A noted GAA pundit opined on Newstalk recently that the All-Ireland Championship should be divided into two. The top sixteen counties in Ireland should compete for the All-Ireland proper, and the rest for a lesser trophy more suited to their humble status. When asked how the top sixteen should be decided, the pundit thought having the teams in Division 1 and 2 of the National League at the top table and the teams in 3 and 4 eating in the scullery should do it.
A neat solution, but indicative of fundamentally woolly thinking. It is correct to note that the gap between Divisions 2 and 3 is a much more natural one that that between 1 and 2, or 3 and 4. But that gap yawns for a greater reason than a talent gap – it’s to do with the fundamental structure of the league itself.
The National Football League is played over seven games. In league terms, that’s nothing. It’s too short a gap to establish who is truly the best. The English Premier League plays forty-odd games before deciding a Champion. Major League Baseball, before getting caught in its current playoff format trouble, asked its teams to play 162 games before winning a pennant. If someone’s on top of the table after playing 162 games nearly every day for five months, you can be pretty damn sure that they deserve to be there.
A seven game league gives no such margin for error. If you slip in the first game, you may never be able to catch up in the remaining six. Suppose counties A, B and C are favorites to gain promotion from Division 3 to Division 2, and the foothills of glory. A loses its first game at home, but wins the remaining six. B wins all seven of its games. C wins six out of seven as well, but has a superior scoring difference.
B and C are promoted, A remains in the mire and the manager has to break his heart trying to get lads thinking about the first game of the Championship and not drinking Sam Adams in Boston during the lazy, hazy days of a Massachusetts summer. The fact County A remains in Division 3 doesn’t mean they’re a bad team; it just means they were victims of an iniquitous system.
That’s the zany thing about the League. The fact it’s unfair doesn’t really matter, because nobody cares about winning the thing. What consolation are those four Leagues to Cork? Winning doesn’t matter. All you can do in the League is survive. You might be able to deal with being relegated to Division 2 but once you cross the midway you might never bubble up again.
The radio is currently heavy with advertisements promoting the League but they’re actually ads to promote the Spring Series in Croke Park, where Dublin will play an astonishing – even for them – five of seven games on home turf. League games in Páirc Tailteann, Celtic Park, O’Moore Park and other venues will be completely different experiences.
The one thing better than surviving the League is finding new players. Mayo’s James Horan has been particularly diligent in this regard. Where his predecessor used the League to put a winning run together only to be rudely returned to Square Minus One by a pasting in the final, Horan has show a blatant and epic disregard for any League results at all. The media made much of Mayo’s League Final appearance last year but it was a chimera – Mayo finished fourth of eight in the League proper and, if fog had not descended in the abandoned game against Dublin in Castlebar, could very easily be in Division 2 now.
Horan knew it didn’t matter. He knew finding players and getting strength in depth matters. And that search will surely continue this year, if selections from the FBD League are anything to go by. The Mayo support, always philosophical, will have plenty to mull over during the spring.
As for who wins it, who knows? Kerry’s little ears are poking slightly above the long grass after their crippling four years of hurt. Cork are developing a Mayo size monkey on their backs and may probably be grateful to get relegated and take some of the pressure off themselves for the summer. Kildare continue to doggedly knock on the door. Meath, Galway, Armagh and Laois are all eager for a return to the top table, but they will any of them swap promotion for the prospect of football in August. The League is all very well, but it remains, as it always must, four months of shadow-boxing before the great pageant of the Irish summer.