WHEN Stevie Poacher stepped down as Carlow coach last November, the decision triggered significant coverage on social media, and in the mainstream GAA media.
Any kind of GAA news always gets more inflated in the off-season, but it was still unusual for a coach of a county in Division 4 to generate so much coverage.
Poacher is a colourful character who, purposely, constructed a big media profile, as much to promote Carlow as his own coaching philosophies and ideas. He always had something to say but, while the long round-trip from his home in Newry was the main reason for Poacher’s departure, he also used the decision as a platform to have his say on the new championship structure.
In essence, Poacher didn’t believe he could continue to make that journey to coach a team in the 2020 Tier 2 championship, which is where Carlow will find themselves unless they reach a Leinster final.
Poacher and Carlow were some of the loudest voices against a Tier 2 championship because they saw the impact that big championship days inject into a county.
“How can you expect a team to commit to this system?” asked Poacher.
“It’s OK for people to say the media coverage doesn’t matter, but the media is the most powerful tool we have. We are going to take those opportunities away from players in the smaller counties. The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.”
That is the great conundrum in the GAA, especially in trying to close that gap in Gaelic football. Deep down, players accept reality. The Carlow footballer Daniel St Ledger said as much last September when admitting that “tiering of some sort is needed”, but that “a little more imagination” is also required to sell it to players.
In so many ways, the Gaelic football landscape is almost operating in a vacuum at the moment, especially since the GAA’s Fixture Taskforce proposed radical change to the All-Ireland Championship nine weeks ago.
Those proposals will be distilled further at a series of workshops throughout the country and the key proposals will be voted on at a Special Congress later in the year. The landscape could yet be radically different in 2021 but, for now, this year’s league will stage a whole new battleground. And most of the fighting to stay alive — for this season at least — will be done in Divisions 2 and 3.
Division 1 has always been the main attraction, for obvious reasons, because it’s where the top teams operate. That is reflected in the main media exposure this evening, when Dublin host Kerry in Croke Park, and Mayo travel to Donegal, with both games live on TV.
Division 1 will always be competitive and feisty in its own right but, whatever happens, it will be a false narrative. Because it’s not where the cut-throat action will be this spring.
If Mayo finally get relegated out of Division 1, will it really be a big deal? Yet how much of a sensation would it be if, say Kildare, got hit with a raft of injuries, subsequently suffered poor form, and found themselves slipping out of Division 2?
With Cork football currently on such a high after last year’s All-Ireland minor and U20 successes, imagine how much of a low there would be around the county if Cork didn’t get promoted from Division 3?
Every team knows how lethal the terms and conditions are — any team relegated from Division 2, and not promoted from Division 3, will play in a Tier 2 championship, unless they can reach a provincial final.
That league battleground will be all the more intensive again considering how tightly balanced Divisions 2 and 3 are. Last year, three points separated the teams which finished third and seventh in Division 2, with Cork being relegated on a head-to-head with Clare. The top four teams in Division 3 were separated by two points.
No team will want to get relegated from Division 1, but relegation will have a totally different meaning this year in the context of relegation elsewhere. Those teams will still probably be considered the seventh or eighth best sides in the country and will still have a solid chance of reaching the Super 8s. Relegation from Division 2 though, opens up a whole new world of horrors.
Cork will be fancied to get promotion from Division 3, but they will also have to deal with the pressure that expectation will bring. And particularly with Cork and Kerry on the same side of the draw in Munster this year.
So if Cork don’t get promoted, they would have to beat Kerry to ensure participation in the 2020 Sam Maguire.
How much pressure would Cork be under then?
The bigger picture is out there somewhere, with a potential new championship coming, but no team in Division 2 or 3 can really see that far at the moment.
The other side of the coin is that a number of teams which do make the top 16, (which effectively means being in Division 2 by the end of the league) will be guaranteed limited football over the summer, unless they make the Super 8s.
And for many of the teams ranked between nine to 16, that is unlikely, unless they get a highly favourable draw.
The landscape could be radically different in 2021, but the only terrain that matters for now is the one ahead.
And Divisions 2 and 3, where every team will have to fight like hell for every inch of that terrain, is where this league will really be at?