It is the most celebrated competition Gaelic football has and even still, as final rounds go this weekend’s National League fixtures look a tad underwhelming. In two of three divisions relegation is already finalised while Donegal are also doomed.
Some of the greatest deciding day drama in recent years came from desperation to avoid the drop. Think Galway 2021, Dublin and Laois 2022. Division 2 has long been labelled the true blockbuster class yet aside from Dublin vs Louth it’s already wrapped up.
The entertainment dearth reaches all over. After the second and fourth round, we listed eight random observations from the league. Gradually, as time has gone on, games have actually gotten worse. Nothing in the top tier has come close to the Mayo vs Galway opener. The average scoring tally in the last round of Division 2 was just 28 points per game.
Division 4 has consistently delivered. Beyond that, it has been a mixed bag. A bit good, bad and baffling.
If ever a passage summed up a player, it was the final few minutes against Donegal as Armagh ground out a three-point win. In the 73rd minute, Rian O’Neill kicked a free to extend their margin to two and less than a minute later, he caught a long ball under his own crossbar and saw them home.
And yet, in the last two games he has contributed one point from play. O’Neill had 15 possessions against Galway, six of them were in his own half and five were in the opposition’s 45. Michael Murphy has retired but Armagh are facing the same problem that previously dogged Donegal.
O’Neill shares a similar spot in his team. The best midfielder they have. The best target man. The best free-taker. A ferocious tackler. Twice last Saturday, O’Neill forced a turnover. He also dispossessed Tomo Culhane in a tackle that resulted in a Galway sideline.
Here’s the thing. It is not necessarily a sporting crime that O’Neill spends some time out the field. Even the best marksmen are occasionally required in defence. Shane Walsh’s burst back and pressure on Aidan Forker as he was about to shoot in the 64 minute was the sort of crucial moment that will be celebrated in the post-game video session. Walsh and O’Neill have the luxury of not consistently being required out the field because they have capable deputies already there.
The comparison is interesting because of what stifled both players on Saturday. Walsh was held scoreless because Armagh flooded bodies in his zone, mainly Barry McCambridge and Aaron McKay doubling up. O’Neill was also stifled because Armagh flooded bodies in his zone.
It was obvious from the very start. In the third minute, O’Neill made a run from the full-forward line and received a kickpass. Between starting his run and laying off the ball, two different Armagh attackers were within arm’s reach of him. In the end four Armagh attackers are all crammed in the corner and Galway easily double up on Stefan Campbell to force the turnover.
Ten minutes later O’Neill is turned over. Just beforehand there are five Armagh players, including goalkeeper Ethan Rafferty lined up along the 45, so close they could reach out and join hands. As a result, their defenders are all bunched together and able to swarm O’Neill.
His point was the opposite and precisely what Armagh need to do more of. Jarly Og Burns received possession on the wing and drove forward, forcing Sean Kelly to engage. O’Neill peeled off to the vacated pocket of space and kicked over.
For all the focus on Armagh’s defence, their problem is in attack. No cohesion because of obvious confusion.
Just before half-time against Tyrone, Kerry led by three points. Then Michael McKiernan drove forward and was fouled by Stefan Okunbor. A free means a break in play and a chance to organise a press. Tyrone scored and forced Shane Ryan to kick long. They won that and scored again. David Clifford was booked, resulting in another break. Tyrone forced them long and won the kick-out. Mattie Donnelly scored to level the game.
Fast forward one week later. Kerry are cruising. Five up in the 70th minute. Daire Cregg kicks a wide and immediately the camera flashes to Davy Burke, roaring at Roscommon to get organised. Here is how the rest of the game goes.
Ryan kicks long, Roscommon win it. Tadhg Morley fouls and is black carded. Roscommon organise a press, kick the free and win the next long kickout. It ends in a Conor Cox wide. Ryan takes his time using up clock and Roscommon press again. They win it long and Jason Foley fouls. Roscommon kick the free. Kerry kick long and lose it again.
It ends in a goalmouth scramble, Roscommon pleas for a penalty and another reminder of the huge void left by David Moran.
Per Mayo GAA, Diarmuid O’Connor played his 100th for the county against Donegal last Sunday. That heroic fell-length dive against Dublin in 2021 is guaranteed to feature in the highlight reel and he has continued to provide invaluable interventions ever since. His defensive work against Roscommon was particularly noteworthy.
Tom Parsons was once the best defensive midfielder in the country. That title stills rests out west.
Hand signals still have a place
Nonverbal communication was once a staple in Gaelic football, from intercounty down to Junior B. A goalkeeper’s raised arm is an obvious example. However, as opposition analysis improved the practise became redundant. Quickly analysts cracked what each hand signal meant.
They became rare, not extinct. Famously in the 2019 All-Ireland final draw, Dublin used a signal during play as John Small held his fist aloft. Corofin did the same a year later. Last Saturday three different Armagh players raised their arm before Ethan Rafferty floated a long ball into the square.
During Fermanagh’s win over Westmeath, Sean McNally put his hands on his head before a kickout. He went long to a 5 vs 3 overload on the sideline, Fermanagh won possession and the play ended with a Darragh McGurn point.
Waterford secured their first competitive win in 665 days at the weekend. Their victory over London ended a 13-match winless run. They endured a similar run 20 years ago, before eventually winning their opening game of the 2005 national league.
Since then they’ve been promoted once, in 2010, relegated back down in 2011 and finished in the bottom two of Division 4 nine times. Does anyone care?
“We really are at crisis point now in Waterford football I think. The lads are giving everything they have,” declared manager Ephie Fitzgerald after the Wexford loss last month. “There's so much work to be done in Waterford football. Even a victory today wasn't going to change that.”
Their recent triumph should not gloss over his warning.
Heading into the final round of league games, only one of the top five scorers from play in the top two divisions finished in the 2022 top 10. Shane McGuigan is on top with 1-14, just ahead of Matthew Tierney. There are various reasons for that. For the likes of Damien Comer and Paddy McBrearty it is injury related. David Clifford has been eased back in while form has deserted others.
Remarkably, Keith Beirne continues to lead the way in the bottom two divisions. He finished out in front with 2-17 in 2022. His 2022 tally currently stands at 5-17.
Who is the best team in Gaelic football without the ball? Sunday’s fare in Owenbeg showed why Derry deserve that crown. On the BBC, the excellent Michael Murphy called it on co-commentary just before throw-in: “Almost half of their scores this year came from frees. On the flip side Derry don’t concede frees.” In the end Clare mustered four points. 0-2 from their own kickout, 0-1 on the opposition’s and 0-1 from a turnover. All from play.
It is 25 years since the league underwent significant change. The 1997-98 competition divided teams into four sections, three of eight teams and one of nine. The top two in each contested quarter-finals. In 1998-99, the association moved to Division 1, with Group A and B, and the same for Division 2. By 2008 it was split across four divisions.
The league is a success from a competitive perspective. From a development one? The sport has never been more elitest. Three counties have won 18 of the 20 All-Ireland finals. It is more than 20 years since a county from outside Division 1 lifted Sam Maguire. The top sides playing each other repeatedly has served them well. What has it done for those at the other end?
Of course, competition format is just one part of the developmental process and what happens externally is still not enough to compete with the significance of internal action. But the fact remains that under the current system the strong get stronger. It is worth having a conversation around if this is what the league is supposed to be for.