“The league is the league.” Up until now, that age-old refrain of Mick O’Dwyer or at least the one attributed most to the great man, the subject of last night’s excellent Loosehorse documentary on RTÉ, was in danger of becoming a dead phrase.
The league, as it turned out, has transformed into much more than a secondary competition.
Since football returned to the four divisional system 10 years ago, it has bedded down into a fantastic feast.
For Gaelic football, a sport that unlike hurling appears reluctant to rank or regulate its championship, it is the most accurate barometer of teams.
Hurling has overcome what is an unfortunate structure, which in recent years has rewarded the ninth and 10th placed teams ahead of those who effectively finish fifth and sixth with quarter-final places.
The cut-throat nature of Division 1A was a bit much for the time of year but then people were using their feet to vote in favour of it.
The league has been a soothsayer. Five of the last 10 Division 1 football winners have later been crowned All-Ireland champions.
Dublin finished second last year but first in September. Three spring bridesmaids have also been autumnal ones.
In hurling, four of the last 10 winners have repeated that success later in the year. In that span, four league runners-up have gone one better in September.
There are no changes to either structure this year —Central Council’s decision to stick with the Division 1 hurling quarter-finals — but the crammed scheduling and the changes to each championship have cheapened the league.
To reach the Division 1 hurling final, a team must play eight games in nine weeks.
The Central Competition Controls Committee (CCCC), to be fair to them, argued to get rid of the quarter-finals but now by all appearances it looks like the GAA can’t finish it soon enough.
Although there is the nugget of a trip to Sydney in November for the league winners, managers will be in taper mode given they are effectively being forced to experiment, not just by the intense fixture run, but the fact they won’t be able to peak their troops for a third time when they must be at the right pitch for a more demanding provincial campaign as well as, they hope, an All-Ireland series campaign.
Football starts as hurling does in 18 days’ time but concludes a week later providing it with another weekend off but the timetable is so tight.
The campaign begins with three straight weekends, one more than last year. For the finalists in each division, it will also end the same.
As in hurling, managers will be compelled to trial and error — Jim Gavin’s gradual build-up may be replicated by Dublin’s chasing pack — but then some may not have a choice meaning some will be flogged.
The league’s ability as a weathervane also comes into question bearing in mind Sunday’s postponements due to the poor conditions. If a single Division 1A or 1B hurling game is called off after round three there is no free weekend to stage it. Football, as was mentioned, has slightly more wiggle room but not much.
Perhaps it’s flattering to the league that the provincial hurling championship and football’s Super 8 now ape its structure but in doing so they are taking away from what makes the league so valued.
The word from sponsors Allianz is they’re not that happy with how the competition will be impacted by what’s happening elsewhere and the scheduling alterations.
Of course, it still has many purposes. For the likes of Waterford football manager Tom McGlinchey, who has described it as his team’s championship, it presents a tangible means of gauging progress.
David Clifford’s blooding at senior level will take place in the coming weeks. Gavin knows he’s blessed with forward options but needs another couple of defenders.
Tipperary must trial goalkeepers. Kilkenny have plenty of openings. The sooner the sod turns dry, the better it will be for Cork but at least they will be hurling.
But in attempting to strike a balance between the club and county scene, the GAA have both over-compensated and underestimated: Over-compensated in the sense the reins have been pulled too tight on the early part of the inter-county calendar; underestimated in that they have failed to appreciate the strength of the latter half.
Freeing up the month of April from inter-county matches doesn’t emancipate it of inter-county activity and with provincial hurling round robin games coming thick and fast from mid-May few managers will heed the attempt to give them a standing start.
In many ways, this year is a shot into the unknown and the GAA have said they can revisit decisions. Unshackling the league, giving it the time and space it merits, might well be one of them.
Spillane protests too much
Is Pat Spillane trying to get back into Dublin’s good books? We do wonder.
First, he was suggesting Dublin were snubbed over the recent awards season. Now, he’s suggesting the new rule that all kick-outs go beyond the 20m line (on top of being 13m in length, as was previously the case) is an anti-Dublin move.
“Being a tad cynical, I cannot help but think that this rule change was introduced in an attempt to curb the influence of Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton,” he mentioned in his Sunday World column.
“Remember, back in the early 1980s the GAA outlawed handpassed goals and made other changes to the rules in an effort to put the brakes on Kerry’s dominance of the All-Ireland championship.
“The change didn’t stop Kerry from winning more All-Ireland titles and I don’t see how the new rule will reduce Cluxton’s influence. The simple fact is that great teams and great players can adapt.”
Pundit Spillane was accused by Jim Gavin of going after Diarmuid Connolly following his push on Ciaran Branagan in Portlaoise last year and it seems the Kerry legend is trying to pass on some peace offerings.
As has been pointed out before, only two of Cluxton’s 96 restarts up to and including the All-Ireland semi-final win over Tyrone failed to go past the 20m line.
It’s not Cluxton’s brilliance in recommencing play that sold the change. What sealed the deal was Spillane’s fellow countyman Brian Kelly inexplicably toeing the ball out past the end-line from a kick-out for a Mayo 45 last August.
If the GAA really wanted to hamstring Dublin there would be plenty more obvious means than introducing a welcome change, a missing piece of the mark rule introduced last season.
Players are now shouting stop
Joe Sheridan’s remarks on LMFM Radio that footballers are “nearly detesting” the inter-county scene will draw attention but it is just the latest in a number of signposts pointing towards ennui and disenchantment at elite level.
The Meath man’s words came just a day after former Tipperary hurler Kieran Bergin told The Star that the modern inter-county player was treated like a child.
“The level of commitment they are asking is basically give up drink for the entire year. No other sport is asking you to do that. If I was 18, you want to socialise, and someone says we have a game in eight or 10 weeks, we have to get off the beer.”
Remember the decision by Richie Hogan last year to leave teaching to focus on his hurling career — “It just makes a huge difference. And I’m at the age where, look, I’m 28, I have to look after myself properly.”
Before Christmas, we listed 17 players including Bergin who for reasons other than retirement stepped away from the inter-county scene at some stage last year.
We always wondered when somebody was going to shout stop. The time is now.
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