KIERAN SHANNON: League's early season promise all too often fades into late season despair

Chris Mannix: Well, like I said friend, you got me at a bit of a disadvantage.

John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth: Keeping you at a disadvantage is an advantage I tend to keep.

The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)

For a competition that not so long ago used to be about easing you into a football season, the national league begins with the big guns firing at each other, if maybe not quite firing all guns. The two biggest recognised challengers to Dublin’s All-Ireland title happen to be their two first opponents. This Saturday night, Kerry return to Croke Park; the following week, Dublin visit Castlebar. And while teams operating at this level are always planning with a view to August and September and knowing that that’s a long time away, the record shows there’s often something at stake in their jousts earlier in the year.

For the first three years of the James Horan era, Mayo knocked the reigning All-Ireland champions out of the championship. Not only that, but they’d also beaten each of those teams in round six of the league in games Mayo had to win to avoid relegation.

In 2011, they seemed to come out of nowhere to ambush Cork in Croke Park, but part of their own self-belief was formed in knowing they’d beaten Cork in Castlebar earlier that spring.

In 2012, they’d steamroll Dublin at the same venue before threatening to do the same in that year’s All-Ireland semi-final. In 2013 then it was the turn of Donegal: first in a real grind in the mud of Castlebar, then in perhaps their finest hour and certainly Jim McGuinness’s worst in Croke Park.

But then look at the teams that foiled them winning the All-Ireland themselves. In 2011, Kerry beat them in both league and championship. In 2012 so did Donegal; first in Ballyshannon where they identified that high ball into Mark Murphy could cause havoc. In 2013 then Dublin established their current edge on Mayo in two head-to-heads in the league.

That 2013 league campaign has proved to be the platform of Dublin’s current supremacy. Their opening game was against Cork. Conor Counihan chose a more experimental lineup that night for understandable reasons; it wasn’t like Cork needed another league at that stage. But looking back, Cork maybe helped create a monster instead of chopping off its head in its infancy.

League's early season promise all too often fades into late season despair

Mayo too should rue another game from that spring. Midway through the second half of a cracking game again under the lights of Croker, they were both a man and a point up on Dublin.

It wasn’t exactly a rock-star filled Dublin lineup either; players like Kevin O’Brien, Declan O’Mahony, Ciaran Reddin, and Darragh Nelson would be largely peripheral players come the championship — in contrast, all 18 Mayo players who got game-time that night would get game-time in All-Ireland finals. But an inability to make the extra man count and a Kevin McManamon goal would turn that game, and as it would transpire, the competitive edge between the two counties. The teams have played each other six times since, many of which Mayo have contributed handsomely to, but the cold hard fact is they haven’t won any of them.

During Liam Sheedy’s reign, Tipperary would make a point of beating Galway in the league. They recognised the Tribesmen were a potential challenger so their mantra for those games was Remind them of the Hierarchy. We’re above you, you’re below us. League's early season promise all too often fades into late season despair

Dublin was a game Kerry targeted in last year’s league, identifying Dublin had built up a head-to-head edge on them in the league that had told in championship. Kerry duly played with a level of aggression that would help them eke out a win in a real battle in Killarney. Only thing was, come September, they seemed to forget how they won that game, never bringing the same physical edge, possibly because they overlooked how central and feisty Kieran Donaghy had been in that league win.

The next fortnight has probably come too soon for Kerry and Mayo, given their respective injuries. And perhaps the best strategy for them is to wait until the break after round two of the league to crank things up, then back themselves to win at least four of their last five games to make the semi-finals instead of going for the early squeeze.

But both teams could do with taking down Dublin in the league playoffs and/or winning the league outright. Kerry haven’t won or contested a league final since 2009. Too long for a county of their stature. Challenging for the league was hardly a priority for Eamon Fitzmaurice in his first fewseasons but at this point he may be mindful that when Kerry won threeAll-Irelands under his old mentor Jack O’Connor they also won the league each of those seasons.

Mayo have never won a league since the competition began being played in the one calendar year 13 years ago, despite their permanent Division One status all through. They are somewhat compromised by having a split squad a la Munster rugby a few years ago – up to a third of its panel are based in Dublin over three hours away, meaning they have less collective sessions than any other top contender at that time of year. And for a group of players that has established such a stranglehold on Connacht and a 100% win rate in the All Ireland quarter-final round, it’s easy to see why they might want to pace themselves through the league, as competitive as they’ve been in virtually every spring game the past five years (only twice in that time have they been beaten by more than five points).

But Gavin showed in 2013 that you can both experiment and win the league – he too was without provincial club champions, in Ballymun, just as Stephen Rochford now is without his Castlebar Mitchells contingent.

Steeling themselves with a no-excuse, no-way out mindset in the league could do Mayo and Kerry good.

Otherwise Dublin, just like Kilkenny have for years under Cody, could keep an advantage that tends to tell later in the year.


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