neill and there remains anger in counties and Croke Park about the players’ US fundraising efforts and the Super 11s’ “Boston brawl”.

GPA head of communications Seán Potts last week told this newspaper the GPA will continue to work on devising a championship that reflects the wishes of their members. It’s not as if Central Council’s heart is set on the “B” championship, anyway. If they were serious about making a change to an All-Ireland SFC which requires more than just shoving eight counties into an auxiliary competition, they would have endorsed another proposal.

Actively canvass against the “B” championship? In truth, it would be the most measured and adequate reaction to the perceived slight. By convincing their county boards to oppose the motion at Congress, footballers would not only be engaging in a democratic process but showing matured restraint. It may also allow the GPA to gauge the influence of players where it matters most: among their own.

A defeat for the proposal may even be interpreted as a success for the GPA although the chances of it receiving the required two-third majority support are already slim.

GAA players elite? They’re better than that

Not for the first time, Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney last week stressed inter-county players are not elite sportsmen. “I still can’t see where GAA players train that hard, despite what people may say. Any other sport trains much harder.”

His comments drew the ire of Kilkenny hurler Eoin Larkin on Twitter. He posted: “I thought it before but he jus(t) sealed the deal. what an A*** hole”.

We understand Larkin’s anger as we do McGeeney’s point. Effectively, McGeeney is right: Gaelic players aren’t elite sportsmen. However, it’s not because they don’t want to be. Those who juggle day jobs with their inter-county careers, as Larkin does with the Army in Syria, those who aren’t afforded the chance to recover sufficiently from training and games as professionals do — they aren’t elite sportsmen; they’re better.

Fógra: GAA journalism lost one of its great gentlemen on Saturday with the passing of Micheál McGeary. A great Armagh man, McGeary was a finer press-man whose work with the Irish News and Sunday Life newspapers distinguished him as a leading Gaelic games and rugby commentator for over 40 years. Micheál took his profession seriously but as his consideration for younger scribes showed he was devoid of any sense of entitlement. His mild-mannered wit will be missed across Ulster’s press boxes and beyond. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.


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