KIERAN SHANNON: Why minnows see league as the measure of success

Finally, someone else said it.

Last Friday, on an item on The Last Word, Dr Niall Moyna of DCU made the observation that in recent years more counties put as much emphasis on the league as they do on the championship.

It’s a point lost on most GAA officials, media, and the public at large likewise.

Columnists will scoff at the idea of teams that won’t begin championship football until the summer being back training for the past couple of months, and wonder at the lunacy of their supposed authoritarian, senseless managers.

But the thing is, it makes perfect sense that a lot of these managers are back working with their players. The system might be crazy but these managers are not.

If you’re a Clare or Limerick footballer, you know, realistically, that you’re not going to beat Kerry in this year’s Munster semi-final. It’s just not going to happen. After that defeat, the qualifiers are something of a lottery.

The league, though, is not. It is a real measure of your standing and progress. It is a guaranteed series of meaningful, competitive games. Anybody can beat anybody in Division Three. Promotion is a possibility – unlike beating either Kerry or Cork this year or next. So is relegation, something which would be more costly to Clare than last year’s qualifier defeat to Longford.

So to tell Colm Collins that he’s a lunatic to have his players back training in November instead of the start of January is a bit like telling Eamon Fitzmaurice that he should only start back training and coaching his team in April or May, a couple of months still before the real serious stuff starts for them.

In a way so last Saturday’s championship revamp proposal from Central Council was as unsurprising as it was uninspiring. After all the submissions, paperwork, and paper talk, they essentially proposed a Tommy Murphy Cup Reload.

It will hardly pass at Congress, and rightly so. It hasn’t been fully thought out. For one it works more on the premise of the stick than the carrot. There is one tiny carrot at stake: win the competition and you’re in next year’s qualifiers. Lose and you’re stuck – condemned to – playing next summer against the teams you play every winter. As if Carlow and Wicklow don’t play each other enough.

Maybe that’s the hidden genius of it: that such a prospect will be just too much to bear for one of those counties and it will trigger in them their inner DiCaprio in The Revenant to escape their hell.

That what will drive them isn’t the thought of having a crack at a Cork or a Mayo or even a Galway but the horror, the sheer horror, of heading to Dr Cullen Park or Aughrim or Carrick-on-Shannon once more.

The proposal lacks a basic understanding of human motivation. That what sustains us in the long run is driving towards what we want, rather than what we want to avoid.

Even if you buy into the merits of the Tommy Murphy Cup, it also copperfastens the unintended and unrecognised importance of the league. To play in the All-Ireland series in the summer, you’ve to finish in the top two of your division in the spring. Which means you’ve to be back training collectively in the winter.

 

It’s only right all those championship proposals floundered. You cannot talk about reforming the championship without looking at the entire competition calendar, especially the league. Its structure and raison d’etre.

Are administrators still working off the old Mick O’Dwyer premise that championship is all that matters, or do they now understand for a lot of counties outside Division One that it’s their championship?

It leaves us with something of a halfway station, the whole thing if not quite a mess, then a series of paradoxes.

The league is least relevant to the teams who can actually win it outright – the established Division One teams.

The teams who can’t win it outright are all out to excel in it.

The best teams play each other too often and then in the summer don’t play each other enough.

The heaviest part of the senior inter-county match schedule is on at the same time the Sigerson and U21 championships are.

Our players and coaches have too many games and not enough time in between to prepare for them.

Then in the summer they have too much time and not enough games.

This is supposed to be something of a pre-season. Where you get time on the training ground to try out new systems, and your players can work on their skills. But with maybe a third of your panel in Dublin, you might only get to train collectively once a week. You’re trying to shout instructions and guide your players on a new system in the howling wind and rain and biting cold.

Then in the summer, it’s flipped on its head. The students are free from Sigerson, college and U21 but might have only two games in the best of conditions. You’ve loads of time and the weather to try and instil and tweak your game plan but probably not enough games to try them out.

After beating the crap out of one another week in week out during the spring, the big guns don’t catch a glimpse of each other during the months of May and June when the pitch is finally hard.

In time, it has to change. For now, it is what it is. So appreciate it for what it is. Division Two will be ferocious, teams clawing for promotion, not so much for how it will help them in 2016 but in the years beyond.

Division Three and Four too.

There mightn’t be a sign of a cuckoo or a smell of cut grass, but many team’s real championship is in the air.


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