Valerie Mulcahy: League is foundation on which champions are built

On Sunday, the league starts. Teams will travel long distances with high hopes for the season; hoping to get momentum, lay down intentions, and gain experience.

Valerie Mulcahy: League is foundation on which champions are built

Four divisions exist, featuring teams from every grade; senior, intermediate, and junior. Promotion is the reward for winning your league unless you win Division 1, in which case being champions will have to suffice.

How important is it? There is no correlation between the league and the championship in terms of grading but the roll of honour over the last 13 years tells an interesting tale of intention and accomplishment and how a season can develop based on how seriously you dedicate yourself to excelling in the league.

The league champions have been crowned All-Ireland senior champions in 10 of the last 13 seasons. The exceptions to this rule have been Monaghan (2012), Cork (2010) and Mayo (2007), who captured the league but couldn’t add the big prize.

It certainly is worth taking the league seriously and making it a priority.

There are many benefits to having a successful league campaign. Gaining a spot in the league final offers an opportunity to allow younger players experience a big occasion, become familiar with the feelings attached to it and also experience the unfamiliarity and rarity of playing before a TV audience.

The league also provides a forum for players to make their inter-county senior debuts in what could be described as a less pressurised setting than a championship knockout match.

It shouldn’t be underestimated how much of an advantage there is in playing competitive games into the end of May, shortening the lay-off before the provincial championship. Thankfully, with Cork, we became familiar with competitive games against the most consistent performers in the league.

That helped us reach the pitch only competitive games can do, while at the same time reducing the ratio of training to matches. It is, after all, why we are drawn to the game - for the love of playing rather than the love of training!

The league was where we learned our trade with the Cork team. Our journey to success started in Division 2 when we beat Roscommon in the league final, igniting a sense that there was a squad in Cork good enough to compete if we got our acts together.

Division 1 was then a stage to test ourselves and examine the underlying belief that we had been underachieving as a county, given club success in Cork at All-Ireland level (including my own club Rockbán, who won back-to-back junior and intermediate All-Irelands in 2001 and 2002).

In that year in Division 1, we made the final where we had the mammoth task of facing All-Ireland runners-up, Mayo. We relished the prospect of playing one of lynchpins of ladies football.

I remember being seven points up at half-time only to lose by six, as Cora Staunton and crew quickly ate up our advantage.

Mayo taught us another lesson in the All-Ireland quarter-final the same year. A necessary lesson. It has hard, but we had to deal with the disappointment of defeat, perhaps having played the better football at times, but not being the better team.

On those occasions, their experience showed and Mayo used all the tricks of the trade. We were girls competing against women that year.

Nevertheless, the tables turned and we matured from those invaluable experiences and gained from the heartache. There is only one way to gain that experience.

This is why the league is necessary, for younger players to develop, build confidence, learn about themselves, gain match fitness, secure their position on the team, make mistakes, suffer the consequences, learn to deal with pressure and get used to the ultra-competitive environment which is rarely replicated in training. It prepares players to make the transition to senior inter-county football.

Sport reveals character and the league serves to test that character as well as reveal the All-Ireland contenders.

In Cork, we always treated the league with respect, went out with the mindset that we wanted to win it and also learn about ourselves as individuals and a collective. And learn about the opposition along the way too.

In any game we played we took it seriously and with intent. We brought the intensity and work-rate required, creating good habits which were embedded by repetition on a consistent level.

At the end of a successful career, I can look back on my league experiences with Cork as among the most valuable to me as an individual player and to us a team.

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