Gaelic football must now make the league its primary competition

Championship should be run as a cup with focus on the leagues
Gaelic football must now make the league its primary competition

Mark Collins of Cork in action against Ronan Buckley of Kerry at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

THE accidental format change didn’t work either then. 

If there was some suggestion that a pure knockout championship might somehow make Dublin more vulnerable, as if they’d be thrown so easily or forget that they actually had to play semi-finals and finals every other year, well that idea was well demolished Christmas week. 

Dublin are now dominating the All-Ireland championship like nobody else in the GAA in modern times and it’s hard to escape the fact that it’s becoming a problem. There was this argument when Kilkenny were winning multiple All-Irelands that it was bad for the game but Brian Cody’s team were bringing the game into different areas with their skills and physicality and it really was up to everybody to follow and step up a level; most counties have done so since for some spell at least. 

This is different. 

It’s simply not possible for many, if any, counties to follow Dublin’s lead and find the same way to compete on numbers, resources (financial and otherwise), access and use of facilities and personnel. Quick take: Cork should have the most potential across the board.

Look, we all know what Dublin are good at by now, the sheer athleticism of Fenton and McCarthy, the pure quality of Rock and O’Callaghan, the simple non-stop game awareness of Cluxton and Kilkenny, that they are so relentlessly brilliant that they can rip teams open in the first minute and win games in little bursts at any time of the match. 

Dublin’s Brian Fenton fires a point past Diarmuid O’Connor of Mayo in the All-Ireland football final at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Dublin’s Brian Fenton fires a point past Diarmuid O’Connor of Mayo in the All-Ireland football final at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Nobody else can match that kind of sustained excellence in every department – Kerry have the forward quality but can’t find the balance, Mayo can create the sort of game that pushes Dublin but don’t have everything to win. And it’s just dominating every team’s preparation and mentality and every single conversation about the game so much that it doesn’t seem healthy for football right now. Kerry win a league game in March and it’s about if it’d be good enough for Dublin. 

There’s a sense that the top teams are constantly setting up game-plans to eventually take Dublin on rather than actually win the games they’re playing. There’s a feeling, correctly or not, that it might not be possible to step to Dublin’s level, so teams are changing their games to find another way. 

Obviously, this season was odd anyway but you couldn’t really say anybody’s gotten closer to finding themselves. Kerry looked distracted in the Cork game, rattled and unsure by the challenge like it wasn’t something they were entirely prepared for and they were unable to properly recalibrate. Mayo came up short in a completely blameless way. Cavan had outperformed themselves. 

Tipp had one massive performance and were probably a little unlucky in the All-Ireland semi-final with their chance-taking. The likes of Donegal, Tyrone, Galway didn’t get the run of games they needed to progress themselves. 

Galway’s Shane Walsh at an empty Pearse Stadium. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Galway’s Shane Walsh at an empty Pearse Stadium. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Cork managed to rout Division 3, beat Kerry for the first time in eight years and still leave 2020 with a feeling of not being quite sure where they’re at really after another sort of non-performance in the Munster final just when the year and era was opening up. 

Ronan McCarthy probably spent half of his three years trying to play catch-up and most of the last year trying to find a team that was noticeably his. More will be expected from now. There are a lot of teams from below Dublin to the end of the middle tier who all have reasonable grounds to eye progress but there is definitely something off when it’s really difficult to look at potential winners and still see very few possibilities. 

DOMINANCE:

It’s heading towards Juventus in Italy and Bayern Munich in Germany sort of dominance and at least other clubs in those countries have cups, European places to target as proper levels of achievement. Counties like Kerry and Mayo are seen as underperforming unless they win titles.

There were worthwhile lessons learned still from 2020. The split-season for clubs and intercounty may have been dismissed as daft and unworkable up to this spring; by the end of the year, it seemed to be the most obvious thing in the world. 

The club scene flourished with a decent time of uninterrupted preparation, with access to all their players, with a clear idea of regular games over a shortened period. 

By the way, the prediction of an awful injury crisis brought on by the condensed schedule of games appeared to be another suggestion of doom that didn’t come to pass – either counties and clubs handled it better than expected or the run of games wasn’t a problem anyway. 

It was hardly rocket science but the ‘tradition’ that the calendars had to be run together proved easily shiftable when the need arose. We had some cracking local games, loads of scores and open football, most everybody involved in clubs enjoyed the opportunity to play and the new format of three league games worked a treat in the circumstances. We still ended up with Haven and Nemo here of course. 

Johnny O'Regan of Castlehaven in action against Eoghan McGreevey of St Finbarr's. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Johnny O'Regan of Castlehaven in action against Eoghan McGreevey of St Finbarr's. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Also, is it too much to expect one simple change that would improve things again at inter-county level – moving the All-Ireland to a league competition based on the current national league format and then have a secondary knockout cup competition on either the provincial or open draw basis? 

Then we’d see Dublin against all the top teams in the main competition on a regular basis in meaningful games. 

The top teams would play each other more often and counties who make progress, as they do currently in the leagues, get rewarded with their shot at Division 1 football to compete for the main title. The argument that everybody deserves to compete for Sam Maguire was lost a long time ago. 

Counties outside Division 1 still get their chance at success in the cup and provinces. We might learn the lessons from 2020 and remember that anything is possible now.

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