When Dublin travelled to Cork for our last regular round league match in April 2011, we knew we had an outside chance of making a league final. We had to win, which was never going to be easy down there, and hope that Waterford would beat Galway, who also needed the two points to maintain their hopes of retaining their title.
Waterford didn’t seem to have a whole lot to play for because they were safe from relegation and apparently outside the reach of a league final.
With Kilkenny already in the final, everyone expected Galway to join them but our only focus was to try and take of business in Cork first, and then see where that might take us.
The first time I really believed a first league final appearance since 1946 was within reach was with a handful of minutes remaining. We were a point ahead and hanging on for dear life.
Finn McGarry, who was Dublin’s third choice keeper at the time, was jogging down the sideline with another couple of subs when he said to me: ‘Waterford are three points up’.
We held on and so did Waterford, and a thrilling regular league campaign was decided deep into injury time in grounds right across the country. I’d promised Davy Fitz, then Waterford manager, a bottle of wine if he and his team pulled it off.
Fitzy doesn’t drink, which meant the bottle of Vino was no good to him, but we certainly didn’t sink it. We had to get ready for Kilkenny but we didn’t need drink to get buzzed up - we were already pumped from the excitement and drama of that afternoon.
As it transpired, Waterford would have reached the final if we had lost because Tipperary’s draw with Wexford buried their chances. The last twist to Wexford’s league season was the sweetest because Willie Doran’s goal gave the county – whose exit had seemed a certainty earlier in the campaign – the most dramatic reprieve, which consigned Offaly to the drop.
Soccer Saturday onon the last day of the league season in May wouldn’t have held a candle to the drama during the last day of that year’s hurling league campaign.
Hyping up another miraculous escape from some journey club in League 1 or League 2 was small beer compared to what went on during that hurling spring in 2011.
The night before Dublin won that league title, Clare and Limerick met in an epic Division 2 final, in a packed Cusack Park, in what subsequently became known as the game that never was.
Limerick’s win secured promotion and then the suits in Croke Park ran a black pen through Limerick’s ambitions. After the league was restructured in 2012 to six team groupings, it took Limerick another seven years to finally get promoted to the top flight.
It's taken a decade for the format to change again and, while there have been some brilliant league campaigns in the meantime, I’m still not sure if they’ve ever got the balance right since dispensing with that eight-team system last used in 2011.
Back then, there was no quarter-finals or semi-finals, the top two teams went to the final, which is the way a league final pairing should be decided. One team was relegated but if you wanted to make it even more competitive, a two up/two down format would ensure that competitiveness, and fairness, to everyone.
The safety net that has been there over the last few years – eight teams out of 12 contesting quarter-finals, with two teams in a relegation final – was a cop-out. But the new system is even more of a cop-out. Because the top guns are now completely insulated from relegation.
It’s demeaning for any league campaign to have that provision skewed to help the big boys. The top ten teams would nearly have to go out of their way now to get relegated. That’s not fair to the supporters, the sponsors and, more importantly, to the competition itself.
The way the two six-team groups was arranged was based on last year’s finishing places but, surely there could have been a provision to avoid what is now effectively a mini Munster and Leinster championship? There is some novelty for Clare, Westmeath and Galway but everyone else is sick of looking at each other.
Will some teams be holding something back? Of course they will, to a point.
Every team has their own agenda, their own plan, but I was always a firm believer that there is nothing wrong for a team to be going well in the spring. Of course you want to look at your panel, experiment with personnel and game-plans, and do some heavy training loading.
There were times when you knew performance might be compromised but I never, ever had the attitude of, or told players, ‘Don’t win this match’.
In my last year as Clare manager in 2006, a local journalist accused me of throwing a league semi-final against Limerick, a match we lost after extra-time. Like, how did I organise extra-time against Limerick, of all teams?
I had a look at Tommy Holland at corner-back because I needed to know if I could trust him in the championship if anything happened to the Lohan brothers in the full-back line.
The league is the place to try these guys. Liam Sheedy didn’t blood too many younger lads last year, even though many of those guys played their part late on in the championship, but Liam will probably be under some pressure now to have a good look at the younger brigade during the league.
Especially when Liam and everyone else knows what the older crew can do.
John Kiely did try a fair few players during the Munster league but he still reverted to a strong team for the final against Cork. Limerick looked very settled and organised that night but they are entitled to experiment, and are nearly due a stint in the lab again with this panel now.
The Limerick squad is really strong but last year’s All-Ireland defeat to Kilkenny will have informed Kiely that your panel can always be stronger.
Kilkenny will always take the league seriously because they don’t know any other way under Brian Cody. Cork need to get some consistency in their performances. Their league form over the last few years has mirrored their Jekyll and Hyde character over the summer.
Galway will be looking to get momentum. So will Clare and Waterford, two other teams which went out of last year’s championship early. It’s hard to know where Clare are really at but they should be going gung-ho for a league title, especially when they’re effectively the only county not playing club championship in April.
A team like Wexford could be a good bet for a league title. The hunger, that desire to come back and get stronger was really evident again last week late on in the Walsh Cup final against Galway.
League finals always seem so far away in January but the decider is fixed earlier than ever this year, and Saturday evening’s opener in Thurles is a tasty way to launch the campaign. Given their recent form, and with Tipperary not long back from their team holiday, I fancy Limerick.
Wexford should win in O’Moore Park while you’d also expect Clare and Galway to beat Carlow and Westmeath respectively on Sunday. It’s a big challenge for Mattie Kenny’s Dublin to go to Nowlan Park and try and dig out a win but Kilkenny will be down a nice few and this could swing it for the Dubs.
The Waterford-Cork match in Walsh Park is hard to call because both sides have had so many players involved in the Fitzgibbon Cup over the last two weeks. Still, there can’t be too many excuses either for both sides with new managers looking for a win. Maybe cork will shade it.
There’s so much going on now with the Fitzgibbon, league, and the club stuff just finished, but the timing of the Fitzgibbon is really putting pressure on some teams. Moving the club finals has been a smart move but I think they should do the same with the Fitzgibbon.
Playing it off before Christmas may not be ideal for every college with exams, and with some guys still involved in club activity. But so be it if you have to move on without those fellas.
It’s obvious that some lads are already stretched too far. And it’s still only January.