We come to the National League again with that insistent feeling that we’ve written all this before. Does the league matter or not? Is it a chance to lazily run through your lines, or a full dress rehearsal before opening night?
With a little of satellite television’s weakness for hyperbole and overreaction, the media seems to have decided in recent years that the league really is a big deal.
Last year, for example, RTÉ sent a solemn-looking Marty Morrissey to the depths of the Kingdom in March to ruminate on the future of Kerry football after Eamonn Fitzmaurice lost his first few games in charge. Men with many medals were summoned to offer their thoughts on the dire consequences of Kerry’s longest barren streak in living memory.
Kerry couldn’t buy a score at the time, but by the end of the summer, even in defeat, they would have seasoned observers swooning at the majesty of their attacking play.
There was a time when all this was straight-forward enough and men like Mick O’Dwyer would look at the league with the same disdain that a ravenous meat lover in a fine steakhouse might greet the chef’s signature amuse-bouche.
Last year, when Jim McGuinness appeared to be affecting some of the old Dwyer attitude to league football, many assumed it was part of some master plan. It plainly wasn’t, and when Donegal crashed and burned in August it brought their spring struggles into sharper relief.
So we marshal the facts on either side again, and have another go at reaching some sort of conclusion about the worth of the GAA’s secondary football competition.
The obvious starting point has to be the changes in the disciplinary system brought about by the introduction of the black card. Irrespective of where you stand on the merits or otherwise of the black card, it is hard to avoid the feeling that this year’s league is a cusp campaign for the game of Gaelic football.
If there is widespread uncertainty about the application of the black card rule in this year’s league campaign and if it triggers a negative reaction on the terraces and public interest wanes, it may in turn place pressure on the GAA and possibly undermine its resolve in confronting cynical play.
We simply cannot return to the dark days in the very recent past where body checkers, jersey tuggers, and serial foulers thrived. By the end of this year’s league we should be somewhat closer to actually arriving at what all disciplinary systems set out to achieve — a better game, an increase in good behaviour, a reduction in foul play and a greater awareness of sportsmanship.
It is unfortunate that a human error in Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne’s recent Corn Uí Mhuirí match with Coláiste Chríost Rí is being used to knock the black card before any ball is kicked in the league but the reality is that the referee’s interpretation and application of the sanctions for five very clearly defined transgressions is likely to be a talking point from here until the end of April at least. Why? Because referees, like the players, are human.
While much has been made of the fact that Dublin won last year’s All-Ireland Championship, not enough has been made of their first league win in 20 years in 2013. With question marks about every sector of their team at the start of the campaign, Dublin still won. In the nine matches of last year’s league Jim Gavin used 36 players, including a sprinkling of his under-21s for the first time. He also deepened the pool of available talent by having to play much of the campaign minus the Ballymun contingent.
Perhaps the most important element of Dublin’s league campaign last year is that it offered the players some validation of the new regime’s methods. The style of play was usually open and often exhilarating and it was no surprise to see Dublin ending as top scorers in Division One once again. With a new management in place, players will always approach the league with a mixture of enthusiasm and scepticism. The league is the perfect breeding ground to reinforce that enthusiasm and quell the scepticism.
Ten years ago when Jack O’Connor took over an experienced Kerry team and Pat Flanagan began to teach them new tricks, the initial scepticism subsided when the league trophy was landed in late spring and players started to realise that yes, they were on the right track. There are other examples of debutant coaches having a similar effect but I believe Dublin’s win last year to be the best recent example of validation of ongoing work being done by a panel.
It should be interesting in this regard to see how Brian Cuthbert gets on with his squad in Cork. There were signs during last year’s league campaign that many of the seasoned campaigners on the Cork set-up had grown weary of the box-ticking exercise that the league had become for them after successive victories in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Perhaps the most far-reaching consequence of Cork’s last league campaign was the injury to Colm O’Neill but the abiding memory for many down these parts was the alarming lack of attacking ambition shown in O’Neill’s absence for the remainder of the league.
The turnover in personnel over the winter months should at least ensure that Cork, more than most, have a high percentage of players trying to impress management during NFL 2014. They should benefit from the fact that they have four of their games at home and finish off in early April with a short trip to Tralee. It’s not a bad way for Cuthbert to ease himself into it.
Kildare and Westmeath also have minty fresh managers in Jason Ryan and Paul Bealin but the opening two rounds against Mayo and Cork and Cork and Dublin respectively should open their eyes to the challenges that lie ahead for their teams.
The challenges for James Horan and Eamonn Fitzmaurice are no less stark.
Despite being arguably, the most consistent championship team in Ireland these past two or three seasons, Mayo — whether they like it or not — are now being viewed as damaged goods. They have lost two big matches by two kicks of a ball in the last two years and they are probably two good forwards short of being a great team.
This spring will see the latest attempt at unearthing those two forwards but there is little doubt that of all the teams lining out in Division 1 next weekend, Mayo’s need for a tangible reward is greatest. James Horan has, as usual, embraced that need by setting a target of grinding out a result in a few tough games on the road in 2014. Not good news for Kildare next weekend.
Alarm bells were ringing in Kerry nearly a year ago after they went the entire second half of their opening game against Mayo without a score and a further 70 minutes a week later against Dublin only scoring 0-4. But by the end of the league they were still standing and getting an awful lot right defensively. On these pages over the weekend, Eamon Fitzmaurice told us he believed his side are “a good bit ahead of where we were last year, physically” so the expectation is that they should at least pick up some early points.
The lingering concern for Kerry after last year is that they haven’t managed to effectively close out the last five minutes of a tight match in some time. In all their big games last year (the final league game against Tyrone, the Munster final against Cork and, famously, the All-Ireland semi final against Dublin) they never convinced coming down the home stretch. In two of those three games, they had enough done in the first half blitzes but Kerry supporters, and I’m sure management, would like to see their team hitting the high notes at the death.
Tyrone will benefit from a second consecutive season of top flight football. Given that it was they, by their actions in the last five minutes of their one-point win against Dublin in Croke Park last March, who were the catalyst for the success of the black card motions at Congress, it will be instructive to see how Tyrone adapt to the changes in the game.
There were plenty of signs last season and in this year’s McKenna Cup that they’re starting to put something together again. Should they hit the ground running in Celtic Park next weekend, you’d be mad to take your eyes off them for the rest of the campaign. In the days when spring football was less fashionable than it is now, Tyrone were always deadly serious about the league. League campaigns can throw up a once in a generation talent, a rare moment of genius, a memory to sustain you for the forthcoming championship. The black cards mean that the possibilities are endless in the search for that perfect game. I just hope the players see it that way too.