League relegation could spell end of All-Ireland hopes

Nine years ago, Mickey Harte made a forecast that to this day has proven accurate.
League relegation could spell end of All-Ireland hopes
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte celebrates after Tyrone’s win over Dublin. Photo: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte celebrates after Tyrone’s win over Dublin. Photo: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Nine years ago, Mickey Harte made a forecast that to this day has proven accurate.

“I don’’t think that anybody from Division 3 or Division 4, no disrespect to them, is going to win the All-Ireland,” he said, as he was coming to terms with Tyrone being stuck in Division 2 for a second successive season. “In fact, it is highly doubtful anyone from Division 2 is going to win it.

"The team that wins the All-Ireland generally comes from the top division. If you want to look at teams that are going to do well, you look at Division 1. It’’s highly unlikely (Tyrone will win the All-Ireland), I’’m not saying it’’s impossible."

Since then, Tyrone have been promoted to Division 1 twice only to be relegated again in 2015, returning in ‘17. Finding Tyrone in Division 2 again in 2016 prompted Harte to revise his remarks five years earlier. “It all depends on how you interpret what I said. I said a Division 2 team won’’t win an All-Ireland. But you could have a team playing in Division 2 but not of Division Two standard.”

However, his original claim has held up to almost a decade of scrutiny and is likely to for the foreseeable future. Not since 2002 when Armagh defied their Division 2 status has a team from outside the top eight in the League gone onto win the Sam Maguire Cup.

And as then-manager Joe Kernan would highlight, those were different times when the secondary competition wasn’t treated nearly as seriously as now.

In that 17-season period, Cork in 2007 remain the only team relegated from Division 1 to contest an All-Ireland final later that season and even at that they were demoted due to a restructuring of the competition having finished sixth in Division 1A.

Only three non-Division 1 counties since - Cork 2009, Down ’’10, Donegal ’’14 all operating from Division 2 earlier those seasons - have reached an All-Ireland final. So in 17 seasons, Division 1 teams have taken up 31 of the 34 final spots. As far as Division 3 teams go, the likes of Wexford in 2008 and Tipperary nine years later have reached the last-four but they are most certainly outliers.

The battle to avoid joining Meath in falling to Division 2 is made all the more interesting by the possibility the league format could transform into the Championship next year if voted in at Special Congress in September.

In the finalised proposal, there is likely to be some space afforded to Division 2 in the All-Ireland SFC knock-out stages but just now much is uncertain.

More immediate, though, are the relegation concerns for the likes of Tyrone because of their poor score difference and facing two away games in Ballybofey and Castlebar to finish, Dublin, Donegal, Monaghan and Mayo as they are on three points and two shy of Donegal and Monaghan.

Mayo, who must take at least a point from Salthill this Sunday against Galway whom they have beaten just once in nine games, are favourites to go down, which would end a 23-year run in the top flight, the longest in the competition.

Were James Horan’s side to be relegated, the knock-on effect on their Championship aspirations mightn’t be experienced this year but next and who is to say they would make a swift return to Division 1. As it is customary to yo-yo between the top two divisions these days, the youthful age profile of Mayo would point to a capriciousness especially at a time of year when the panel’s split between home and Dublin is so acute.

Outside of Dublin, who should move out of any relegation trouble and into final contention with a win over doomed Meath in Croke Park on Sunday, no other team would love to pull the lever on the trapdoor under Mayo more than Galway. For all the Tribesmen’s sustained success against their neighbours from 2016 onwards, they never landed the killer blow against Mayo in Championship whereas Mayo executed it on them last summer. If that’’s not enough incentive, another win and Pádraic Joyce’s Galway have a foot in the final.

Relegation might not be the end of the world but as Harte’s prediction has proven it has been the end of a team’s All-Ireland hopes.

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